Milwaukee Downtown Brewing History Tour

April 17th turned out to be an epic day of experiential learning about Milwaukee’s storied brewing past and present during DISCOVERY WORLD‘s inaugural Legacies of Milwaukee Brewing tour.  A crisp yet sunny spring morning set the stage for an unforgettable tour of several downtown Milwaukee’s brewery sites.  With Kalvin at the helm of a full coach bus, Leonard Jurgensen as the Milwaukee Brewery Historian and myself as archaeological tour guide, we made our way to one of Milwaukee’s first brewery sites.

Begun in 1840/41 by three Welshmen, known as the Milwaukee Brewery and then the Lake Brewery, it is now home to the Milwaukee Co. Transit bus garage, with a rooftop garden.  It was on this rooftop garden with a commanding view of Lake Michigan, where we sampled a special brew I made in commemoration of the occasion called “Old World Welsh Ale”.  This is an all-grain strong ale with hints of smoked barley, in the style of a Scotch Ale meets a British Bitter.  Although a little young, it was packed with flavor and reminiscent of the kinds of ales brewed on that site as early as 170 years ago!

Now called the Mackie Building: 225 Michigan St. Milwaukee

Stop two brought us to the Milwaukee Grain Exchange building, on Michigan St. designed by the esteemed architect Edward Townsend Mix and completed in 1879.  For more than 50 years preceding WWII, this building with its ornately decorated Victorian interior was where the global price of wheat was set.  The opulent three-story trading room is a testimony to Milwaukee’s industrial and agricultural wealth during this period and how the brewing industry as a result benefited from this global commodity exchange.

1891 Lithograph of Brewery

Continuing on to the Blatz Brewery complex (1846-1959), which has been converted into condominiums, we disembarked from the bus and walked the perimeter of the complex to get a sense of the exterior features of the former brewery.  While the original brew house is now gone, we stood on the spot of where the massive kettles once stood and marveled at the immense size of this former brewery.

Adapted from a photo by Dan Lenz

On our way to our next stop at Lakefront Brewery, we went by another former brewery site, the Ogden Brewery (SW corner of Broadway and Ogden) which apparently may have intact lager cellars beneath the hill.  As we eventually arrived along Commerce St. and to the front door of Lakefront Brewery, Jim Klisch (former owner and co-founder of Lakefront Brewery) welcomed us in while Russ Klisch (president and co-founder of the brewery) poured each participant a fine micro-brewed beer of their choice.  After a brief history of the brewery, Jim led the group on a memorable tour of the facility, ripe with colorful commentary on the brewing process and insights into their “Frankenstein” brewing equipment.


Photo by Michael Lerret

Photo by Michael Lerret

By this time it was getting on towards 11:45 and we had lunch to get to at the Best Place in the historic Pabst Brewery.  This was not before we had a chance to see the remnants of the old beer rail line outside Lakefront Brewery, as well as the former sites of the Gipfel Brewery (1843-1894) on the SW corner of 4th and Juneau  and the Eagle Brewery (1842-1866) on the NW corner of 8th and Highland.

We entered the ongoing redevelopment of the Pabst Brewery complex in time for our lunch at Best Place and were greeted by Jim Haertel, owner and developer of the former offices of Captain Frederick Pabst.  While inside the beautifully fresco-ed rathskeller, we ate a fine catered lunch while washing it down with, what else, but Pabst Blue Ribbon.  After a brief history of the brewery by Jim, the group were given a guided tour of the undeveloped section of the building, including Captain Pabst’s office.


Reflection of Best Place, Brew House Kettles, Grain Elevator

From here we were led out into the brewery grounds by Michael Murvis and Dan McCarthy who represent Towne Investments that are overseeing the redevelopment of the brewery complex.  Mike and Dan were very kind to show us through a handful of buildings on the property, including the bottling plant, the Methodest church, the brew house and finally the observation room above the newly renovated home of Cardinal Stritch University.

By far, this intimate insight into the enormity of brewing at this site was a true highlight of the tour, particularly seeing the massive copper kettles inside the brew house, which we were told will remain intact and some day soon will be incorporated into the lobby of a grand hotel.

