Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lakefront Brewery and Their Beer That (Re)Made Milwaukee Famous

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated!
Did you have to Google that or did I actually not date myself with everyone on the internet today?
Whether you knew where the words came from or not, everyone is now on the same page – I’m going to spoil it now if you haven’t Googled yet – when it comes to Penny Marshall skipping down a street. But why am I subjecting you to this Nick at Nite torture? Because, Milwaukee!
During the 80’s and 90’s – aka my impressionable years – Milwaukee was a city that exuded “Rust Belt”. All of the characteristics of crumbling industrial giant were on display. From desolate lake front, to deteriorating infrastructure and a mass exodus to the suburbs, Milwaukee was always a town I saw in grey when I visited.
Why the hell did we visit that?
Baseball. But not just any baseball, Rust Belt baseball in a – you guessed it – crumbling sheet metal stadium. But as a child growing up in Wisconsin I never gave a second thought about why my Milwaukee visions were grey. All I knew was that I got to go to the city to see big league ballplayers and then drive home. My worries were never about shuttering manufacturing plants or an ever increasingly polluted Great Lake. It never occurred to me that the city of Richie, the Fonz, Lenny and Shirley was much different than TV and baseball Milwaukee.
One of the relics of Milwaukee during it's decline photo courtesy Richie Diesterheft
One of the biggest losses to Milwaukee was the exodus of some of the largest breweries in the world. For nearly one hundred years, Milwaukee – not Munich – was the beer capital of the world. The beer coming out of Milwaukee may not have followed any purity law or even been very good, but the breweries in Milwaukee produced a product that defined American beer for the majority of the 20th Century. When the dust settled, 3 major brewers – Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz – were gone leaving only Miller as a player in the beer world.
I’m assuming at this point everyone is booking flights and hotels, right? Well, during this downturn in Milwaukee’s history a small brewery started operation in the shadow of the crumbling giants. It was 1987 when Lakefront Brewery began producing craft beer in Milwaukee. Through innovative brewing methods – first American brewery to brew with fruit since prohibition – the brewery rapidly expanded. In 2000 they moved into a former power plant on the Milwaukee River. This was just one of the many restoration and community minded projects Lakefront has taken on over the years.
How and why did Lakefront Brewery differentiate itself from those crumbling giants though?
Quality local beer makes all the difference photo courtesy Brandon Blanke
How they did it was through humble beginnings – think stove and bucket – and brewing for the love of beer and Milwaukee, not a stock option or thoughts of global beer domination. Like many of our brewery stories, family and friends gave a thumbs up to a tasty home brew recipe from 2 brothers and that encouragement led to them opening operation the first Lakefront operation in Milwaukee.
But there was surely a giant hill to climb still. Even though most of the breweries in Milwaukee had hit the skids, Miller was still there and it was a global – and local – giant. The Miller footprint was everywhere in the city at the time and the craft beer revolution wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eyes yet. That’s where the why of the differentiating question comes in. Miller was global, and it’s Milwaukee identity – though still headquartered there – was becoming a thing of the past. Milwaukee was the “Cream City” that needed some local cream. With a local first attitude, Lakefront Brewery started to fill the tap lines of taverns all over town.
Frankenbrewery no more photo courtesy Jeramey Jannene
Lakefront’s popularity grew quickly, so only 3 years after opening, a bottling line was home built. 8 years later – remember we are still in the 90’s – the brewery had outgrown its capacity. As I said above, in the year 2000 Lakefront Brewery moved to its current location. The Frankenbrewery that began in 1987 was now a full production brewery ready to crank out the suds that Milwaukee craved.
Fast forward to today where Lakefront Brewery is one of the great local success stories of Milwaukee. The brewery itself is a reason all on its own to head to Milwaukee. The gathering spot – think tap room except make it a beer hall – is a space that is a true representation of the German heritage of the Milwaukee area. Because Lakefront is true to its Milwaukee roots, this space is used for not only drinking – though obviously that’s important as well – but also for Friday Fish Fry, polka bands and Sunday brunch.
The brewery has also pioneered the art of touring a brewery. The word interactive sells the Lakefront Brewery tour short. They have mastered the art making sure people are involved by offering incentives – think free beer – for participating. The tour is taken with a beer in hand – every brewery tour needs to be enjoyed with suds while learning – and every tour has a queen crowned – you just have to take the tour.
Award winning and local photo courtesy Erin Pass
When it comes to beer, Lakefront Brewery produces some of the finest award winning suds around. Many people have had a cherry ale, but Lakefront’s Cherry Lager is in a category all by itself. With the crispness of a lager and the mild tart of the Wisconsin cherries, this beer needs to be on your spring – yes it’s a seasonal – must find list, or you could just tour in the spring. Speaking of seasonal, all you pumpkin heads out there will be happy with Lakefront’s Pumpkin Lager offered in the fall. It is one of the original pumpkin beers in the US, and though I’m not a pumpkin anything fan – except for carving one for the kids and maybe a little pie – it is a very unique offering and like the rest of the beers from Lakefront it is full of flavor and oh so smooth.
As innovators in the craft world, Lakefront has been on the forefront of other brewing movements as well. From brewing certified organic beer, to being one of the first to offer a gluten free beer, Lakefront is a standard bearer for not only local pride but also sustainable and indigenous brewing. They are listed as a Wisconsin green travel site and continue to be a steward in advancing the local and green movements in Milwaukee.
The World Class Milwaukee Art Museum...worth a visit or two
Today the Milwaukee lake shore is full of people enjoying cleaned up beaches and green space. The lake itself is a place for kayaking and boating  - instead of dodging dead fish – and downtown is a meeting place of people from college kids to discerning beer drinkers enjoying this reborn proud city. That pride - above all other reasons - is what makes Milwaukee one of the great spots to visit that you may not have had on your list.
Other cities may have more travel and beer options, but it’s hard to find any place with the sense of hometown pride that Milwaukee exudes. It’s infectious. There is no escaping rooting for a Wisconsin home team if you’re watching  - or tailgating – with folks in Milwaukee. And because every neighborhood has a tavern, there are lots of options for that behavior.
The act of travel for me is a mind freeing experience. The amount of sites seen or museums toured does not define where or how I enjoy my time away from home. A positive experience for me is defined by how many times I’ve laughed and how many relaxing non-stress moments I’ve enjoyed. Because of a new attitude – aided by a pioneer in the beer revolution – Milwaukee has shaken its rusty stressed out past and become a city of laughs – and got its color back.
For Milwaukee, these happy days are yours and mine (oh Happy Days).