A 2016 Surge In Craft Brewing Can Help Milwaukee Reclaim Title Of ‘Brew City’

craft beer breweries in Milwaukee

Living In Shadows

Beginning in the mid-19th century – up until the iron fist of prohibition came down – Milwaukee, Wisconsin – fueled by German immigrants – had built itself into one of the most powerful brewing cities in the world, thus earning its nickname, “Brew City.”  After the 13-year American beer drought, only the biggest and richest breweries survived in Milwaukee. Then, slowly over the next half century, one by one their doors closed. They were either sold, or they outright folded until the city lived under the shadow of one mega brewery.

Although many of us still refer to Milwaukee as “Brew City” out of habit, it feels a little unearned in recent years, since the title mostly refers to ghosts of the past.  In the mid-1980s, Sprecher Brewing and Lakefront Brewing opened in Milwaukee serving as an overture to the America-wide craft beer movement that would commence for the following 30 years.  In spite of the success of Sprecher and Lakefront, Milwaukee was slow to fully embrace the craft beer boom. While similar sized cities like San Diego, Portland, and Denver were opening breweries faster than you can count. They were the emerging scenes that now dominate nationally when it comes to production and national distribution of craft beer. Milwaukee virtually sat on its hands, seemingly resting on the idea that being home to a huge macro brewery would continue to keep the city relevant in the beer market as a brewing powerhouse.

It’s been difficult to put a finger on the reason why Milwaukee hasn’t blown up into a craft brewery haven like the new beer meccas.  The Lake Michigan water and Wisconsin climate makes this part of the country an ideal place to brew beer. After all, German brewers settled here and successfully brewed for more than 150 years. And the good people of Wisconsin certainly haven’t lost any of their passion for drinking beer – that’s for damn sure.  So what gives?  Perhaps it’s just habit, a certain hometown big brand choice that was passed down to new drinkers, generation after generation. Or maybe it’s the part of this city’s identity that values just about everything old school. Whatever the reason, it’s about to come to an end.

Here Tomorrow, Gone Today.

Over the past few years, a fast growing number of talented and savvy craft brewers have begun to tap into the potential of Milwaukee, with an understanding that it is an under-served market compared to cities similar in size, in other parts of the country. In fact, the area is bracing for the openings of at least 10 new breweries, which will nearly double the existing brewery count. Things have gotten so serious around here that 2016 has also seen the formation of the Milwaukee Craft Brewery League. Boasting membership of most of the Milwaukee area’s craft breweries, the new guild will help strengthen the city’s position as an attractive place to open future breweries.

My prediction is that by the close of 2016, we’ll see Milwaukee’s beer resurgence in full swing and the city once again being regarded nationally and internationally as a beer destination. That’s something I’m sure many in the local craft beer community have been longing for throughout the duration of our slump here. As Sprecher, Lakefront and Milwaukee Brewing anchor the beer scene with their critically acclaimed beers and tours, districts housing multiple brewpubs within walking distance of each other, great restaurants and entertainment will round it out.

Milwaukee doesn’t need to acquire an obscene number of craft breweries to be considered a top notch beer town, either. It will always have an ace up its sleeve that none of the new-age beer cities can ever have, our aforementioned rich brewing history. The Beer Barons of yesteryear are long gone, but the people of Milwaukee have not forgotten them.  Their stories are well-documented and have been preserved by our museums and buildings, keeping beer at the forefront of what people think of when they think of Milwaukee. Miller Brewery’s famous caves and the Pabst Mansion are among the many historical windows that provide impressive looks into the past of not only this area but looks into the history of American brewing at large.

Couple the rich history with the city’s new brewing excellence, and Milwaukee arguably becomes THE most well rounded and complete beer destination in America. Any beer lover who wants to entrench his or herself in everything beer, new and old, including an understanding of the evolution of beer in America will find that Milwaukee may be justified in – once again – calling itself Brew City.

I had a chance to correspond with each of the ten breweries planning to open in Milwaukee in 2016, and I compliled a list with their most up to date information.  Here’s to the success of each and every one of them.

Urban Harvest Brewing Company: 1024 South 5th Street, Milwaukee

Urban Harvest opened April 8th and is the kind of craft brewpub I love. After a two year search, Steve Pribek (Head Brewer) and Mark Kaminski settled on a location in the old but vibrant neighborhood known as Walker’s Point. They beautifully refurbished a generous sized space in a 100+ year old building and have started brewing with a two barrel system.

Pribek stated his approach was to start brewing mainstream styles, but they have quickly gotten resourceful and creative with methods such as adding oak spirals to the post fermentation instead using the more costly whole barrel.  Popcorn and pretzels are available on site, but the pub is all about the beer, serving pints, flights and growlers.  After sampling a well done flight, it was the unique Espresso Amber that really caught my attention.