After the bus pulled out of the Pabst Brewery complex, we were off to visit the site of the former Cream City Brewery (1853-1937)  located on the NE corner of 13th and Cherry.  While the horse stables built in 1910 are still intact, sadly all that remains is a parking lot.  Our local brewery historian, Leonard Jurgensen, shared a personal story of playing inside this brewery as a child when it sat vacant for many years.

Greg Walter explaining brewing process

Our tenth location of the day was across I43 at the Leinenkugel’s 10th St. Brewery, where Gregory Walter, master brewer and facility manager met us for a tour of his brewery.  As the group were treated to a newly brewed yet-to-be released “mystery beer” in the hospitality room, Greg gave an overview of Leinenkugel’s history and the recent merger with Miller-Coors.  Next we were guided into the brewery where we got to see their state-of-the-art operation that is rarely viewed by the public.

1886 Sangurbund p.70

Next it was on to the oldest complete standing brewery structure in Milwaukee, the E.L. Husting Brewery (1877-1933), whose name is still embossed along an upper cornice of the cream city brick building, which incidentally is now home to Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center (a former employer of mine).   A block away on the NW corner of 5th and Cherry is the recently demolished site of the J. Obermann Brewery.  Prior to the tour, I used ground penetrating radar around the perimeter to determine if the sub-cellars were still detectable, as it turned out they were, some 10 feet below street level.

Tower and Brewery Sign

Finally, our final stop would be the Schlitz Brewery complex.  Pulling along side the former stables, one can still see the horse head carvings and stable sign.  Then we pulled into the brewery along side the wash house where we disembarked and made our way into the old Brown Bottle bar, which is now home to Libiamo Restaurant where the group were treated to a bottle of Schlitz each.  Taking these out into the courtyard we were able view into the brew house windows, though because of the dangerous state of the interior we were unable to access the interior.  Leonard gave a nice historical overview of the brewery, as he is the eminent scholar on the brewery’s history and is also owner of one of the largest private collections of Schlitz brewania, including a fully restored Schlitz Beer Wagon.

As the sun lowered on the horizon we boarded the bus one last time bound for DISCOVERY WORLD where we began our day more than 8 hours before and after visiting eleven brewery sites along the way. Much like the 19th hole in golf, the twelfth brewery stop for this tour was the after party at the Milwaukee Ale House where several participants met for more laughter and a well earned meal washed down with more unique locally-fermented beverages.

Photo by Michael Lerret

I think I can speak for all in that this was a momentous tour of Milwaukee’s proud brewery history and one that will certainly be repeated at a later date.  In fact, a similar-styled historic brewery tour of Milwaukee’s south side will take place on July 10th.  Stay tuned for more details on that tour!

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9 responses to “Milwaukee Downtown Brewing History Tour

  1. An excellent tour with a well informed tour host. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.

  2. tkanks for information. Useful for me.

  3. Great tour, had alot of fun, thanks everyone………..

  4. Enjoyed reading about the Milwaukee Brewing Tour. The Fond du Lac library sent me ,History of Fond du Lac County about Will Smith. The article also stated that Joseph Smith erected the first buildings for Schlitz and Blatz brewiers. The pictures that are shown in your Tour, Are they the buildings that Joseph Smith built? Joseph Smith was my ggreatfather.

    • Robert,
      Very interesting that your great grandfather (Joseph Smith) helped build the Schlitz and Blatz breweries…two very iconic Milwaukee landmarks indeed! I’m not familiar with which structures Joseph Smith built, however, the first Schlitz brewery buildings at their current location were erected in 1871, several others followed over the succeeding decades (the main brew house was built in 1899). I’d recommend emailing the leading Schlitz Brewery historian Leonard Jurgensen about Mr. Smith
      ljurgensen@wi.rr.com
      Cheers!

  5. What a fabulous project and event. Someday I will make it down for one, to be sure! As a long-time collector and former resident of Milwaukee I am fascinated by the history of brewing in Wisconsin, esp. in Milwaukee. Hope people are taking lots of pics of the anything that remains of the oldies like Cream City and Obermann.

  6. I am a distant relative of Jacob Obermann. Jacob’s father and brother are my direct relatives. That said I have always wanted to start collecting items having to do with the brewery. Would there be any way I could get a high res image of the Obermann advertisement sent to me?

    Thanks!

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