A Historical Perspective on Milwaukee’s Brewing Renaissance

Is our current brewery boom a historical anomaly? Or have we been here before?

The craft beer room we’re in the midst of is stoutpendous to be sure, but it’s not unprecedented. We count eight MKE craft breweries and brew pubs that opened in 2016, three in early ’17, and several others in the works as of February.

That brings the four-county area to at least 31 breweries and brewpubs – 17 in Milwaukee, 14 in the suburbs. It’s the most such establishments here in many years, says local brewing historian Leonard P. Jurgensen. But it doesn’t beat the years 1860 and 1861, when Milwaukee alone, then a major grain depot with a largely German-heritage population, boasted 30 breweries in a city of 45,000 residents. 

Jurgensen, 76, has been collecting beer memorabilia and studying our brewing history for nearly 40 years. Perhaps oddly, he is not a huge beer drinker himself: “The last time I had a beer,” he said in mid-February, “was this past Christmas Eve, and it was a bottle of Schlitz,” the brewery upon which his collection focuses. But beer is in his heritage: His grandfather and great-uncle owned saloons in the 1800s, he played hide-and-seek as a boy in the ruins of the old Cream City Brewing Co., and one of his uncles “was run over and killed by a beer wagon in 1913 at the age of 6.”

In all, Jurgensen says, 130 businesses have brewed beer in the city since 1839. None of the brewery buildings from 1861 are still standing, but he lists these three as the city’s oldest brewing structures:

➻ Franz Falk Brewery, overlooking Menomonee Valley. The company evolved into Falk Corp., but its stock house, once used to store beer, still lives in an 1870 building near S. 29th and W. Pierce streets.

➻ The one-time bottling plant of Phillip Best Brewing, built in 1881, at 750 West Virginia St., now houses administrative offices for Aurora Health Care.

➻ The E. L. Husting Brewery, in a building on the east side of North Fifth Street, north of Vliet Street. You can still see the Husting name on the oldest part of the building, erected in 1877. ◆

‘Bock to the Future’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Tom Tolan is managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine, where he's worked since January 2016. He spent 24 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a copy editor, assistant metro editor and reporter. He lives in Shorewood.