Brewing Up Wisconsin History
The most recent Ale Through the Ages brewing series at Discovery World focused on Wisconsin and Milwaukee’s proud brewing heritage, as we recreated a traditional wheat ale. During the late 1800s, Wisconsin was a major wheat trading state, with Milwaukee as the primary hub of commerce on the Great Lakes. As a result of this lucrative grain trade, Wisconsin breweries had a steady and high quality supply of fermentable wheat and barley. Wheat became a staple ingredient in the production of a popular German beer, Weiss /Weizen and “weiss breweries” sprung up all over the state and in particular in Milwaukee. While the original recipes from the 19th century have yet to be publicly revealed, this recipe is an approximation of what these historic wheat beers may have tasted like. Therefore, we selected local wheat and barley malts, in addition to locally grown hops, as well as Wisconsin wildflower honey. A total of 12 gallons were brewed, 5.5 of which was fermented with Bavarian Wheat yeast, 5.5 gallons was fermented with Weihenstephan Weizen yeast, and 1 gallon was fermented with a local wild strain of yeast collected by a Milwaukee home brewer and class participant, Matt Spaanam.
Wheat (Triticum spp) is a grass species from Western Asia that was originally domesticated least 10,000 years ago, yet is now cultivated worldwide. Since the beginning of the European influx into America’s heartland, wheat has been a major crop and commodity of export to the global market. Milwaukee was one city in particular that was once at the forefront of the American and indeed global grain market. This is evidenced by the iconic Chamber of Commerce building, which still stands on the SE corner of Michigan St. and Water St. Completed in 1879 by the esteemed architect Edward Townsend Mix, it was inside this Italian Renaissance style building that the main trading rooms of the Milwaukee Grain Exchange were housed. It was here between1879-1935 that the price of wheat was set for the global market in the first “trading pit” in the country. Sadly the octagonal pit no longer survives. However, restoration of the trading room in the early 1980s resulted in preservation of one of best examples of mural-ornamented Victorian commercial interiors in North America.
The earliest evidence of a commercial brewery in Wisconsin opened in 1835 in Mineral Point (Iowa Co.) by John Phillips (Apps, J 1992). This region of southwestern Wisconsin saw the earliest influx of Europeans, who principally arrived from Cornwall, England and were employed in mining lead. These intrepid miners were given the nickname “badgers”, due to their burrowing tunnels, a moniker that eventually became Wisconsin’s mascot. It is likely that this pioneer brewery, as well as Rablin & Bray’s brewery in Elk Grove (Lafayette Co.) that opened in 1836, were likely brewing ales rather than lagers. Lagers would soon become the norm, once large numbers of German immigrants arrived in subsequent decades and opened their own breweries. By the end of the 1840s there were at least 22 breweries in Wisconsin. That number rose to at least 190 breweries in Wisconsin by the end of the 1850s. Towns and cities across Wisconsin would grow many industries, and breweries were no exception.
Without exception, Milwaukee’s brewing industry once stood head and shoulders above most American cities. In total, at least 120 different brewing companies have been established in Milwaukee over the past 175 years, giving justification for calling Milwaukee America’s “Brew City”. The most brewing companies in operation at any one time was during the 1860s when at least 40 breweries were in the production of beer, ales, lagers and often distilled spirits.
Milwaukee’s first commercial brewery was established by Simon Reutelshofer in 1839/40, and was located at the southeast corner S. 3rd & Virginia Streets. This kicked off a tidal wave of other brewing operations that ostensibly became family businesses and wherein certain families became extremely wealthy. Without going into the entire chronology of Milwaukee’s brewing history, instead I’ll discuss just two historic Milwaukee weiss beer breweries that highlight the evolution of the industry as a whole.
The Gipfel Weiss Beer Brewery
One of Milwaukee’s early breweries that produced primarily wheat based beers was established by David Gipfel in 1843 when he purchased a small wooden framed building on Chestnut St (modern Juneau Ave.) for $400 from Wolfgang Weiss, and constructed a brewing operation. In 1851, David Gipfel’s eldest son Charles (Chas.) assumed ownership of the family brewery and renamed it the Union Brewery. In 1853 a four story Federal-Style cream city brick saloon and boarding house was built fronting Chestnut St. with the original brewery in the back. By the 1880s, the brewery was known principally for brewing weiss beer and was called the Charles Gipfel Whitebeer Brewery. However in 1890 the brewery closed due to increased competition among local breweries. The building housed various businesses over the next century, until 2007, when the building was jacked up and relocated from 423 Juneau Ave. to a vacant lot along Old World 3rd St. Sadly, in 2009 due to insufficient funding for redevelopment, the building which at the time represented Milwaukee’s oldest surviving brewery was demolished. Today it is a pile of bricks in an architectural salvage yard along the Milwaukee River.
One other historic Milwaukee brewery that focused primarily on brewing wheat-based beer was Eugene Louis Husting. Like many brewers before and after him, Eugene began as a brewer at the Northwestern Brewery, which was owned by Phillip Altpeter. After marrying Phillip’s daughter Bertha in 1872, E.L. Husting opened his own weiss beer brewery and soda factory on the east side of 5th St. between Cherry St. and Vliet St. in 1877. By 1884 Husting was brewing weiss beer in an 8 barrel brew kettle and selling the product in stoneware bottles. In 1897 the Husting Brewery expanded inventory to include ginger ale, soda water, cream and orange soda, raspberry wine, and cider. As a result of prohibition (1920-1933), brewing beer discontinued and instead soda was exclusively produced. Following prohibition the company evolved into a beer and soda distributor until 1970 when the plant shut down. Today, the main building is still intact and is now considered the oldest standing complete brewery in Milwaukee. Its current tenants are a ribbon factory on the first level and Great Lakes Archaeological Research Center on the second floor, ironically the same company this archaeologist used to work for!
The resulting Wisconsin Weizen ale that we brewed fermented quickly and will be bottled on Thursday, February 17th. Currently, it has a delightful wheat aroma, slightly hazy with a nice hop finish. In keeping with historic tradition, this wheat ale will be bottle conditioned, whereby adding a small amount of sweet wheat malt to each bottle in order to promote final carbonation. It should be ready to drink in two weeks, but will only get better with age. It is our hope that Milwaukee’s forgotten weiss beer brewers would be proud of this fermented concoction! Prost!