The Wisconsin Series - The City of Milwaukee

The City of Milwaukee has a lot to offer visitors. While I have lived here for more than 15 years, there are still attractions I'm just getting around to visiting. This journal features just a few of the places I've recently been.


Lots of History Throughout the City

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 6, 2012

For visitors coming to Milwaukee, I encourage you to enjoy a walk or ride through the city to take in a snippet of history through the architecture that has been well preserved in many areas. I have always been impressed with all that surrounds me, even as a resident, when I go downtown.

On this particular day trip, I traversed the city from the near southside area known as Walker's Point (Great Lakes Distillery) heading north to the trendy eastside (Lakefront Brewery). On my two and a half mile jaunt, I passed through some very historical areas including "Old World Third Street" and "Brewer's Hill".

I did make a stop at Usinger's Sausage Company in the area of the city that was central to the German community that had begun settling in Wisconsin in the mid 1800's. Founded in 1880, they have continued with the original family recipes used by founder Fred Usinger. When you step inside the store, you can relive the experience almost as it would have been back in Fred's day.

The tile floors, marble counters and wood beam ceiling are all original to the turn of the 20th century. The hand painted wall murals depicting the "sausage elves" were added in 1906 at a time when many Milwaukee businesses and buildings were being graced by the German tradition of depicting life's experiences through murals.

After my short visit inside Usinger's Sausage, I drove through a wonderfully redeveloped area of the city known as "Schiltz Park" . . . the site of the former Schlitz Brewing. Schiltz beer was known as "the beer that made Milwaukee famous" and today continues to have a significant place in her history. Several of the original buildings remain in the area, including the stables.

Milwaukee has been nick named "The Cream City". Many people, including long time residents mistakenly believe this is a tribute to our state's dairy industry but they are mistaken. Actually "cream" refers to the color of bricks used to build much of the city's structures starting in the 1830's. When fired, the bricks made from the soil on Lake Michigan's western shore turn yellow. These unique bricks became well known throughout the Midwest, not only for their coloration but also their durability. It is this superior durability that has allowed so many of our lovely buildings to remain as they appeared more than 125 years ago.

Milwaukee has also been called "The City of Steeples". As anyone who has flown into Milwaukee's General Mitchell Airport can attest, this is a city with a lot of beautiful churches with steeples that are delicate and intricate; constructed with the traditions brought over from Europe. As you drive towards the city on I94, be sure to pay note to the skyline before you. It really is quite amazing how many churches remain standing, often with century old clocks that are operational.

The last piece of our history here in Milwaukee I want to highlight is bowling. We've probably all seen a rerun of the television show "Laverne & Shirley" with the girls working the brewery by day, and hanging out at the local bowling alley (Pizza Bowl) at night. Unfortunately for many, the lingering perception that Milwaukee is just about beer and bowling haunts redevelopment and branding efforts trying to attract younger people to come here to work and raise families.

For those who want to embrace their inner "Laverne & Shirley" I encourage you to check out the Holler House. Located at 2042 W. Lincoln Avenue in Milwaukee. Holler House is a corner tavern first and foremost. In their basement they have two bowling lanes which have been continuously certified by the sport's governing body since 1910 . . . the longest of any bowling center in the United States. They still have pinboys in the back to set up the pins and return bowling balls; bowlers keep score by hand the old fashioned way . . . on paper hanging on the wall.

In 2008 they celebrated their 100th anniversary. It's been several years since I left my job in the bowling industry and I have not been back to Holler House since around 2004. I will do my best to get in there soon, so that I can post some photos.

Small Batch & Handcrafted Spirits

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 6, 2012

Founded in 2004, Great Lakes Distillery was the first licensed distillery in the State of Wisconsin. They are proud of their local roots and attention to quality as a small batch producer of premium spirits. They currently produce several products including vodka, gin, brandy, rum, whiskey and absinthe. Right now they are also selling their Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit that comes in at a heavy 90 proof.

