People & Places

Brew City: In Milwaukee, history is served up along with the beer

Bob Sessions

The Miller Brewery offers free, one-hour tours.
Bob Sessions The Miller Brewery offers free, one-hour tours.
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Sometimes it seems as if every town in America has its own microbrewery. But one place has loved beer long before it became trendy: Milwaukee, a community whose heritage is intertwined with brewing. If you enjoy beer served with a chaser of history, plan a visit to this Wisconsin city on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Begin your visit at a landmark building that proves just how much money has been made from beer in Milwaukee. The extravagant Pabst Mansion, built in the 1890s in a style known as Flemish Renaissance Revival, once was home to Frederick Pabst, a German immigrant and former riverboat captain who presided over what once was the largest brewing company in the world.

“One of the reasons why the Pabst Brewery became so successful was because of the Chicago Fire of 1871,” guide Gary Strothmann explained. “Pabst packed cases of beer on ice and sent them by railroad car to Chicago. As the city was rebuilding itself, the brewery couldn’t make beer fast enough to keep up with the demand. Frederick Pabst is credited with figuring out a regional distribution system for beer, which before then was usually brewed and consumed locally.”

A tour of the mansion gives information not only on the Pabst family and its business successes, but also on the larger story of beer in Milwaukee. German immigrants flocked to this area in the mid-19th century, drawn in part by the region’s similarity to their homeland. They brought with them beer-making traditions, and soon small breweries flourished throughout the city. Over the next century, four families came to dominate the brewing scene, eventually becoming national companies: Schlitz, Blatz, Miller and Pabst. These breweries were among the first in the world to produce beer on an industrial scale, with mechanized production systems and national advertising.

At your next stop, you can see how several of these rival brewers are spending eternity. The pastoral Forest Home Cemetery, one of the most beautiful in the United States, takes pride in its links to the city’s beer heritage. It offers guided and self-guided tours that tell the story of the entrepreneurs who made Milwaukee a brewing capital. The culmination of the tours is the Beer Baron Corner, which has extravagant marble mausoleums that house the earthly remains of the Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz families.

Back in the city, the free, hourlong Miller Brewery Tour gives more insights into the early years of the beer industry. The tour winds through the caves where Frederick Miller once stored his beer and ends in a tasting room where you can sample the company’s current brews. Along the way, visitors might be surprised to learn of the close connections between the ice and beer industries in Milwaukee during the 19th century. Before the advent of refrigeration, ice was harvested on the region’s rivers and lakes and then packed in sawdust. During warm months, it was taken out of storage and used to keep essentials like food and beer cold. The ice industry was part of the reason why those thirsty Chicagoans so appreciated the shipments sent by the Pabst Co. after the Great Fire.

The mid-20th century brought great changes to Milwaukee’s beer industry. Some companies closed their doors, and others were bought by corporations that moved their production facilities to other locations. One of those breweries was Pabst, which in 1996 left its 21-acre production complex in Milwaukee vacant. Fortunately, the area is undergoing a multifaceted renaissance. You can learn about its rebirth on a visit to the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. Beer tours leave from its Bavarian-style central hall and include a visit to the office from which Frederick Pabst once directed the operations of the company.

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“Frederick was lucky to marry into a beer-making family, but he also had a gift for business and marketing,” said Jim Haertel, owner of Best Place. “His company played a huge role in shaping Milwaukee. And now, the Pabst complex is coming back, though this time it includes a lot more than just brewing.”

Another of the new enterprises is the Brew­house Inn & Suites, a boutique hotel in the former production facility. Its front desk is made from 1,500 beer bottles, and huge copper kettles line its central corridor, a reminder of the millions of gallons of beer that once were brewed here. Down the street, the former First German Methodist Church now houses the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery, a microbrewery that uses the Pabst Co.’s original recipes to create artisan brews.

Today only one of Milwaukee’s big four breweries, Miller Brewing, continues large-scale production in the city. But true to the city’s heritage, small breweries once again are flourishing in the city. Nearly 30 operate here, with more opening each year.

One of the most popular is Lakefront Brewery, which sits on the bank of the Milwaukee River. While its beers have many fans, the operation also is famous for its slightly off-color (but highly entertaining) beer tours, which have been named among the top four in the country by Trip Advisor. Guides take visitors into the bowels of the production area, telling them about the mysterious process that turns grain into beer. The science of brewing has rarely been so entertaining, though it must be admitted that sipping on beer helps the jokes seem funnier.

Finally, spend some time amid the shops and restaurants of Old World Third Street, once the heart of the German community in Milwaukee. Stores here include Usinger’s, purveyors of 70 kinds of sausages, and the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, which sells more than 200 varieties of cheese. And have a meal at Mader’s, the granddaddy of German restaurants in the city. Enjoy a plate of sauerbraten or schnitzel, washed down (of course) by a locally brewed beer. There’s no better way to celebrate the spirit of Milwaukee.

If you go

• Where to stay: Overnight guests can stay at the Brewhouse Inn and Suites (www.brewhousesuites.com).

• Where to eat: For meals, try the Lakefront Brewery Restaurant (www.lakefrontbrewery.com), which is said to have the best fish fry in Milwaukee, and Braise (www.braiselocalfood.com), which specializes in upscale, farm-to-table meals. Blue’s Egg (www.bluesegg.com) serves a tasty brunch.

• For more information: www.visitmilwaukee.org or (800) 554-1448.

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