Brew City’s Second Generation
How craft brewers revived Milwaukee’s beer tradition
By the 1970s, American beer was a mass-produced commodity with little character, culture or, let’s face it, flavor. Faceless machines and automated programming dominated the immense brewing industry. The distinguished traditions and styles of brewing that the German immigrants carried with them were all but lost. But while light pilsners and low-cal lagers stocked store shelves, a grassroots home brewing culture emerged. Beer drinkers understood that if they wanted a full-bodied doppelbock, a strong stout or an above-average ale, they had to make it themselves. The roots of home brewing grew today’s craft brewing trend.
According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry is defined by four distinct categories: microbreweries, regional craft breweries, contract brewing companies and brewpubs. Microbreweries generally include those that brew less than 15,000 barrels a year, though some microbreweries that exceed that number are still included in the category.
The pioneer of craft brewing in Milwaukee is Randy Sprecher, who left his position as a brewing supervisor at Pabst Brewing Co. in 1984 to start his own company. Sprecher Brewing Co. was established in 1985 and deemed Milwaukee’s first microbrewery since Prohibition. Using Old World traditions, Spr cher makes year-round, seasonal, premium reserve and limited release beers that range from Belgian triple ale and German-style Schwarzbier to English-style pub ale and good ol’ German-style lager. The Sprechers host beer-pairing events around Milwaukee where they discuss the flavor profiles of different beers and which foods go best with each.
Brothers Russ and Jim Klisch were the next home brewers to take the leap into the microbrewery business when they founded Lakefront Brewery in 1987. Like Sprecher, they pieced together their brewing facility with previously owned dairy equipment. They soon outgrew their digs in Riverwest and moved into a former coal-fired power plant on a bank of the Milwaukee River.
Growth of the brewery has been strong, especially because of its innovative contributions to the brewing industry. In 1996, their Lakefront Organic E.S.B. was the first certified organic beer to be labeled in the United States. The Klisch brothers even managed to change the government’s definition of beer. In order to launch New Grist, a gluten-free beer made with sorghum and gluten-free yeast, Lakefront successfully petitioned to change the required 25% malted barley content of beer. Their engaging brewery tour showcases where nearly 20 different beers are brewed, and includes a pint glass, four pours of beer and a coupon for a free beer at participating businesses, all for a mere $6.
By definition, a brewpub is a restaurant-brewery that sells 25% or more of its beer on-site, usually by sale in the restaurant and bar. In 1987 the Water Street Brewery opened Downtown, and for years it was the only restaurant in Milwaukee where diners could enjoy their Usinger bratwurst and Stuttgarter knackwurst with beer brewed on-site. Brewmaster George Bluvas III offers six house beers and a specialty brew that can be taken home in half-gallon refillable containers called growlers.
In 1996 Milwaukee Brewing Co. started in the basement of a Cedarburg farmhouse by, you guessed it, two home brewers: Jim McCabe and Mike Bieser. In 1997, they opened the Milwaukee Ale House in a brick and timber warehouse building in the Third Ward and used a smallbatch brewing process to make their handmade recipes for ales and lagers. After unsuccessful attempts to package their popular beer brands at other breweries in the state, Milwaukee Brewing Co. decided to just build its own. The 2nd Street Brewery in Walker’s Point not only brews Pullchain Pail Ale, Flaming Damsel Real Blonde and Louie’s Demise, but it can bottle and keg it too.
In 2007 Craig Peterson launched Bison Blonde Lager, Buffalo Water Brewing Co.’s flagship beer. The brew is made in accordance with the Bavarian purity law of 1516, which states that beer can only be made with water, barley and hops (yeast wasn’t included in the text because the Germans didn’t know it was an ingredient).
Buffalo Water is a contract brewing company: It hires another brewery to produce and bottle its beer, while it handles marketing, sales and distribution of the beer. This is something Peterson, a marketing and public relations consultant, does well. In Milwaukee, you can’t flick a bottle cap without it landing in a pint of Bison Blonde.
You may already be familiar with the Horny Goat Brewing Co. Its logo is stamped on the fuel-guzzling yellow Hummer that’s been cruising around the city. The company contracts with Stevens Point Brewery to brew three beers: Horny Goat Belgian Wheat, Exposed and Hopped Up ‘N Horny. It began selling its beers in April and is opening a microbrewery and visitors’ center, the Horny Hideaway, at the retired city pump house on the south bank of the Kinnickinnic River.
The hobby of home brewing has given birth to an entire industry, one that is characterized by both unique and traditional brewing styles, full-bodied and unfamiliar flavors, and unique, clever labels. The big boys of beer may be gone, but Milwaukee’s brewing landscape is hardly dry.