One of the few free tours I've taken, Great Lakes Distillery does a nice job of promoting their tours separate from their sampling and bar business. For those wanting to do the sampling, it generally includes five to seven spirits that they produce, for a $5 fee. They have a very large sampling and bar area including an outside patio for when weather is more conducive to being outdoors. For those not wanting to take the formal guided tour of the production area, there are viewing windows across the back of the upper level where the sampling takes place.

I was the only person present to take the Monday 1:00pm tour, so it was very nice to have a one-on-one experience with my guide Bobbi. She was knowledgeable and very engaging . . . I thoroughly enjoyed my time with her.

When we got to the production level of the building, the first thing that struck me was just how small the total area was. In the NW corner was another sampling bar area with a few stand-up tables. The center of the room had the distilling pot and fermentation tanks. To the far east side of the open room was the enclosed (and locked) storage area that included filled oak barrels aging their whiskey and rum.

Given that the Great Lakes Distillery currently produces around 30,000 bottles a year, it shouldn't have been too surprising that they hand bottle, label and package everything they produce. I was surprised to see the bottle filling machine only work four at a time however. In this production area, there was a young lady opening cases of empty bottles, a man operating the bottle filler and a third person working the labeling machine.

You may be wondering what it means to be a "small batch" producer. The pot still used at Great Lakes Distilling has a maximum capacity of 70 gallons. As they look to approaching their production capacity, it will take roughly $500,000 to purchase another still plus fermentation tanks to replicate what they are currently using.

Throughout the tour, Bobbi emphasized that for them, it is more about making the best products possible and not maximizing revenues or profits. Of course, like any small business, their business model needs to make good financial sense but they are not going to cut corners or quality in order to make a dollar.

For anyone who has not been on a distillery tour, this tour does a very good job of explaining the process in an easy-to-understand manner. It was also interesting to learn about the locally produced ingredients that go into their spirits as well as the partnership they have with Lakefront Brewery for their Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit utilizing the mash they have as a by-product from their seasonal Pumpkin Lager.

One of the most interesting thing I learned during my time with Bobbi and the Great Lakes Distillery was the history of absinthe. Absinthe had been deemed illegal in the United States back in 1912 because it was blamed for irrational behavior by those who enjoyed the beverage. Medical professionals at the time blamed the grande wormwood for the adverse influence on humans, to include hallucinations and violent behavior. With better scientific data, the ban on absinthe was finally lifted in 2007 as long as the toxic component thujone found in grande wormwood is less than 10 PPM.

Great Lakes Distillery seems to have a very strong and loyal following in Milwaukee. They host a number of special events throughout the year. As an example, this coming Sunday they are having a benefit for the Hunger Task Force . . . the Third Annual Biggest Bloody Mary Party from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free with the donation of non-perishable food items. Guests will be entertained by the Klement's Famous Racing Sausages and raffle drawings throughout the day. Of course, there will also be those yummy Bloody Mary's served with a Klement's Beefstick at a price of just $5.

If you are considering a tour and tasting, be on the look-out for a GroupOn or Living Social offer. I was told that earlier this year they offered a 2:1 which kept folks very busy for several weeks.

More information including tour times, tasting room hours and special events may be found on their website: http://www.greatlakesdistillery.com/tourstastingsevents/tour-the-distillery/ .
Great Lakes Distillery
616 West Virginia Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53204
(414) 431-8683

Brewery Tour That is Educational AND Fun!

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 6, 2012

I've heard a lot about Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, from locals as well as others who have visited our city. I was glad that I finally made the time to take the tour to see what all the buzz was about. I had high expectations given that to get in on many/most Saturdays, you need to make advanced online reservations. A couple of weeks ago, I was looking on a Tuesday for that coming Saturday and they were sold out for many of the most desirable time slots. Now that I've taken the tour . . . I know why!

