Beer Brewing History in Milwaukee
Long before Wisconsin became America's Dairyland, Wisconsin was a beer state. Brewing began in Wisconsin in the 1830s, and by the 1890s, nearly every community had at least one operating brewery. Breweries were as much a part of Wisconsin communities as churches and schools. They supplied steady employment to workers, bought grain from local farmers who in turn often fed brewery by-products to their livestock, and they frequently sponsored community festivals, youth groups, and sports teams. Brewing was intimately tied to Wisconsin's people, particularly its German immigrants, who brought their knowledge and skills with them to North America. Despite beer's popularity and importance to community life, from its beginning the brewing industry fought numerous attempts to restrict its consumption and distribution. Nineteenth century temperance activists and, most profoundly, in the twentieth century prohibition legislation both curtailed its influence.
The process of mashing, boiling, and fermenting grain dates back thousands of years. Beer came to northern Europe around 55 BCE with Julius Caesar's Roman legions and by the Middle Ages, it had become part of everyday life because the boiling and fermenting process made it relatively free of contamination. European settlers brought their beer with them to North America. The first commercial brewery opened in New Amsterdam, now New York City, in 1612. As immigration and settlement increased and the population moved westward, breweries followed, and by the 1850s, Milwaukee was contending with St. Louis for brewing supremacy.
Although Owens Brewery is generally considered the first commercial brewery in Wisconsin (opened in 1840), some evidence seems to suggest that at least two others, one in Mineral Point and one in Elk Grove, were operating before 1840. As Owens Brewery grew, its success soon brought competition, not only in Milwaukee, but across the state. Between 1848 and 1849, twelve breweries opened in Wisconsin: Adam Sprecher in Madison, Frederick Heck in Racine, and August Fuermann in Watertown were among the most prominent brewers. By 1860, nearly 200 breweries operated in Wisconsin, over 40 in Milwaukee alone. Virtually every town had a brewery and in some cases, towns formed around breweries.
The growth of the beer industry in Milwaukee was directly related to the city's large number of German immigrants. In the 1840s, Milwaukee began to take on a distinctly German character as waves of immigrants seeking economic opportunity and, particularly, religious and political freedom settled in the area. German consumers' demand for lager, a German brew, greatly expanded the city's beer industry and provided a large customer base for brewers. Many of these German immigrants were experienced brewers, too, saving owners both time and money in training. The skills and experience of the German immigrants combined with Milwaukee's abundant natural resources -- a good harbor, lumber for barrels, and ice for storage -- to make Milwaukee, and Wisconsin, a giant in the brewing industry.
Despite beer's popularity among Wisconsin immigrants and the rapid growth of breweries, alcohol consumption became a controversial issue in Wisconsin. Many of Wisconsin's first white settlers came from New England, which was a stronghold of temperance. Temperance societies formed around the state, and even Milwaukee, the center of Wisconsin brewing, had one (the Sons of Temperance Grand Division) by 1848. Several northern states passed prohibition laws in the 1850s, and although Wisconsin did not go that far, an 1849 law made tavern owners responsible for any costs associated with supporting drunkards. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin's German population bitterly opposed the law, arguing that it undermined individual responsibility and imposed too harsh a penalty on tavern owners. In 1851, the Legislature replaced the law with a milder version.
Several more attempts were made to restrict alcohol production and consumption in the 1850s but no major measures were passed again until the 1870s. In 1872, the Legislature passed the Graham Law, which again made tavern owners responsible for selling liquor to known drunks. Milwaukee's city attorney challenged the law but the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the Legislature had the right to regulate the sale of alcohol. With no luck in the courts, German Americans shifted attention to the politicians themselves, helping to defeat the Republican administration that had passed the Graham Law in 1873. The Graham Law was replaced the following year with a law that encouraged towns to work with taverns to prevent drunkenness. The new version of the law turned out to be a workable compromise for both German Americans and temperance activists, staying in effect for many years.
Temperance represented something far more complicated in Wisconsin than a simple battle between those who drank and those who did not. German immigrants often remained strongly attached to their historical and cultural roots, frequently taking uniform stands on political and social issues such as alcohol and German-language education in schools (see "Americanization and the Bennett Law"), and resisting efforts at assimilation to Yankee cultural norms. Moreover, saloons were increasingly seen as urban institutions and came under attack by rural people who sought to resist the problems associated with them. Temperance, therefore, became symbolic of battles between Yankees and Germans, urban and rural residents, and teetotaling Protestants and seemingly more broad-minded Catholics. All of these forces grew in intensity, particularly during World War I when anti-German sentiment was especially strong, and contributed to the passage of national prohibition, the Volsted Act, in 1919.
With Prohibition, many breweries began to make near beer while others began to produce soda, ice cream, and cheese. Some brewers made malt syrup and other products which individuals could use for home brewing. Many breweries eventually had to close--some forever. In 1926, Wisconsin voters approved a referendum amending the Volsted Act that allowed the manufacture and sale of beer with 2.75 percent alcohol. In 1929, voters repealed Wisconsin's prohibition enforcement law, the Severson Act. Pledging loyalty to the "will of the people" as expressed in these referendums on alcohol, Wisconsin Senator John J. Blaine proposed a constitutional amendment for the repeal of prohibition. The U.S. Senate modified Blaine's resolution to satisfy antiprohibitionists and passed the measure without delay. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified and national prohibition ended.
Today, brewing remains an important part of Wisconsin life, although the brewing industry has changed dramatically from its small community origins. Consolidation and commercialization has brought national, and even international, distribution for some Wisconsin breweries, while a few small brewers have survived through niche marketing and regional loyalty.