Milwaukee's Rich Beer Brewing History
Around the year 1850 Milwaukee became well-known for brewing beer. German immigrants, with the know-how for brewing, were quick to set up breweries when they arrived here. By 1856 there were more than two dozen breweries in Milwaukee, most of them German owned and operated. By 1880, native Germans made up 27 percent of the city’s population — the highest concentration of a single immigrant group in any American city. Among these immigrants were Frederick Miller, who leased a brewery in town in 1855, Joseph Schlitz, who did the same in 1856 and Frederick Pabst, who followed a decade later. Along with Valentin Blatz, these four men represented the biggest breweries in town. One event in particular helped the rise in success of the Milwaukee breweries: at about noon on October 8, 1871, a fire started near a barn in Chicago — which was in the midst of a severe drought — and spread to over 3 square miles of the city, destroying 11 of the city’s 23 breweries, much of its water works and the housing for a third of the population. In response, many breweries in Milwaukee, following Schlitz’s lead, floated vast shipments of free beer to Chicago through Lake Michigan. Word got out and Schlitz became known as “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” A year before the fire Schlitz produced around 6,800 barrels of beer. By the end of 1871, Schlitz produced 12,381 barrels.
It wasn’t long before Milwaukee had a national reputation for beer. By the turn of the century, the big breweries of Milwaukee were the country’s leaders in beer production. It wasn't just exporting that the beer was good for. Even before it was officially a city, Milwaukee had one tavern per every forty residents. Pabst was leading the way for many years, but Schlitz once more overtook Pabst to hold the title as the biggest brewer in the biggest beer town in America. In an effort to meet growing demand, the Schlitz brewery introduced the accelerated batch fermentation process in 1967, which allowed for 25 percent more production capacity and shorter fermentation times. This damaged the Schlitz name, as people learned the recipe had changed and this wasn't popular. Then, just a few years later, Schlitz was forced to dump 10 million bottles in Memphis and Tampa due to a haze discovered in the beer. Next there was legal trouble from sketchy ad campaigns which allowed Miller and Pabst to outsell Schlitz. Finally, in 1981, a workers’ strike caused Schlitz’s board of directors to close down their Milwaukee plant. Milwaukee residents coined the slogan, “Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee furious.”
Beer halls and taverns are abundant in Milwaukee to this day, although the breweries are fewer in number. Besides Miller and the heavily automated Leinenkugel's brewery in the old Blatz 10th Street plant, the only other currently operating stand-alone breweries in Milwaukee are Milwaukee Brewing Company, a microbrewery in the Walker's Point neighborhood, and Lakefront Brewery, a microbrewery located in Brewers Hill. The suburb of Glendale is home to Sprecher Brewery, another locally popular microbrew. Various brewpubs can be found throughout the Milwaukee area, including Milwaukee Ale House and Water Street Brewery. There has also been recent news that Pabst Brewing Co. will again brew beer in Milwaukee at the site of its historic former brewery, which the company shut down nearly 20 years ago. The company plan to open a microbrewery in 2016, including a tasting room, at the former Pabst Brewing complex on downtown's west side. Stories like this remind us that Milwaukee's rich brewing history is far from over, and it is exciting to consider what other regeneration projects might occur in the future.