Good City Brewing: 2108 N Farwell Ave, Milwaukee

Good City BrewingTargeting a June opening, Co-founders David Dupee and Dan Katt and Co-founder/Brew Master Andy Jones decided to root down in Milwaukee and put together a well-designed, ambitious brewpub with a team of well-educated and experienced craftsmen. The list includes: Jones, a UC Davis Master Brewers Program graduate and former plant manager of Lakefront Brewery; Ray Sachs, an experienced Head Brewer (to assist Jones); and Chef Guy Davies, former Exec Chef of Bartalotta’s Rumpus Room. The menu will be craft beer driven, including premium beer dinners. The tap room will offer a nice mix of beer styles on 7-9 handles, brewed on a 17 bbl system, targeting 1500 bbls brewed a year. Milwaukee should expect great things from Good City.

Westallion Brewing Company: 1825 S 72nd Street, West Allis

Even though it shares the same streets as Milwaukee, the city of West Allis has a personality all its own, and the Husband and wife team of Kim and Erik Dorfner hope to shape its personality further with the addition of Westallion as the city’s first micro-brewery. Erik, a Marine Corp Vet, will be brewing in a 5 bbl brew house, serving a 1000 sq ft tap room. Westallion’s initial goals will be to secure tap handles in West Allis bars, which have already showed interest.

“People from West Allis are proud to live here” Eric said. “I was hoping to get one handle in a bar but when they found out I was brewing in West Allis they wanted more.”

The Dorfner’s are targeting the opening for November 10th, that being the Marine Corp’s birthday. What could be more appropriate?

City Lights Brewing Co.: 2200 W Vernon Street, Milwaukee

City Lights BrewingFormally of 4 Brothers Blended Beer Company out of neighboring Waukesha, City Lights Brewing Company co-founders Robin Gohsman and son Jimmy Gohsman (also the brew master) have reorganized and moved to the heart of Milwaukee: The Menomonee Valley. There, the Gohsmans will run their own microbrewery out of former Milwaukee Gas Light Company’s red brick water tower, beautifully visible from I-94, which cuts Milwaukee in half.

City Lights will strictly can (and keg) their beer, which should set them apart in bottle-dominated Wisconsin. Brewing will be done on a 30 bbl system with 60 & 90 bbl  fermentation tanks. There will be a heavy focus on distribution in the Milwaukee area through Minnesota based independent distributor, Johnson Brothers Beverages. A taproom and riverside beer garden are planned, with great views of the valley and Menomonee River. Located just down the road from Miller Park, City Lights Brewing is planning on providing a shuttle bus to and from Brewers games, a popular practice with local establishments for years. Opening in late summer, there should still be plenty of opportunities to sample some tasty beers and catch a ball game and sample more tasty beers for a perfect evening.

Black Husky Brewing: 2872 N Brenmen Street, Milwaukee

Black Husky is the first of two Wisconsin breweries relocating to Milwaukee this year. Tim and Toni Eichinger started Black Husky Brewing in 1999 in Pembine, Wisconsin (appx 200 miles north of Milwaukee) brewing in a tiny 135 sq ft log building a half barrel at a time, topping out at their current 3 bbl system. All the while they were building a strong Milwaukee following that accounts for 80% of their beer sales.

They now will make the move South to be closer to family and open a slightly upgraded 7000 sq ft brewery and tap room in the NE Milwaukee neighborhood known as Riverwest. The move will expand production to a 10 bbl system and will help Tim and Toni to connect with their already loyal Milwaukee fan base, as well as create many more. Tim will continue all the brewing at the new location, ensuring his beers are done his way – and who can blame him for that? Considering the tap room and great new location, Black Husky can expect to brew a hell of lot more than the 300 bbls of last year. They should expect the people of Milwaukee to drink it up. I can’t wait.

Bavarian Bierhaus: 700 W Lexington Blvd, Glendale

Bavarian BierhausThe Milwaukee beer scene would not be complete without at least one brewpub dripping with German culture. Enter
The Bavarian Bierhaus. Opened on April 26th, the Bavarian Bierhaus includes a traditional German Hall that can seat 350 or more with live music every night and a separate dining room for another 150 as needed. To boot, they serve food from a 95% German menu. A separate tasting room is also open, seating another 31 people at the bar. Nate Bahr (another Lakefront alum) will serve as Brewmaster, creating traditional German Lagers, as well as seasonal beers in the openly visible brew house.

Third Space Brewing: 1506 W St Paul Ave, Milwaukee

Don’t tell Kevin Wright and Andy Gehl you can’t come home again.  The longtime friends and co-founders of Third Space Brewing both grew up in the Milwaukee area and are UW-Madison Alumni. Gehl went on to practice law in Chicago, and Wright acquired a graduate degree in the Master Brewer program at the University of California-Davis and went on to brew award winning beers at Hanger 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, Ca. for the past six years.

