Milwaukee and beer are synonymous, but the role that beer has played in Milwaukee's history as a city runs deeper than you might imagine. Some would even say that it wouldn’t be the city it is without the beer boom that it experienced.
So let’s take a trip back to 1845 – before Milwaukee was even a city. At this point in time, the population was relatively low, but there was still a 40/1 ratio of people to pubs in the city. Compared to other places around the US, this was huge. Milwaukee became a city on January 31, 1846, and the rest is history.
The population of Milwaukee steadily grew due to an influx of (mostly) German immigrants, who were drawn to Milwaukee because of its industry, opportunity, and religious ideals. Luckily, they brought their culture with them, which included beer halls, brewing recipes, and beer yeast. Four of the most notable Germans who immigrated to Milwaukee were Frederick Miller, Joseph Schlitz, Frederick Pabst, and Valentin Blatz – sound familiar? They should, because they are one of the reasons that beer blew up in the Midwest, and even on a grander scale, America. The city was already in a fantastic location on the coast of the pure and cold waters of Lake Michigan, was the biggest exporter of wheat in the 1860s, and by 1880 27% of the population was German - and this population was thirsty for the brew.
Beer production from the four main breweries (Miller, Pabst, Blatz, and Schlitz) in Milwaukee started off small, because Milwaukee didn’t have a huge population. Although the city's population was small, there was increased demand for beer throughout the Midwest, these breweries began to aggressively export and market their products. This was especially true after October of 1871, when the great Chicago fire wiped out half of the city’s breweries. Joseph Schlitz saw this opportunity and began to export beer down to Chicago, and continued to do so for some while. This is how Schlitz became known as “the beer that made Milwaukee famous”, and it helped Schlitz gain a lot of loyal beer enthusiasts. At one point they even shipped 80 cases of Schlitz to Africa in order to have Teddy Roosevelt, who was on a hunting trip at the time, drink and pose for photos with the beer. While all this was going on, Pabst decided to start tying a blue ribbon onto each one of their bottles, and this branding multiplied their sales ten-fold. Miller kept making their premium products, and Blatz carried on (although not as successfully) as well. At one point in the 1800s there were over 40 breweries in Milwaukee alone, but the main four kept their grip. These tactics allowed Milwaukee to secure its place as the top beer producer in the United States through the 1950s.
Unfortunately, things changed, as they always do. Schlitz hit some turbulent times with claims of a watered down recipe and a weird fog in the brew (they then became known as “the beer that made Milwaukee furious”), and eventually closed its doors in 1981. Pabst moved out of Wisconsin in 1996, but they're making a comeback! (which you can read more about here). Miller is now the biggest commercial brewery that Milwaukee can claim as its own.
While we do love the rich and hoppy history of our beer, we're very excited to witness the beer renaissance that is occurring throughout the city right now. Craft breweries started popping up in the late 1970s through home brewing with companies like Sprecher and Lakefront Brewery. Although these may be the biggest craft breweries in town, they are far from being the only ones. It seems like a new brewery pops up on a corner every week here. Here is a list of some great craft breweries in the Milwaukee area that you need to check out:
- Lakefront Brewery
- MKE Brewing Co.
- Black Husky
- Brenner Brewing Co.
- Good City Brewing
- Water Street Brewery
- Third Space Brewing
- Biloba Brewing
- Gathering Place Brewing Co.
- Big Head Brewing Co.
- Public Craft Brewing
- Like Minds Brewing
- Mobcraft Brewery
I’ve tried my fair share of these, but it’s hard to keep up! I rest easy knowing that I’ll be able to make to all of these someday, and when I get there that ice cold tap beer is going to be just that much more refreshing.
Happy National Drink a Beer Day everyone! Hope you get to enjoy a pint of your favorite brew tonight, and when you do, maybe try one from one of the many awesome breweries that Milwaukee has to offer.