Beer Travel: Exploring the Past, Present and Future of Milwaukee Breweries

Don’t call it a comeback, because the brewery culture never left Milwaukee.

That was our takeaway from the 2017 Beer Bloggers and Writer’s Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mark Garthwaite, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild made that reference when discussing the local beer industry. Sure, they may be late bloomers when it comes to putting a craft brewery on every corner, especially when compared to a state like Colorado. However, nobody can dispute that beer is an important part of Milwaukee’s heritage and culture. Just walking around downtown Milwaukee, we saw references to Pabst, Miller, and the city’s long brewing history everywhere we looked. Even our hotel room featured artwork consisting of black and white photographs of Miller Brewing Company. Breweries may come and go, but Milwaukee’s love of beer and brewing has never left the city.

We were only in town three nights so we are hardly the experts on the Milwaukee beer scene. However we fit a lot into those few days, and below are a few of our favorite experiences.

The Past: Revisiting Milwaukee’s Brewing History

An important part of Milwaukee’s identity is tied to their German heritage and long history of being the home to many great breweries. We got to experience, and taste, quite a bit of that history during our visit.

Preserving Milwaukee’s Beer History at “The Brewery”

The Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference (BBC17) took place at Best Place at the historic Pabst Brewery. Even before the conference was officially kicked off by Julia Herz, we met Best Place owner Jim Haertel. Haertel would accompany us during our Milwaukee excursions the next few days, and we quickly learned he was one of the most enthusiastic Milwaukee beer history buffs you could ever meet.

Haertel has owned best place since September 11, 2001. That was the day he signed the contract to buy the entire 28-building Pabst brewing complex. He had only wanted one building, but the seller insisted that the deal was for all of them or nothing. Haertel went for it, despite the uncertainty at the time. He made a $50,000 down payment with funds from his 401(k) and purchased the entire campus…  all 7 city blocks of it. It was a huge gamble, but he saw the value of saving this part of Milwaukee history.

Fast forward to 2017, and clearly the gamble has paid off. Haertel sold off most of the buildings to pay the rest of the $11-million total purchase cost. Many of the buildings are being preserved and repurposed as part of the complex now known as The Brewery. In most cases the new developments have kept the character and history of the buildings intact. Haertel kept two buildings, the former Pabst Corporate Office and Visitor’s Center, to create Best Place. The name is in homage to the original 1844 brewery founder, Jacob Best, Sr. (Historical note: Frederick Pabst married Jacob’s granddaughter, Maria Best, in 1862. He purchased a large stake in the brewery, leading to the eventual name change to Pabst Brewing Company in 1889.)

You can take a tour at Best Place to learn the full history of the original Pabst brewery, but our conference kept us too busy to take an official tour. However, we did wander through the restored buildings, including the Blue Ribbon Hall, Guest Center, King’s Courtyard and Gift Shop. We even peeked into Captain Pabst’s office. Everything has been returned to it’s original glory, including many of the artifacts and pictures that help tell the story of the brewery. You should definitely check out Best Place and The Brewery neighborhood if you ever find yourself in Milwaukee. You can even spend the night there. We hope to do just that the next time.

Building 21, the Mill House. Now home of Brewhouse Inn & Suites and Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub

A Taste of the Past at Pabst’s New Milwaukee Brewery

After being gone for two decades, Pabst is back home and brewing in Milwaukee. The Pabst Milwaukee Brewery recently opened on the former Pabst campus, just a short walk from Best Place. The new Pabst Milwaukee Brewery found a home inside a building that was originally a church before it became a part of the original Pabst Brewery as an employee restaurant, then a training center. While the outside still resembles a gothic church, head inside and up some stairs and you’ll find a bright, modern brew pub.

The brewery is downstairs and is very small, with a brewing capacity of about 4,000 barrels a year. This new Pabst Milwaukee Brewery will focus on experimental brews and brewing a few legacy Pabst classics, like Andeker and Old Tankard. We tried some of those old recipes during our visit, and have to admit they hold up well. Of course you can also get a PBR here but they don’t brew that on site. We stuck with sampling a few of their locally-made, historic Pabst beers and they were all very good.

Past Meets Present at Miller Brewing Company

One way to see the changes made in Milwaukee brewing over the years is to visit a place that has operated the entire time, Miller Brewing Company. Though they are now owned by Molson Coors, Miller has brewed in Milwaukee for over 155 years. As part of our BBC17 trip, we visited the historic Miller Caves, where long-ago they once stored their finished beer. Today the caves are mostly used for events, but it’s still pretty cool if you can check it out. We didn’t take the full Miller Brewery tour, but we did manage to take a bunch of photos of the old and new Miller Brewery buildings. It’s a pretty impressive complex.

Bonus history: Frederick Miller purchased the Plank Road Brewery in 1854. The Plank Road Brewery was originally opened by Charles and Lorenz Best, sons of Jacob Best, Sr. Yes, the same Jacob Best, Sr. that founded what eventually became Pabst Brewing. One German immigrant, Jacob Best, Sr., is in some way tied to the creation of what would become two of our largest U.S. breweries. Well done, Mr. Best!