The two are back together in their hometown, this time to create a West Coast-Midwest blend of beer styles for the people of Milwaukee, on a 30 bbl system. The Milwaukee Valley brewery will include a tasting room and beer garden with a goal of about 1500 bbls brewed in year one, which should continue to increase as their customer base grows. Wright and Gehl hope for a mid-to-late summer opening, so keep your eyes peeled. Good luck guys!

MobCraft: 505 S 5th Street, Milwaukee

MobCraft BeerFirst, if you’re not familiar with what MobCraft does, go to mobcraftbeer.com and then come back….

It’s been quite a year for co-founders Henry Schwartz (President) and Andrew Gierczak (VP & Head Brewer) at MobCraft
Brewing. First, they appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank and now they’re making a big move to Milwaukee. MobCraft has been brewing in Madison, WI since 2013, sharing equipment at another craft brewery, House of Brews, to whom the co-founders say they are eternally grateful.

After researching endless facilities in multiple cities, Schwartz and Gierczak settled on Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point area, giving them their own 30 bbl brewhouse and a 4000 sq ft tap room. The hopes are to have their taproom doors open in early July, with room for a kitchen, preferring to serve wood fire pizzas. The addition of Mobcraft and newcomer Urban Harvest to the already established Milwaukee Brewing and Brenner Brewing, Walker’s Point will become a powerful destination for the Milwaukee (or any) craft beer lover. Schwartz understands the importance of mutual support among fellow breweries. The communities of both Milwaukee and Madison continue to play a key role in Mobcraft’s success. Welcome to Milwaukee guys!

Milwaukee Brewing Company: 1131 N 8th Street, Milwaukee

Milwaukee Brewing CoMilwaukee Brewing has been a city staple since the mid-90s and has turned into a statewide powerhouse.  It’s no
surprise MKE is expanding their operation, but the new location is poetic. See, MKE started brewing around the same time Pabst closed its doors (a devastating time for Milwaukee) and even acquired some of Pabst’s equipment. So, it seems appropriate that they’ll be opening an expanded brewery, tap house and roof top bar on the very spot of the old Pabst brewery. They’ll also be using the old Pabst distribution center, and that sounds pretty kick-ass to me.

The whole former Pabst site has been revitalized, and the new Milwaukee Bucks Arena will be within walking distance of Milwaukee Brewing’s new facility. The significant expansion is also good news for MKE’s current facility on 5th Street. It will allow expanded tours during the week, which are currently offered only on weekends.  Coming as no surprise, MKE is yet another hometown brewery eager to support the Milwaukee brewing community, and they’re proud to be a part of the newly formed Milwaukee Craft Brewery League.  Mike Christensen, V.P. of sales, sees the explosion of area breweries as a way to get Milwaukee’s swagger back as a significant beer city. Cheers to that, Mike.

Pabst Brewing Company: W Juneau Ave & N 11th Street

After a 20 year absence, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote, Pabst Brewing Company will be coming back to
Milwaukee, where they brewed beer for more than 140 years. This time it will be on a much smaller scale but back at the same location, joining Milwaukee Brewing Co. Pabst will occupy one of its old buildings (once a church) as a microbrewery and tasting room, brewing up archived, long-forgotten recipes on a small scale. The decision to open the brewpub was made by new Pabst chairman and chief executive officer, Eugene Kashper, in hopes of reconnecting with Pabst’s Milwaukee roots.

Like Minds Brewing Company: 823 E Hamilton Street, Milwaukee

Owners Justin Aprahamian and John Lavelle should be considered very forgiving This isn’t their first run at opening a brewery in Milwaukee. They were rejected by Wisconsin’s antiquated & overreaching statute or law or whatever you want to call it prohibiting a restaurant owner, that being Aprahamian, chef of the popular upscale restaurant Sanford, to also own a brewery. So naturally our two would be brewers went somewhere they could brew, Chicago, where they now operate Like Minds Brewing Company.

Well, once Wisconsin realized Illinoispossessed one of Milwaukee’s most talented chefs and missed out on an original local business opportunity, they quickly “took a closer look”at the law don’t cha know, and are now welcoming Like Minds back with open arms and so are the residents of Milwaukee. Aprahamian and Lavelle, still molding their current brewery, could have said “no thanks we’re good” but Milwaukee is where they want to be and Milwaukee wants them to be here.

This June Milwaukee should be able to experience Like Minds for ourselves. Food will play a key role in the beer making and beer pairing process. Cooking and Brewing will be closely related in the culinary style that Aprahanian is known for. Naturally Like Minds will have a full kitchen and taproom tucked in a lower East side neighborhood of Milwaukee walking distance from Sanford. Aprhamian and Lavelle hold no ill feelings about how things went down last year and maybe things happen for a reason because they now will join in on and epic year of Milwaukee’s beer resurgence while bringing their own unique take on beer to the dinner table.

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Born, raised and currently living in SE Wisconsin. I've been enjoying craft beer for almost 25 years though the choices were slim back then. Family man, sports fan (Brewers, Badgers, Packers)....did I mention I love craft beer?

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