Lakefront Brewery is a family owned business, founded in 1987 by brothers Jim & Russ Klisch. Their grandfather had worked for Schlitz Brewery, often bringing home beer to his son (the Klisch's dad). "It was a cool job if you got to bring beer home at night" Russ thought.

Both Russ and Jim were home brewers, often competing with one another. Under law, home brewers are limited 200 gallons annually (per household). With their volume increasing, they decided to go into business forming Lakefront Brewery. When they started their business, the Klisch Brothers bought a closed bakery that was within walking distance of their home. Within 15 years they had outgrown their humble beginnings in their 60' x 60' bakery.

Since that time, they have become known as innovators in the brewing industry, helping to change the government's definition of beer in 2006. Prior to that time, beer was to have at least 25% malted barley. With increased awareness to gluten allergies, they worked to get the definition of beer changed. Today their gluten-free beer New Grist is available to those who suffer from Celiac disease or are gluten intolerant.

When you arrive at Lakefront Brewery you will be greeted at the curb by the Three Stooges. The former horizontal dairy tanks originally used to brew at Lakefront became inefficient and were replaced. The old fermenting tanks were subsequently used as the canvas to replace what had become a Lakefront Brewery icon at the old Riverwest location . . . the Three Stooges.

The "Three Stooges" is a good way to start a tour that is intended to assure that visitors have a good time while visiting the brewery. Once inside, folks are given their sampling cup, plus four wooden tokens and a "same day use" voucher for a pint at one of many local pubs/taverns in the city. Inside at the Palm Garden, you are encouraged to use the first of your four tokens for a sample (6 oz) beverage of your choice. With five on tap, the choice was difficult but I eventually selected the Wheat Monkey Ale.

Taking a seat in the large hall, I enjoyed my beer as I waited for the start of our 3:00pm tour . . . the last of the day Sunday through Thursday. About at 2:55pm, our guide John yelled last call, encouraging folks to drink up and get another pour before heading out on the tour.

Our group was pretty small, probably 15 or 20 people total. We went into an area overlooking the brewhouse. Here John told a bit of the history of German brewing and how the craft came to Milwaukee in the 1800's. We also learned about the history of Lakefront Brewery and how it grew out of a home brewing operation, before micro and craft breweries were legal in Wisconsin. He was very quick to point out how "different" this tour would be from others including the local Miller-Coors. He was right when he said that this would be more fun than would be found there.

After about a ten minute explanation, complete with a very low tech "Power Point" presentation (John's finger doing the power pointing on large laminated photos), it was time for yet another drink. We adjourned the viewing area and headed back into the Palm Garden for another pour. Back in the viewing area, John continued to explain the brewing process used at Lakefront Brewery.

We then got to go down into the brewhouse to see some of the equipment up close. From there we went back into the bottling area. While it was interesting to see and hear the bottles working through the system, getting a photo in this area was less than optimal given the dim lighting. In one of the photos I snapped, an employee seemingly jumped right into my shot. Good to see even the employees are encouraged to have fun.

Today the Lakefront Brewery is still considered a very small brewery, producing just under 25,000 barrels a year. John jokingly quipped "Budweiser wastes that much on the floor every day!"

At the completion of the tour, we were invited back to the Palm Garden for more sampling . . . if you still had a token or two left. Once you are out of tokens, you turn in your plastic cup for a souvenir pint glass to take home.

The tour itself takes about 45 minutes; the sampling? I guess as long as you want it to and still have tokens. I have been told by many locals that this is "the place" to go enjoy a beer (or three) as for the price of a tour admission ($7) you can have 24 oz. of beer plus one more pint on the way home.

In addition to the brewery tours, Lakefront Brewery hosts a number of special events as well as their Capt. Rusty's Friday Fish Fry. I'm thinking that a visit for fish and polka some Friday may be in order this winter!

