Following a decline in the pre-eminence of its suds reputation, Milwaukee has undergone a craft beer revival over the past three years and there are now more than 30 breweries in the city and surrounding areas.
ONE of the great pleasures of YouTube is comparing performances from different eras from singers to racehorses. I was reminded of this recently following a trip to Milwaukee when I called up two versions of the old standard – What Made Milwaukee Famous, by Rod Stewart and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Killer, as Lewis was dubbed in his heyday, nailed it. The pathos, the phrasing and the C&W feel. The “culprit” of the song is beer, of course, and a lot has changed in Brew City since Schlitz, the brand that coined the tagline – the Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous – ruled the roost.
Milwaukee is only a 90-minute drive from Chicago and it’s compact enough for a three-day trip. Pabst, another founding beer brand, may have moved its brewing operations out of town, but there are plenty of reminders of its enormous influence, from the ostentation of the Pabst Mansion, where founder Frederick and his family lived, to the historic Pabst Brewery. Real pilgrims will stay at The Brewhouse Inn and Suites, an upmarket boutique hotel housed in an old Pabst plant.
Like Chicago, Milwaukee is a hotspot for architecture buffs. The Milwaukee Art Museum, an interactive work itself, was designed by Spanish star architect, Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Athens Olympics complex and the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro. Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Wisconsin and was a great believer in the right of people of all income levels to live in attractive houses. In the early 1900s, he debuted a concept called American System-Built Houses. Early pre-fabricated homes that could be made in advance and assembled on site, six of these small but perfectly-formed dwellings can be found on West Burnham St in Milwaukee. During summer, one of them is open to visitors on Friday and Saturday nights.
Egg yolks have been added to ice cream since the 17th century, but the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago introduced frozen custard to a much wider audience. Milwaukee took the idea and ran with it to become “the unofficial frozen custard capital of the world” and still has the highest number of frozen custard shops on the planet. The three names to know are Kopp’s Frozen Custard, Gilles Frozen Custard and Leon’s Frozen Custard. The queue was long at Leon’s, which dates back to 1942, when we arrived to sample the local sweet treat. Dense, super-rich and barely able to sustain its own weight, the big cone was worth the wait.
There’s nothing olde worlde about the Milwaukee Public Market, but it’s one of the best public markets in the US for dedicated foodies. Launched in 2005, the steel, glass and bricks of the spiffy-looking hall honour the industrial history of Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Easily reached by The Hop, a new streetcar line that was inaugurated last November, the clientele is far removed from the blue collar workers who once lived nearby. You can buy a T-shirt from Brew City Apparel with the slogan Call Me Old-Fashioned – a reference to the official state cocktail of Wisconsin – artisan cheeses, sausages, German-inspired bread and cakes and kitchen accessories. There’s a great spread of restaurants for all-day dining. We chose St Paul Fish Company with its fang-fresh seafood and creamy-as oysters.
The Third Ward, packed with boutiques, bars, art galleries and more, is also the best place to stay, preferably at The Journeyman Hotel, a Kimpton property opened two years ago. The nine storey former warehouse stands on the corner of Chicago and Broadway, and the feeling is “warm industrial”, thanks to the extensive use of granite, wood and leather. There’s a hosted wine/beer get-together every night in the Living Room and the chests in the guest rooms sport numbers from Milwaukee’s vintage locomotives. The Outsider, a smart rooftop bar, is the It place for after-work drinks and the signature restaurant, Tre Rivali, specialises in top-notch Mediterranean dishes from wood-grilled artichokes to handmade pasta.
Milwaukee’s beer heritage stretches back 175 years and the city’s baseball team is called the Brewers. In the old TV show, Laverne and Shirley, the title characters worked at the fictional Schotz Brewery, an acronym of the city’s original beer companies – Pabst, Schlitz, Miller and Blatz. Following a decline in the pre-eminence of its suds reputation, Milwaukee has undergone a craft beer revival over the past three years and there are now more than 30 breweries in the city and surrounding areas.
You can’t get away from Milwaukee’s German roots and you shouldn’t try. Why go to Munich when you can come to Glendale, queried our lederhosen-clad waiter at the Bavarian Bierhaus. Apart from brews like Anvil Polka Pils and Ornery Brewer IPA, the massive beer hall, tap room and beer garden could have been air-freighted direct from the old country. Tim and Toni Eichinger, of Black Husky Brewing, started the company in a log cabin in 2010 and there’s still plenty of wood at the gleaming bar, and a chainsaw carving of a husky on hand to make top brews like Sproose IPA, with real spruce tips, taste even more piney.
Housed in the historic Milwaukee Gas Light Company, City Lights Brewing satisfies cultural and beer tourists. The taproom is a standout with wooden tables and exposed beams and the coconut porter – darkly decadent and sipped from a Belgian goblet – takes some beating. The one-off brews from the Brewers Reserve Series at The Fermentorium showcase Kris Volkman’s borderline genius take on beer from Whispering Scythe, a malty rye ale, to Manoomin, a blonde beer based on cherrywood-smoked malts and wild rice. Saisons, stouts and pilseners are the draw cards at Stock House Brewery, where the atmosphere is contemporary cosy rather than gleaming upscale steel.
No matter how trendy downtown and former working class areas like the Third Ward and Bay View have become, the past keeps drawing you back. Pabst picked up sticks in 1996, but the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery and Taproom keeps the name alive and glowing. Opened in 2017, the brewpub is located in a gorgeously restored Gothic Revival church where the former management offered their workers more spiritual sustenance. Tastings include current Pabst beers and old-style brews such as Andeker Helles and Old Tankard Ale.
The best time to visit Milwaukee is in summer, of course, for the music, art and food festivals and panoramic views of Lake Michigan. You can’t leave without chowing on a bratwurst and two of the best options are the Milwaukee Brat House or The Vanguard, which puts a contemporary twist on traditional German wurst. But Braise Local Food, helmed by chef Dave Swanson, showcases the paddock-to-plate produce of Wisconsin in globally-influenced dishes such as steamed pork buns with chives and chickpea pancake with summer squash. Be sure to enjoy a craft cocktail before being shown to your table.