Milwaukee’s Beery Past
There is no doubt of Milwaukee’s status as one of the USA’s most venerable beer cities. Although this is owing to a legendary past, there is plenty happening in current times as well that make it an interesting place to visit to explore beer culture. As is my habit, I look for trails with beers along the way. In Milwaukee, I encountered several multi-use rail-trails that were very useful to the explorations.
When I think of historic beer cities in the USA it comes down to places where German immigrants established beer culture long ago, places with character-loaded beer-drinking venues, and hometowns of brands that have been highly recognizable throughout my lifetime. I’d love for readers to comment to make a case for other US cities, but the places I think of are Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. The beer barons of Milwaukee may make it the most notable of these – Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller.
Out of a larger universe of Milwaukee breweries built by German immigrants beginning in the mid-1800’s, emerged three giant enterprises led by these men making the city the largest beer producing locale in the world as late as the 1980’s. Miller’s Brewery west of the city center is the oldest functioning major brewery in the United States and is still producing massive quantities of beer to this day.
“If there is any place that is hell on earth, it is Milwaukee.” – Temperance movement leader Carrie Nation
The story of Milwaukee’s brewing past is similar to that in many of the country’s old school beer meccas – growth and consolidation up until the double-whammy of World War I and the Prohibition period soon after. A few breweries survived that only to live and die through eras of consolidation and mass-market forces of the rest of the century. Current day Milwaukee is a city of about 600,000 people that strongly identifies with its immigrant roots and brewing heritage. This heritage can be found explicitly in the identity of their baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers, as well as in beer halls, ethnic restaurants, and the most authentic beer gardens I’ve encountered in the U.S.
Milwaukee’s Hiking & Biking Trails
I rode quite a few miles on Milwaukee’s multi-use trail system and it turned out that it does a good job of getting you close to quite a lot of the city’s breweries and interesting beer venues. The linkages between trails weren’t all that great and directional and orientation signage was often non-existent. Hopefully, those kind of things get better as time goes on.
I read an estimate that there are more than 325 miles of off-street recreational trails in the Milwaukee Metro area, and some of these use former rail right-of-ways. An example is the Beerline Trail which utilizes a rail corridor that was once used by freight trains transporting the ingredients for beer to breweries near the city center.
Beers Along the Way
Several of Milwaukee’s comfortable beer gardens are found along a portion of the Oak Leaf Trail extending north from the center. The beer gardens here are a gem for a snack and libation along the trail. Everywhere could benefit from this kind of civilized amenity in my book. As I understand it, they come from a purposeful effort by some enlightened person or group in local government to reach back into Milwaukee’s cultural past and revive what was once a robust part of life here before the puritans stamped it out. There are five beer garden concessions on public lands plus two pop-up beer gardens travel between parks. In addition, there are private beer garden operations such as the one adjacent to the Bavarian Bierhaus, also reached by the Oak Leaf Trail.
Just off the Milwaukee Riverwalk Trail is an area known as Old World Third Street, once the heart of the German community in Milwaukee. The Old German Beer Hall evoked history and coziness in a neighborhood surrounded by cheese and sausage markets and places where you can catch a schnitzel with a fine German import or a locally brewed beer.
There were way too many breweries to visit for the time and beer tolerance I possessed, so I know another visit is warranted. The Bavarian Bierhausis a microbrewery (15 bbl), beer hall, and beer garden in an area called Heidelberg Park. If there is a clubhouse for German leisure culture in the city, this is probably it. Mobcraft is a hip, small brewery that uses crowdsourcing to select what they brew – the mob routinely provides ideas and votes on what to brew.
The Pabst Milwaukee Brewery & Taproom (now called Captain Pabst Pilot House) is the largest and only Pabst brewery still in existence – all of Pabst’s mainline production is contract brewed (much of it by MillerCoors) as I understand it. This is a brewpub located in the former First German Methodist Church, located within the former campus of the defunct Pabst brewery near the city center. The giant Pabst Brewery complex closed in 1997 has been undergoing a long-term redevelopment. John Kimes, a Pabst executive explained that brewpub has been mining troves of recipe archives and having a lot of fun making small-batch beers for sale on-premises.
Miller’s Milwaukee Brewery in “Miller Valley” is the oldest functioning major brewery in the United States. They make many different of the MillerCoors range of beers here — even Coors (head for the mountains!) This is a gigantic operation. They even have classic beer cellars dug into a hillside on the site just like you would find at many classic German breweries. A taproom with an old-world feel serves the full range of MillerCoors beers including their import acquisitions.
Lakefront Brewery seemed like the heart and soul of the modern craft beer scene. The brewery has a steampunkish feel about it with Bernie Brewer’s Chalet layered on top (story) within a repurposed bakery building. The tour is fun with the staff putting on a better than average show. Workers have been encouraged to develop and serve beers that carry their first name, and other staff re-enacts the opening sequence on the bottling line from the ’70’s sitcom, Laverne & Shirley (in case you forgot).
Another interesting stop along the way was the Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering near the city center. In a bit of serendipity, I waited out a rainstorm over a beer at the Estabrook Beer Garden and happened to strike up a conversation with another beer garden lover named Eckhart Grohmann. It turned out that Mr. Grohmann was the patron of a local museum that he invited me to visit. Grohmann Museum contains Mr. Grohmann’s large art collection which is focused on the evolution of human work. I kept looking for brewers at work but I didn’t find those – I would not doubt they are there.
Milwaukee Beer & Brewery Stops Along the Trails
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