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Born of Barley and Hops

Milwaukee Color

Sep. 24, 2009
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It goes without saying that Milwaukee has had a long, personal, at times tumultuous, relationship with the beer industry. The story is told by the names —Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, Miller—given to our city’s venues and parks, and in the abandoned buildings and cracking facades of the once-bustling breweries. The question is: Why did Milwaukee, of all American cities, emerge as the brewing center of the nation?

It had everything to do with who was entering the city during its settlement. In the summer of 1844, says Jerry Apps, author of Breweries of Wisconsin, Germans arrived in Milwaukee at the rate of more than 1,000 people a week. With their strong thirst for lager, German consumers were a major factor in the growth of the city’s beer industry. Other immigrants added to the demand when they developed a taste for the brew, some preferring it to the ales and other beers they were already accustomed to. Within the traveling droves were experienced brewers who possessed skills already learned in Germany, like Frederick Miller and Jacob Best, the founders of what would ultimately become the Miller and Pabst breweries. And with them, the Germans brought a valuable brewing secret: the knowledge of how different grains developed a beer’s flavor.

Wisconsin’s natural resources were another essential variable in Milwaukee’s rise to the top. The land suited the trade’s agricultural need for ingredients like barley and hops. The state’s logging boom and the abundance of nearby lumber mills kept the price of barrels, a storage necessity, at a minimum. Lager, the Germans’ brew of choice, required cool temperatures for both fermentation and storage, so there was a need for huge quantities of ice. The fresh water that surrounded Milwaukee froze to a considerable depth in the frigid winters, guaranteeing the brewers an ample supply.

While the immigrant population provided enough hands to man the breweries and the industries related to them, interestingly, it wasn’t big enough to drink all the beer that was made. For example, the large population of Chicago, one of Milwaukee’s beer industry rivals, consumed its local brewery production. So Milwaukee had to overcome the lack of a larger market by shipping its beer to other ports on the Great Lakes.

Ironically, it was a group of Welshmen who opened Milwaukee’s first brewery in 1840. Though the ale it produced wasn’t a hit with the Germans, the brewery was still successful, and this bred competition.

A year later, Hermann Reutelshofer built a brewery in Walker’s Point that produced a lager. According to The Making of Milwaukeeby John Gurda, there were more than two dozen breweries in the city by 1856, and nearly all of them were owned by Germans, operated by Germans, and oriented to German customers.

The foundations for the Blatz, Miller, Schlitz and Pabst beer dynasties were solid by the start of the Civil War. These names are so enmeshed in our civic identity that the significance of their presence in this city can sometimes be overlooked. In the last five years of the 19th century, the city claimed three of America’s top 10 beer producers: Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz. It was an aggressive advertising campaign linking product with place that really made Milwaukee synonymous with beer in the minds of the average American. After Joseph Schlitz sent shipments of beer to Chicago in the aftermath of the devastating fire of 1871, Schlitz became “The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous.” Suspiciously familiar, but no less effective, Pabst coined the slogan “Milwaukee beer is famous—Pabst has made it so.” Our hometown brews continued to flourish and, by the turn of the 20th century, Milwaukee was the giant of America’s brewing industry.

Then, one by one, the giants began to fall. In summary: Pabst purchased Blatz in 1958, the brewery ceased operations a year later, and the G. Heileman Brewing Co. of La Crosse bought the label. In 1982, Schlitz was acquired by Stroh Brewery Co. of Detroit; then Stroh’s brands were purchased by Miller and Pabst in 1999. Pabst closed its last brewery in 2001 and is now a virtual brewer, with more than 25 brands brewed by either Miller Brewing Co. or Lion Brewery Inc. After the family sold the majority of Miller to W.R. Grace & Co., the company’s ownership passed to Philip Morris, then to South African Breweries, which formed SABMiller. In 2007, SABMiller and Molson Coors Brewing Co. announced a joint venture to be known as MillerCoors. The company is based in Chicago, but still brews some beer, like Leinenkugel, in Milwaukee. Phew!

Meanwhile, a smaller, far less complicated generation of brewers was establishing itself on Milwaukee’s horizon with plans to resurrect the city’s long-lost brewing traditio.

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