For more information on Lakefront Brewery, including their special events calendar, check them out at www.lakefrontbrewery.com.
Lakefront Brewery
1872 North Commerce Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53212
(414) 372-8800

Great Beer Heritage in a City Known for Beer

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on October 19, 2012

The very first tourist attraction I visited when I came to Milwaukee nearly 20 years ago was the Miller Brewing Company's tour of their historic facility. I remember thinking how impressive and rich Milwaukee's history was. Today, as a proud resident, I remain impressed in all that surrounds us here in this city.

With some free time after an appointment, I thought I would stop by the MillerCoors facility which has changed quite a bit over the past several years. First, their name . . . Miller Brewing Company and Coors merged in 2008 to form this international conglomerate. Well technically, Miller Brewing Company had been purchased by South African Breweries in 2002 and THEY merged with Coors. Personally, they will always be "Miller Brewing Company" to me so that is how I prefer to reference them. Also, Coors had previously merged with Molson to form Molson Coors Brewing Company in 2005. Likewise, they will always be simply "Coors" to me.

But enough of their recent history. The tour here at the original Miller brewery focuses largely on the arrival of German brewer Frederick Miller and the advancement of beer making in Milwaukee. In 1855 he purchased the existing Plank Road Brewery located here in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley . . . later renamed Miller Valley. Some of the original buildings, including the restored historic "caves" remain on the property.

The tour starts at the visitors center with a 15 minute video telling the history of Miller side of the MillerCoors brand, with an overview of the various brands that make up their total portfolio. From there, guide Alyssa took us out the side building and down the sidewalk to the south packaging building. We learned about how Miller's beer line is bottled and packaged in bottles, cans & kegs.

There was also a short 10 minute video shown on overhead screens explain more of the bottling process. After that we headed down another block to the shipping building. The size of five side-by-side football fields, here the inventory is turned over at least once every 48 hours, shipping primarily throughout the Midwest.

Typically the next stop on the tour would have been the brewhouse, but unfortunate for us they were hosting a large private group who had access to that building for the better part of the day making it inaccessible to other tour groups. Our guide told us a bit of the brewing process as we walked further down the street to the historic caves.

The caves were where Frederick Miller stored his product, approximately 60 feet below the surface in order to keep it appropriately chilled before refrigeration was invented for the beer manufacturing industry. Next door is the Miller Inn, an old style Bavarian beer hall where tour guests are provided three 6 oz samples. For our tour, we sampled Miller Lite, Miller High Life and Leinenkugel's Lemon Berry Shandy. All three were nice although the Leinenkugel's was a bit too sweet for my tastes. While visiting the Miller Inn, be sure to take a stroll through the various historic artifacts including several very old steins from the Old Country.

For anyone visiting Milwaukee, I think this is a "must see" given the historic importance of beer to our city and the fact that the other old-world beer companies no longer produce here. There are other historic locations around Milwaukee where visitors can learn about companies with well known names such as Pabst and Schlitz. For anyone interesting reading more about why Milwaukee became known as the "Beer Capital of the World" here is a link to a short article: http://www.beerhistory.com/library/holdings/milwaukee.shtml . This article has some pretty cool old photos from breweries that were here in Milwaukee: http://sudswineandspirits.com/milwaukeehistorytour.htm .

Be sure to spend some time in the "Girl in the Moon Brewery Shop" if you need something for your home bar or perhaps a branded shirt, jacket or hat. There is no shortage of Miller and MillerCoors logoed items. As a title sponsor of our Major League baseball stadium Miller Park home of the Milwaukee Brewers, as well as major named sponsor of Lambeau Field and the Green Bay Packers and the BMO Harris Bradley Center (home of the Milwaukee Bucks), you will also find team specific Miller apparel available in the gift shop.

