If I had a time machine and could go any where in history to drink a few beers, then Milwaukee in the late 1800s would be high on my list. When emigre brewers came to the US Midwest from Germany, they made their German-style lagers and served them in German-style surroundings—this created the beginning of a new beer culture in America.
These brewers often started out small, but some grew into enormous companies. Milwaukee had some of the largest breweries in the country, all making ranges of Euro-styled lagers, with famous names like Miller, Pabst, Blatz, and Schlitz, making Milwaukee a great brewing city, a city that had beer flowing through it, and brewery buildings on every corner. The greatness didn’t last forever and almost all the breweries closed or moved away, but that’s now changing as old brewing spaces are reopening and the city is re-engaging with its beer past.
Visit To Milwaukee’s Old Lager Breweries A Reminder Of This Once-Great Brewing City Photo Gallery
The best of this is happening with the long-shuttered Pabst brewery buildings. Pabst was once the world’s largest brewery—and in living memory, hitting their peak in 1977. Their story began with Jacob Best, who started The Empire Brewery in 1844, which later became Best and Company. When Best died, his fourth son Phillip took over (two of his other sons opened Plank Road Brewery, which later became Miller Brewing). Phillip had two daughters and one of them was married to a steamboat captain called Frederick Pabst. Best liked Pabst and convinced him to jump ship and turn into a beer baron. Pabst became perhaps the greatest of the great beer barons of that time and, on his death in 1904, he was one of the richest men in the world.
THE CITY THAT MADE BEER FAMOUS
A vintage postcard celebrating Milwaukee’s brewing history.
After Pabst’s peak in 1977 they somehow went from being the largest brewery to closing their Milwaukee brewing operations within 20 years (though the beers continued to be brewed in other USA facilities). When those Milwaukee buildings were shut, they stayed shut for a decade or more, and it was only from 2007 onward that they were revived. Now 16 of the 28 original brewery buildings remain and many are open, with the whole area in the middle of a mega renewal.
Best Place (901 W Juneau Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233) is the spot to visit for much more of this history—both for Pabst specifically and Milwaukee brewing in general. The building was once a school but, as Pabst was expanding, they took over the space and turned it into their headquarters (the store is a must-visit for anyone who loves old brewery memorabilia and beer glasses). Across the street is the most impressive of the buildings, which housed the old brewery and has been turned into The Brewhouse Inn & Suites (1215 N 10th Street Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53205), where you can see the kettles prominently on display in the lobby. Around the block from here is a modern brewpub in an old Methodist church from the 1870s. It’s been over 20 years since Pabst beers were brewed in the city and now Pabst
Milwaukee Brewery (1037 W Juneau Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233) is making them again. They have a mix of resurrected Pabst brands (some from decades ago) and also new brews. You can also get the classic Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap, but it’s not brewed there.
The most well known of Milwaukee’s old brewers today is Miller Brewery, thanks to their endurance and prominence in the city, and it’s a good tour to go on if you’re in town (4251W State Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53208).
Frederick Miller arrived in the USA in 1854 and, so they say, brought yeast that traveled with him for around a year before he reached Milwaukee and took over the Plank Road Brewery (I did ask the tour guide how Miller kept his yeast alive, but they didn’t know…). He opened a beer garden and it was a catalyst for cultural change: a bright, lively, fun space in which to drink his bright German lagers. On the tour you’ll see the brewhouse, which was added in 1886. By 1903 High Life—“The Champagne of Beer”—had become their main beer. The brewery was also responsible for creating the light beer category when they released Miller Lite in 1975—it was, as they say on the tour, “the most popular new beer of all time.”
The tour takes you through the handsome old brewhouse on the huge campus, a site that includes 79 buildings over 82 acres (33 hectares) in the city, and you’ll get to see the packaging and distribution, with half a million cases being filled and dispatched every day. You’ll see the Plank Road Brewery house, which is there as a reminder of Miller’s history, and after that you head to the old brewery tunnels that were dug by the Best brothers. The tour ends in the tasting room with three beers. Whether you like Miller beers or not, it’s a key brewery in American history for its place in the development of beer culture and for being the one that outlasted all the other great names in this once-great brewing city.
Is the Miller Brewery a Beer Bucket List tick? I have to constantly check with myself whether I think places are worthy of the list or if they’re just interesting places to visit if you’re nearby. If you’re interested in American beer today, then knowing about its early beginnings, or at least its image-defining, teenage growth spurt, then Milwaukee is an important point of reference. It’s also the most deeply ingrained beer city, the one with the most beer history.
The Plank Road Brewery was bought by Frederick Miller for US$2,300.
More to Milwaukee than Miller
If you go to Milwaukee, then it’ll probably be for craft beer, not Lite beer. And rightly so, as it’s a good city for drinking, with a lot of new breweries opening—though there are too many for me to mention more than a couple here. Go to Lakefront Brewery (1872 N Commerce Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53212), ideally on a Friday for their famous fish-fry, and do the tour if you can as it’s drunken, lively, loud, and fun. Across the river is Like Minds Brewing (823 E Hamilton Street, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202), which is a food-focused brewery doing great things in both the kitchen and brewhouse, especially with brett-fermented IPAs. Sugar Maple (441 E Lincoln Avenue, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53207) is the best bar for sampling the widest range of beers.
Pabst beers have been drunk in Milwaukee for over 170 years.
The Beer Time Machine?
If a time machine existed to take me drinking, then there are a few places I’d love to go. Old Milwaukee would definitely be one of them. I’d probably try and hang around for a few decades into the turn of the 20th century. One of the great moments I’d fly back to would be Pilsen in November 1842, to be able to drink one of the first ever glasses of golden lager. It would also be amazing to drink in busy London pubs in the early 19th century, a time of Porter and the beginnings of Pale Ales, smoggy, smoky taverns, and a Dickensian novel of a bar crawl.