If you spend enough time beer traveling, the road will lead you to Wisconsin. It’s a place where the corner tavern is still a cherished institution, there are more craft breweries than any other state in the region, and every town seems to have a beer festival, an Oktoberfest, or both.
The surprise came after our tour guides led us past the great copper brew kettles and the surviving 19th-century buildings and into the caves where beer was stored before the days of refrigeration.
Recently, while Maryanne was on a business trip to Chicago, I “escaped to Wisconsin.” My destination was Milwaukee, America’s semi-official beer capital, whose brewing history goes back to when Wisconsin was still a territory and the frontier wasn’t far from the shores of Lake Michigan.
The history of brewing in Milwaukee parallels that of industrial America, with larger-than-life entrepreneurs who built gargantuan factories with the latest machinery. It later included cut-throat competition, family tragedies, and economic upheaval. The only big brewer to survive was the Miller Brewing Co., the first stop in my travels.
Driving into the city, I scoffed at the billboards that invited visitors to explore “Miller Valley.” But there really is a valley in Milwaukee, and that’s where you’ll find Miller’s 82-acre brewing complex. Like European cathedrals, every brewery has a story to tell, and offers a surprise or two as well.
The surprise came after our tour guides led us past the great copper brew kettles and the surviving 19th-century buildings and into the caves where beer was stored before the days of refrigeration. To keep the beer cold, workers hacked slabs of ice out of the lake, hauled it into the caves, and covered it with sawdust to keep its temperature just above freezing. The brewery stopped using the caves long ago, but reopened them as fallout shelters during the 1950s. One has been turned into a visitor attraction that features a painting of revelers and miniature brewery scenes inside beer barrels.
Beer in the German Tradition
After checking into my hotel on Old World Fifth Avenue and stocking up on sausages and brats for the upcoming football season, I headed to the Water Street Brewery. On my way there, I saw an intriguing sign: “Beer Line Walking Tour.” Surely, I thought, there was a story behind that.
Water Street is a showpiece of a brewpub. It’s thoroughly modern, yet its feature attraction is a collection of breweriana: literally thousands of items, part of a vast collection shared with Water Street’s other location in the suburbs. I spotted neon brewery logo signs, display cases full of beer cans, and rows of gallon-sized bottles. When was the last time you saw a bottle of “picnic beer”?
There are nine beers on tap, including a Raspberry Weiss, a porter, a stout, and a doppelbock; and one of my favorite seasonals, an Old World Oktoberfest, brewed with six malts. Oktoberfest is the perfect accompaniment to German food, which my neighbors at the bar were tucking into.
Another place where tradition and innovation coexist is the Milwaukee Ale House, which occupies a refurbished building in the historic Third Ward. The owners, who made the transition from homebrewing, installed modern conveniences such as flat-screen TVs and video games, but also adorned the interior with barrels and breweriana, as well as a stage backed by a huge American flag. The back deck overlooks the Milwaukee River where, many years ago, schooner captains stopped in to get fitted with new sails before heading back out onto the lake.
Steeped in German drinking traditions, Wisconsin residents prefer “session beers,” brewed in classic styles, to West Coast “hop bombs” and any style whose name starts with “Imperial.” The Ale House’s lineup includes a honey ale brewed with Wisconsin honey (it’s great to see local products in the house beers), a nitro-conditioned stout, an Irish red ale, and a rotating seasonal. My choice was Louie’s Demise, an amber ale named for a gentleman who mysteriously met his death in a 19th-century tavern.
A Frankenstein Brewery
“Milwaukee’s Number One Brewery Tour” at Lakefront Brewery never would have materialized were it not for what Blanche DuBois called “the kindness of strangers.” Having forgotten that the brewery scaled back its tour schedule after Labor Day, I walked into a large empty room. However, Orlando, the brewery accounts manager saved the day by taking pity on a rain-drenched aficionado. “Could you come back this evening?” he asked.
When I returned, the brewery was entertaining a group of people from a local supermarket chain. Adam, another marketing executive, made me feel at home by pouring me a pint of Riverwest Stein, Lakefront’s amber ale. Soon afterward, Orlando freed himself from his paperwork, handed me a pint of Rendezvous, a bière de garde, and led me on a tour of the brewery.
Orlando described Lakefront as a “Frankenstein brewery,” all of whose equipment had seen service at a brewery that no longer exists. Annual capacity, he said, was 10,000 barrels. In these cramped quarters? Orlando explained that Russ Klisch, one of the founders, was a process engineer—those folks can work wonders in factories. By the way, Russ’s brother and co-founder, Jim, was a Milwaukee vice cop.
In addition to the hand-me-down bottling line and brew kettle, the tour included two wonderful items of pop culture. The first was the Bernie the Brewer’s chalet from Milwaukee County Stadium. In less politically-correct times, the portly, lederhosen-clad Bernie celebrated Milwaukee Brewers’ home runs by sliding down into a gigantic beer stein. When the Brewers put Bernie on waivers, the Klisches offered him a home.
The other item was the bubble machine from the Lawrence Welk Show. Yes, that bubble machine. It wound up at Lakefront by way of Frankie Yankovic, who handed it off to the Polka Kings, the featured entertainers at Lakefront’s popular fish fries, where hundreds of people of all ages come to eat, drink, and dance on Friday evenings.
While at Lakefront, I was also given a short course in brewing history. The Beer Line, it turns out, was a railroad spur that served the city’s breweries. Opposite the brewery is Brewers Hill, where workers lived during Milwaukee’s brewing heyday. Milwaukee’s nickname, “Cream City,” has nothing to do with beer. It comes from the cream-colored bricks fashioned from the local soil. As for the breweries that made Milwaukee famous, Schlitz is now an office park; Blatz was turned into a school campus; and Pabst sits idle, its future tied up by political wrangling.
My last stop in Milwaukee was the Pabst Mansion, a Flemish Revival home built in 1892. It was built by Captain Frederick Pabst, who actually earned that title, having captained a Great Lakes steamer as a young man. Pabst was hailed by locals as a philanthropist and a patron of the arts. His mansion, built at great expense, was one of the first to have telephone service, electricity, and central heating. However, the Pabst family didn’t enjoy it for long. The Captain died in 1904, and a few years later, his heirs sold the mansion.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which bought the mansion, faced a cash squeeze and was forced to sell it. Fortunately, preservationists came up the funds to save it in the nick of time. Since then, many of the original fixtures and artwork have been tracked down, and local craftspeople have reproduced the rest. Fittingly, an annual event at the mansion is “retro beer night,” where Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz are served.