Its migration from central Wisconsin complete, the heron has landed in Cream City.
The Milwaukee taproom of Central Waters Brewing will open Saturday with a dazzling display of the big, barrel-aged beers that have made it one of the most respected breweries in the Midwest.
Central Waters spent four months refreshing the 1872 former Methodist church on the edge of the Pabst complex that had most recently been the Pabst Milwaukee brewery and taproom.
The space, which in the Pabst days was a stark white with copper accents, is noticeably warmer today, with colorful logo banners on the walls and more wood accents throughout. A highly Instagrammable visual centerpiece is a mural depicting Central Waters’ iconic heron in a forested wetland on one side and in flight over the Milwaukee skyline on the other. It repurposes a backlit bottle wall created for the Pabst space but eventually covered up.
The remodel also opened up the building’s mezzanine to visitors, offering two nooks with couches as well as rail seating overlooking the main floor. The tight, winding stairway reminds you of the building’s history, and Central Waters co-owner Anello Mollica noted they were careful to respect and enhance the building’s architectural details.
The brewery’s history is on display as well, with artwork depicting an old barleywine recipe card and a photo of a young Mollica and co-founder Paul Graham, circa 1999, in their first brewery in Junction City.
Out back, a shaded beer garden with a 12-tap bar of its own sits between towering brick silos from the Pabst brewery and an ancient iron gate that opens to 11th Street.
Running the taproom’s kitchen is Dairyland, a bomb burger outfit best known for its food truck that soon will be opening another permanent location in 3rd Street Market food hall.
Mollica described the opening as a momentous team effort led by Milwaukee general manager Eric Gutbrod, formerly GM of Draft & Vessel. “I’m relieved that we’re here,” Mollica said Thursday at a soft opening for industry, media and friends. “I’m nervous about Saturday.”
Mollica said he expects the facility to reach its capacity of 250 people on Saturday, though there’ll be plenty of room in the beer garden and the blocked-off dead end of 11th Street.
The taproom’s draft system has been expanded to 24 lines, and they’re loaded with bangers for Saturday. Mollica noted that because events were on hold for much of 2020, they had a robust library of barrel-aged and special kegs to pick from for the Milwaukee opening. Highlights include three different years (2019-21) of the coveted Black Gold imperial stout aged three years in bourbon barrels, the decadent 17% ABV Toppling Waters bourbon barrel stout (a collaboration with Iowa’s Toppling Goliath), and Iced Bourbon Barrel Barleywine, which Mollica described as the best beer Central Waters has ever made. (No faint praise there.)
Despite all that, the must-try beer is the first authored by Milwaukee head brewer Brendan Williamson on his 10-barrel brewery in the church’s basement. This hazy IPA called Little Dots (a nod to the Zappa hops it features) is a bright, light-bodied refresher bursting with tropical and pine notes. It’ll be joined by Saturday by Honey Dripper, a double IPA brewed with honey. (The first beer Williamson actually brewed on the system, an American lager that’s an homage to Pabst, is lagering and will be released later this fall.)
On Thursday, Graham, Mollica and Gutbrod all separately described the Milwaukee location as a “playground” for Williamson to explore beer styles that they can’t make at the more production-oriented Amherst brewery and for Gutbrod to explore events and programming. Plans include beer dinners, beer release parties and more traditional beer events; Gutbrod laid out an idea for a “blessing of the bock” party featuring goats and a giant wooden barrel on a cart pouring beer to partiers.
“They want us to have fun,” Gutbrod said. “They want us to use our creativity to make the most of being in the Brewery District.”