The Present: A Taste of Milwaukee Craft Beer

If it sounds like we spent a lot of time on the former Pabst campus, it’s because we did. However we did venture out and explore a bit more of the Milwaukee craft beer scene. These breweries are making incredible, innovative beers for the craft beer drinking crowd. Here’s our recap of some of the places we visited, and would love to visit again:

Lakefront Brewery

If you visit Milwaukee, you simply must take the Lakefront Brewery tour … or so we were told by literally everyone we know who have been to Milwaukee. We got to meet Lakefront Brewery co-owner Russ Klisch during the conference, and yes, we did get to visit Lakefront for a tour. Klisch was nice, the tour was really fun, and the Lakefront Brewery beers we had while in Milwaukee were great. The Clutch Cargo Double IPA was one of our favorites. Lakefront Brewing is celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, and now that we have been there and tried that, it’s easy to see why Lakefront has such a loyal following.

A bunch of stooges in front of Lakefront Brewery

Good City Brewing

The team at Good City Brewing know how to make some great beers. We especially loved all their IPAs: Risk is an outstanding IPA, and Reward is the bigger, and maybe even better, Double IPA. Motto, the Mosaic Pale Ale was also a favorite. If you visit, make sure you arrive hungry, because they make some incredible food at Good City, too. We could live on their IPA-glazed pretzel and aged cheese spread alone! Also don’t miss heading up to their rooftop patio. With such great beer, food and views, you may never want to leave Good City.

The team at Good City Brewing

Brenner Brewing Co

Brenner Brewing was probably the hippest of our Milwaukee brewery stops. They had a DJ spinning some throwback party tunes downstairs, which is like dance floor crack to old-timers like us… especially after a few beers. Upstairs there was live music by Nineteen Thirteen, a two-piece band featuring cellist Janet Schiff and Percussionist Victor DeLorenzo. Yes, that Victor DeLorenzo – the founding drummer of the Violent Femmes. Brenner Brewing also had some amazing beers on tap, including Butterfly Farts, which we had to try based on the name alone. Fortunately this light summer beer was as delicious as its name was ridiculous.

Brenner Brewing’s Butterfly Farts

Burnhearts Bar

Okay, you caught us – Burnhearts isn’t a brewery. It also wasn’t an official BBC17 stop. However after many beers, fellow BBC attendee and legend in his own right, Huck, convinced us to head to Burnhearts Bar. He said it was an excellent beer bar, and dammit if he wasn’t right. Burnhearts offers a full bar, but it was their outstanding selection of beers on draft, cask and in the cooler that won us over. That and the super-cool ambiance of the place. Burnhearts Bar is cozy, dimly lit, and filled with great music and wild decor. Best of all, they had some great, knowledgable bar staff to help us make the difficult decision of which beer to choose next. If we lived in Milwaukee, Burnhearts would be our go-to bar.

A little glimpse inside Burnhearts Bar. Credit: David Bardallis

The Future: What’s Next for Milwaukee Breweries?

Brewing great beer is a skill and an art. Taking 4 simple ingredients and making something that is so much better than the sum of its parts is nothing short of magical. But breweries are also businesses, and right now the brewery business in Milwaukee is good. New breweries continue to open, there’s no shortage of summer beer festivals, and beer tourism seems to be growing.

What does that mean for their future? We certainly don’t know. But, if we had to guess, we’d say the future of beer in Milwaukee and Wisconsin looks bright. Beer is a big part of the Wisconsin culture. So much so that Wisconsin opened their first commercial brewery before they were even a state. That kind of history should keep the beer industry doing well here.

Plus, we did visit one brewery that is growing in a pretty spectacular way:

Milwaukee Brewing Company’s Grand New Endeavour

Back on the former Pabst campus, just a few blocks from Best Place, another brewery has just broken ground. Inside Building 42, the enormous building that was home to the former Pabst Distribution Center, Milwaukee Brewing Company is building their new location. We received a tour of the site from Milwaukee Brewing Company’s own Jim McCabeWhile there isn’t much to see yet, McCabe described the future brewery and taproom they have planned for the space. The plans don’t stop inside the brewery, so we also went up to the roof…

With David and Amy on the MKE Brewing Co roof. Credit: David Bardallis

There isn’t much to see now. The warehouse is mostly empty and the roof is occupied by nothing but rocks. But soon this place will be awesome. And we mean awesome literally, as in we were in total awe of what they have planned. The brewery and taproom are amazing in their own right, but the patio? When this rooftop patio is complete, it will be one of the coolest places in all of Milwaukee. Just check out the renderings, below. With incredible views, a beautiful beer garden and indoor volleyball courts – how could you not want to spend your summer days up here, enjoying a delicious Milwaukee Brewing Co beer? We suggest the Louie’s Demise Amber Ale, or if you want something big & bitter, a Hop Freak Double IPA.

Final Thoughts on Milwaukee

We were so impressed with what we saw in Milwaukee, and we were just there for three days. We know that we barely scratched the surface. We would love to go back and visit even more of Milwaukee’s great breweries and beer bars. Milwaukee is definitely a city that beer tourists, like us, can never get bored exploring.

Mostly, we’re thrilled to see that Milwaukee has preserved their beer history. Now that Milwaukee Brewing Company has broken ground, every remaining old building from the Pabst Brewery campus is now either finished or under construction. What was once an old, abandoned brewing facility has found new life, and two new breweries, thanks in large part to Jim Haertel. We aren’t sure if Jim is a genius or just lucky; maybe it’s a combination of both. However his calculated risk made an old eyesore of a neighborhood into something worthy of beer tourism. We really hope to return again in a year or two and see how the area has progressed.

Cheers, Milwaukee! We hope to visit again soon!

Many thanks to Visit Milwaukee and the folks at Zephyr Adventures for coordinating most of these Milwaukee adventures. Please be aware that in return for writing about our BBC17 trip, we did receive a discounted registration fee for the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference. However, all opinions are our own and were in no way influenced by this discount.