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New Craft Breweries Flock to Milwaukee

Has the city’s craft beer market hit its saturation point? Not even close, brewers say

Sep. 13, 2016
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2016 could be remembered as a tipping point for craft brewing in Milwaukee. Since this spring, new craft breweries have been popping up in and around the city at a rate once reserved for coffee roasters. Among the new entrants: Urban Harvest Brewing and MobCraft Brewery in Walker’s Point, Black Husky Brewing in Riverwest, Good City Brewing on the East Side, the Bavarian Bierhaus in Glendale and the Fermentorium in Cedarburg. Before the end of the year, they’ll be joined by two large Menomonee Valley operations—Third Space Brewing and City Lights Brewing—as well as Westallion Brewing in West Allis.

Along with other relatively recent additions to the city’s craft brewery scene, including Brenner Brewing in Walker’s Point and Enlightened and D-14 in Bay View, these upstarts are all looking to carve out a name for themselves in a market that, until recently, was defined by just a few pioneering craft breweries. Sprecher and Lakefront have long loomed as the giants in Milwaukee craft brewing, and both have undergone significant expansions of their own recently—as has their younger peer, Milwaukee Brewing Company, whose operations have ballooned since branching out from the Milwaukee Ale House into its own Walker’s Point brewery in 2005. This summer, Milwaukee Brewing Company broke ground on a large new facility in the revitalized Pabst Brewery complex Downtown that will host brewery tours, a tasting room and a rooftop bar.

And while all of these breweries are ostensibly competing for the same customers, the new proprietors are all sounding a similar refrain: There really is room in the market for this many craft options.

“I think the Milwaukee market was really crying out for more craft beer, and I think all of us, the brewers that are opening this year, have recognized that,” says Third Space Brewing co-founder Andy Gehl. “That’s one of the reasons we were excited to move on Third Space. First, we asked ourselves a lot of these questions: ‘Are there too many breweries?’ ‘Are we reaching a saturation point?’ And in Milwaukee, we’re not. The city did have a few great legacy breweries from the ’80s and ’90s, but we really didn’t have the growth of craft breweries that other cities saw in the ’00s. So we’re seeing rapid growth all at once right now, but that’s because we’re making up for lost time.”

As counterintuitive as it may sound for a city that’s been synonymous with brewing for most of its history, Milwaukee has never had much of a reputation for craft beer, Gehl says. “There are cities like Portland, Ore., which is roughly the same size as Milwaukee, that have 80-100 breweries in the metro area, so we saw an opening. Even with breweries like Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing and Sprecher doing incredible things, we just never had the same quantity of breweries that other cities have. So, what we’ve seen is people end up buying Bells, Three Floyds and Surly—breweries from just outside of our area—even though Milwaukeeans love their city and, if given the chance, would prefer to drink local.”

One of the flashier new additions to Milwaukee’s beer scene is MobCraft, an upstart founded in Madison with a novel gimmick: The brewery crowdsources recipe ideas from its patrons, who then vote on the ones they’d like to see the brewery produce.

MobCraft enjoyed a huge profile boost this spring when founder Henry Schwartz appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” to pitch his vision. None of the show’s investors bit. They loved the concept, but questioned Schwartz’s plans to build his own brewery. Kevin O’Leary in particular was infuriated by Schwartz’s insistence on committing to what O’Leary saw as an unnecessary—and very expensive—capital expenditure. “It’s such a cool model with such a flaw,” O’Leary fumed. But for Schwartz the brewery was non-negotiable.

Most of Schwartz’s peers would agree he was right to stand his ground. Having your own brewery is not only a badge of honor for brewers Schwartz says. “It’s the most important thing a small brewery can have,” he explains, describing it as the most effective way for a brewery to broadcast its personality and its vision and to build consumer awareness and loyalty. As a bonus, talking to customers while they sample beers is the ultimate form of market research.

Schwartz settled on his Walker’s Point location for the brewery after being unable to find something remotely affordable in a desirable Madison neighborhood. Its tap room opened this summer, and it’ll host an official grand opening the weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 2, when patrons can sample new beers like a Blueberry Waffle Heffeweizen, Black Tart Outlaw (a dark sour ale aged in whiskey barrels) and Senior Bob (a 9% cream ale aged in tequila barrels with agave nectar).

Embracing the Tap Room

The Urban Harvest Brewing Company can also speak to the importance of a tap room. A father-son operation, it’s the kind of small company you’d be unlikely see on “Shark Tank,” and for the time being, its beers are only available in its Walker’s Point tap room, which opened this April. “We haven’t gotten to self-distribution yet,” says co-founder Steve Pribek. “That’s the next step, but we wanted to take things one step at a time.”

It took Pribek and his father two years to find the right home for the brewery, but he says, “We were fortunate enough the space that we found is just fabulous. We’re really proud to be able to bring a building like that back from where it was, to showcase the cream city brick, the full side-to-side windows in the front. It’s just an amazing space. And for a small brewery just opened in April, I’m proud we’ve got 14 beers on tap.”

The tap room is also the focus for Good City Brewing, which became the East Side’s first craft brewery when it opened on Farwell Avenue this June. David Dupree co-founded the brewery with real estate developer Dan Katt and Andy Jones, a former plant manager for Lakefront. “Dan and I live on the East Side, and we got tired of driving down to Bay View if we wanted to go out for a great beer,” Dupree says.

Unlike some of the city’s new breweries, which serve no food or offer modest menus, Good City opened with some serious culinary credentials. The owners hired former Rumpus Room executive chef Guy Davies to run its kitchen, and with its ample seating room, the space looks an awful lot like a restaurant. “We really wrestled with whether we wanted to have food or not,” Dupree says. “We knew we didn’t want to be a brew pub. We wanted the focus to be on the beer, since we’re a production brewery.”

But so far, Dupree admits, some customers seem to have a hard time distinguishing the tap room from a more traditional brew pub. “The experience is new for people, and I think when they see the caliber of food on our menu, it’s difficult for people not to go straight into restaurant mode, even though patrons seat themselves,” Dupree says.

If this new crop of local breweries is successful, that experience won’t seem nearly as foreign in a few years. Ultimately that’s what these breweries are pitching: In addition, of course, to the promise of good beer, they’re offering an entirely new environment to drink it in, often right next to the very people who brewed it. Where once people only headed to breweries on special occasions or for tours (which many of these new breweries also offer), the new model invites them to visit all the time.

“As the industry continues to grow, we’re going to see a lot more neighborhood and corner bars that make beer,” predicts MobCraft’s Schwartz. “A lot more brew pub-like establishments that really serve a community are going to pop up, and the successful ones will expand off the premises.”

And while, like most brewers, Schwartz foresees continued growth in the market, he also acknowledges there will be some fierce competition. “If you aren’t making the best, highest-quality beers, people aren’t going to buy them,” he says. “It’ll also be up to brewers to follow the trends. Obviously, IPAs [India pale ales] are the hottest beers out there right now, but that’s not always going to be the case, and if you look, there are other styles that are exploding in popularity, like sours.”

“So, it’s up to the breweries to read the market,” Schwartz continues. “If you get stuck in your ways and don’t stay with the times, they’ll pass you by.”


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