Milwaukee—Wisconsin’s largest city—has more than earned its nickname of Brew City. Once home to some beer’s largest players (Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz), Milwaukee was at one time the king of American lagers. Over the decades it’s seen the rise and fall of beer barons, a revitalization of the beer scene thanks to craft beer, and, recently, a wave of increasingly innovative breweries pushing the medium into new territory. Through it all, beer has been at the heart of Milwaukee’s identity.
When Lakefront Brewery opened in 1987 on the banks of the Milwaukee River, the city’s reign as king of American beer was waning. Most of the city’s big breweries had closed or been sold by the early 1980s, leaving a major hole in their wake. “When we first started the brewery 30 years ago, you have to realize Pabst was fading,” co-founder Jim Klisch recalls. “Miller was bought by an out-of-state company, and Schlitz had closed.”
Despite their lack of experience in beer, Jim and his brother, Russ, decided they wanted to reinvigorate Brew City—to make lagers and to provide jobs for the community. “I didn’t even know what a pale ale was,” Klisch says with a laugh as he reminisces about the first beer they made. “It was a crazy thing.”
But the brothers persevered and eventually graduated from experimental homebrews to a full-scale operation in Lakefront. Since its humble beginnings as a brewery built from used equipment obtained from restaurant auctions, scrap yards, and the old Schlitz and Pabst breweries, Lakefront has developed a portfolio of award-winning beers and built a legacy on lagers. And the east-side brewery, alongside Sprecher—Milwaukee’s first craft brewery, opening in 1985—and Milwaukee (MKE) Brewing Co., which began as Milwaukee Ale House in 1997, has also helped build a backbone for Milwaukee’s fast-growing craft beer scene.
While Lakefront is still churning out some of the best year-round lagers in Milwaukee, the brewery has embraced new trends, too. It recently bottled a hazy IPA called Hazy Rabbit and every few months invites employees to create a beer via the My Turn series. Additionally, it has expanded into making gluten-free beers, which now account for over 20 percent of the brewery’s production.
The Classes of 2015-2016
Further expanding Milwaukee’s reputation for great beer are the city’s myriad new craft breweries. Since just 2016, about 14 breweries have opened in Milwaukee and many more are on the way—including Minneapolis-based Indeed Brewing Company’s second brewery and taproom, slated to open in the Walker’s Point neighborhood in summer of 2019.
However, it’s specifically the class of 2015-2016 that together created a key part of Milwaukee’s beer identity.
Four breweries from that era—Raised Grain Brewing Co., Good City Brewing Co., The Fermentorium Brewery and Tasting Room, and Third Space Brewing—have all undergone some combination of rapid expansion and second location built-outs since 2015. Good City co-founder David Dupee credits the city’s OG craft breweries for his brewery’s eventual existence. “Lakefront and Sprecher blazed the trail in craft beer locally 20, 30 years ago; they are pioneers,” he says. “For whatever reason, it took until 2016 for so many of us to follow in their footsteps. This wave of new breweries was essential to helping form a vibrant craft beer ecosystem. So there really was pent-up demand for more strong local brands.”
Good City is perhaps the most heralded—and visible—of the bunch thanks to its new downtown brewery. Located in the Milwaukee Bucks’ entertainment block, the second location is a tall, glass cathedral, with a 32-tap bar as its altar.
The downtown spot followed the spring 2017 expansion of Good City’s original taproom on Milwaukee’s east side, an area that in recent decades has become the go-to place to open a brewery. Good City took over a former bike shop and grew to fill 11,400 square feet. In addition to the brewery’s five flagships, six seasonal beers, and growing lineup of barrel-aged beers, Good City also plans to brew sour beers at its new downtown location.
Dupee says it’s been great to watch the taproom culture in Milwaukee evolve in recent years. “The kind of vibrant taproom culture we’d experience when visiting similarly sized markets is really burgeoning,” he says, adding that it was virtually nonexistent not very long ago.