For more specific information on this free tour, check out their website: http://www.millercoors.com/Brewery-Tours/Milwaukee-Brewery-Tour/Tour-Information.aspx noting that their schedule and tour site availability are subject to change due to private events such as what was happening on the morning of my tour visit.
MillerCoors/Miller Brewery Tour
4251 West State Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
(414) 931-2337

Old World Victorian Style in Milwaukee

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 3, 2012

Anyone visiting Milwaukee is probably aware of the rich German history which includes a tradition of old world breweries and beer. No name is quite as synonymous with this history as that of Frederick Pabst. Ironically, Captain Pabst did not come to Milwaukee to pursue a dream of beer making; rather, he came here from Chicago to follow love after meeting Maria Best, daughter of Jacob Best - the founder of Best and Company (brewery) of Milwaukee.

Having arrived to America from Germany with his family in 1848, Captain Pabst became one of the most known and best ship captains to navigate Lake Michigan out of his then home city of Chicago. This was how he met the lovely Miss Best in 1860; they married in 1862 and two years later, he left his life's work as a ship's captain to buy half interest in his father-in-law's brewery. In 1889 the brewery was renamed Pabst Brewing Company and remained operational in Milwaukee until they ended production in 1996. Today the production of their most well known brand "Pabst Blue Ribbon" beer has been contracted out along with the company's other brands which include Stroh's, Schlitz, Colt 45 and Old Milwaukee.

Frederick Pabst began construction on his dream Victorian home in 1890. It was completed in 1892 and while the family lived in the home, it became largely known as the place where the Pabst's entertained and celebrated. The remarkable detail that went into every inch of this hand crafted mansion is really beyond description as words simply do not do it justice. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted inside the mansion, so my attempt with words will have to do.

One of the first things I realized during our 90 minute tour was the ornate craftsmanship that went into everything from the gorgeous wood doors and cabinets to the detail in the hand painted ceilings and wall coverings. No two rooms were the same and yet each blended gracefully into the next. The other thing that caught my attention was the effort Capt. Pabst made to bring his German heritage home to Milwaukee. From the beautiful paintings to the German proverbs painted into the inlay of his study, reminders of Pabst's Germany could be found throughout the mansion.

With the passing of Capt. Pabst in 1904 and his wife in 1906, their children sold much of the furnishings as well as the home in 1908. Serving as the home of Milwaukee's Archbishop until 1975, many modernizations were done to include updates to the plumbing and electrical systems. The mansion was nearly demolished in order to make room for a parking lot adjacent to land acquired for a hotel. After three years, however, a public conservation group was successful in saving the Pabst Mansion and acquiring it to begin the restorative process . . . one that continues today more than 30 years later.

During the guided tour, a knowledgeable docent takes visitors throughout the first two floors of the mansion. Each of the rooms on the first floor were toured, with stories told about how the rooms were used and the historical significance of furnishing, artwork and other features. Today many of these rooms appear exactly as they did when Frederick & Maria lived here, thanks in large measure to the number of photos from that period which were used to help with the restoration. Additionally while many of the furnishings had been sold at auction in the early 1900's, a lot of those items have been donated back to the Pabst Mansion or found and repurchased at antique shops or estate sales around the area. One notable piece was found sitting in a Milwaukee Public Library. When it was recognized as having been original to the Pabst Mansion, curators inquired and the piece was donated back.

Bedrooms and many bathrooms are located on the second and third floors of the mansion. Our tour included those rooms on the second floor only, including two that are currently undergoing restoration. To see the "before" and "after" photos of the painstakingly tedious work that goes into recreating the precise look of a hand painted ceiling gives visitors a real appreciation for the time and money necessary to bring the Pabst history alive again.

As we worked our way back downstairs, we passed the elevator that Capt. Pabst had installed. In failing health, he knew it would not be long before he could no longer climb the stairs to his sleeping chamber. Unfortunately the elevator was not fully completed before his death in 1904. Once completed, the elevator was later used by servants to move laundry and other things.

Speaking of the servants, there were around 10 to 15 people who served Capt. Pabst and his family; some of whom lived here in the mansion. During our tour, we got to see a little of the portion of the house where servants lived as well as their dining area. In what would be considered the kitchen area, I loved seeing the beautifully Blue Delft tiled walls. Captain Pabst used the tiles in this room as a reminder of his original Dutch ancestry. (It was the 16th century when the first Pabst moved to Germany.)

At a cost of $250,000 in 1892, or roughly $32 million at today's dollar, no detail or convenience was spared. One such example is the carriage arrival hall. Built on the west wing of the house, a separate entrance was constructed so that the fine ladies and gentlemen arriving by horse drawn carriage would not have to step out into snow or rain. The covered entrance allowed guests to step from their carriage (and later automobiles) to the steps leading up and into the mansion's foyer.

Another interesting feature of the mansion property is the 1895 addition of the exposition pavilion built for the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago. Capt. Pabst had it designed especially for the event and afterwards had it dismantled piece by piece to be reassembled adjacent to his mansion in Milwaukee. Today this building is open to the public and serves as where visitors first arrive for tours as well as a rather extensive gift shop. Of particular note inside this building are the stain glass windows.

I took pages of copious notes during our tour and the truth is now I still find the words incomplete in trying to tell the full story of all that we saw inside the Pabst Mansion. I highly recommend this tour to any visitor to Milwaukee interested in our German culture and the influence that this famous beer family had on this city.

For details on their tour offerings and schedule, check out their website: http://www.pabstmansion.com . Additionally, on the website they do a nice job of presenting more about the Pabst family, the mansion and the current restoration efforts (including photos). Please check it out!
Pabst Mansion
2000 West Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53233
(414) 931-0808

Decent Diner Food Near Marquette University

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 3, 2012

I have mostly dined here for breakfast, always enjoying my meals with a business colleague who does a lot of work at Marquette University. Typically I have an omelet or some egg dish served with the usual accompaniments (toast, hash browns) which have always been good. For my most recent visit, however, it was for lunch after touring the Pabst Mansion which is located just a few blocks away on Wisconsin Avenue.

My friend Alice and I arrived after their lunch rush around 2:00pm, so we were able to have a leisurely dining experience. I ordered the hamburger (5 oz. of freshly formed ground beef) while she had "The Whitehouse" . . . an open faced sandwich that consisted of hot turkey and ham, with melted swiss cheese and a mushroom gravy. (Too many taste sensations for my buds, but she said she enjoyed it!) Both sandwiches came with choice of fries, hash browns, cole slaw of the veggie of the day. We both opted for fries, which neither of us could finish. We should have gotten an order to split, plus the cole slaw or something, as there were simply too many to eat.

Miss Katie's promotes itself as the "Original Milwaukee Diner" but I'm not really sure why since according to their own marketing info, they've only been around for about 25 years. The building reminds me of the diner my family used to go to in Fairfax, Virgina . . . the "Tastes 29 Diner" a true 1940's diner. Unfortunately, Miss Katie's is not a truly nostalgic diner but more of a replica in the post "Happy Days" era of Milwaukee businesses capitalizing on the popular television show from the 1970's.

That said, it is a popular location given its proximity to Marquette University and the downtown area of the city. World leaders and politicians have dined here including President Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in May of 1996; Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign swing through Milwaukee in 2008; and Michelle Obama in 2010. Photos of these dignitaries hang throughout the diner, identifying the very tables where they sat.

Miss Katie's Diner has a decent full service menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner; including soft drinks, milk shakes and adult beverages. Additionally, they offer an all day breakfast menu as well as daily blue plate specials. In terms of pricing, I find them a bit higher than what I typically pay at other diners out in the suburbs, but given their convenient location in the city, I wouldn't quibble over a dollar or two per meal. Our lunch, including soft drinks was just over $21 (excluding tip).

If you are interested in checking out their menus, they can be found online at: http://www.miss-katies.com/index.html . I should point out, however, that their prices are not current based on what we paid for our sandwiches earlier this week (10/31/12).
Miss Katie's Diner
1900 West Clybourn Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53233
(414) 344-0044

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