Another brewery benefitting from the increase of people seeking out local beer is Third Space. “In our first calendar year we sold 2,195 barrels of beer, and in our second year we more than doubled that to 5,300,” Third Space co-founder Andy Gehl says. To keep up, the brewery began an expansion in 2018 that will bring its brewing capacity to 7,500 barrels annually.
“Milwaukee has been slow to the craft beer scene, but we are in the middle of a very exciting time to be a craft beer lover in Milwaukee,” Gehl says. “With all the new breweries popping up lately, and the pioneer craft stalwarts here continuing to push themselves into new areas, we are each driving each other toward making better beer every day.”
The New New Guys
Two of the newest kids on the brewery block are Eagle Park Brewing Company and 1840 Brewing Company, and both are pushing the boundaries of craft beer to the limits with their sours, adjunct beers, and hazy IPAs.
1840, located in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, is the result of a native coming home. “I decided I wanted to come back to Milwaukee because at the time the scene was totally underserved,” says Kyle Vetter, 1840’s founder. “No one was doing anything that focused on barrels or sours or anything like that. We wanted to bring a new aspect to the scene.”
Vetter, who previously worked at Ska Brewing and Aspen Brewing Co. (where he was an “oak manager”), opened 1840 in August 2017 with the intent of making sours. He still makes plenty of sours by fermenting beer in barrels and stainless steel (he doesn’t brew any beer on-site; instead he brings in wort from other breweries in the area), but quickly added hazy IPAs to the menu, too.
“For me, our focus is on barrel fermenting and barrel aging, or other yeast and process-driven beers,” Vetter says. “A prime example of a process-driven beer is a double dry-hopped IPA with an alternative yeast. So, we use Brett or an English ale yeast, or these juicy IPA yeasts. […] It’s about exploring flavor, exploring color, exploring process—just having a good time.”
Eagle Park was previously located in a temporary incubator space in Bay View’s Lincoln Warehouse but is now in a 5,000-square-foot building on Milwaukee’s east side. The brewery has quickly become popular thanks to its use of creative adjuncts (fruit, coffee, chocolate, marshmallows, cookies, breakfast cereal, pastries) and heavily hopped beers. The theme of the brewery is rock music, and Eagle Park certainly dances to its own beat in Milwaukee.
“Our breakneck pace of releasing new beers in cans at our taproom has changed the way our brewery functions at every level,” says co-founder Jake Schinker, explaining that Eagle Park only sells cans on-site or at other breweries during pop-up shops, and releases new cans nearly every weekend. “This pace is often stressful but ultimately rewarding. Craft beer drinkers right now crave new beers constantly. I don’t know how sustainable this pace is for the industry as a whole, but as long as we are able to fulfill that desire, we will continue to do so.”
The brewery recently bought two more fermentors to increase brewing capacity, maxing out their space. “After that, we are pretty much tapped out on space at this facility and will have to consider our options,” Schinker says. “We never want to grow this brewery to a massive scale, but not having to tell everyone we are out of beer all the time would be nice.”
A Nod to History
With Milwaukee residents and visitors eagerly flocking to the city’s new taprooms, it can be easy to forget about the grandfathers of Brew City. Within reach of the newcomers are the refurbished buildings of the former brewing giants: Pabst has a brewery and taproom located at the former Pabst Brewery campus that brews its legacy brands as well as popular styles like sours and milkshake IPAs; MKE Brewing Company opened a state-of-the-art brewery in September in The 42, a building that houses tenants ranging from corporate offices to a restaurant, and is located within Pabst’s former warehouse and distribution center.
Additionally, although Milwaukee might not be a city solely built on lagers anymore, the style still rounds out plenty of tap handles around town. “Milwaukee’s beer heritage is unrivaled,” Dupee says. “We are synonymous with beer. This is an incredible asset as far as becoming a beer destination. […] The trick is to build a beer culture that honors our rich past without getting stuck in it. Milwaukee is undergoing an exciting transformation as a city, and our beer culture needs to reflect that as well.”