To fully appreciate the gleaming new Milwaukee Brewing Co. brewery opening this weekend, you have to have taken a tour of its old one.
Since it expanded from the Milwaukee Ale House in 2007, MKE has grown in place, filling a former warehouse on South Second Street with brewing equipment, fermentation tanks and packaging equipment. And I do mean filling. Milwaukee Brewing’s tour holds its own in a town with a lot of great brewery tours in part because you’re often literally squeezing past stores of kegs, cans or sacks of malt with your fellow tour-goers.
“We have to do everything we can on Friday afternoons to make a path for people to come through and make it safe,” says owner Jim McCabe. “You’re setting your beer on pallets, it’s kind of crazy.”
It’s an operation in obvious need of some breathing room, and the new brewery at 1128 N. Ninth St. has that in spades. It shares a cavernous former Pabst warehouse with the restaurant Glass + Griddle, and there is plenty of space between the many functions on the MKE side of the wall.
There’s a shiny new four-vessel brewing system that can send 60 barrels of wort to a fermenting tank in just two hours, down from about 40 barrels in six hours at Second Street. There’s a high-tech control room for the automated functions of the brewery, and another room for all the quality control and lab equipment. There’s a brand new bottling line and kegger, with a canning machine still to be delivered. There are towering, two-story-tall racks for warehousing the packaging materials, ingredients and all the other stuff that makes a brewery run.
But in the middle of everything is a work of art: a 13-foot-tall steel beer bottle emblazoned with Milwaukee landmarks created by Kent Knapp and sons on the 2016 reality series “Milwaukee Blacksmith.”
It’s a sign that yes, this brewery is made for making beer, but it’s just as much about welcoming the public and providing a level of hospitality and storytelling that MKE just couldn’t do on Second Street.
“This is designed with the public experience in mind seven days a week,” McCabe says. “The brewhouse is obviously a working space but the public can hang out right in view of it. And the tour experience can go on anytime we’re in production.”
A catwalk connects to the brewhouse, where the tour becomes literally hands-on – touching the brewing vessels and fermentation tanks is encouraged. Those tanks – 180-barrel beasts – look from the building’s hillside vantage point over a unique perspective on the city’s skyline.
The nexus of the tours is a platform in the center of the brewery with a second bar (in case you already finished the beer poured for you as you entered the brewery) and four TVs to tell different parts of the story of MKE, the new brewery and the city’s rich brewing history.
Pabst’s role in Brew City’s history is a natural topic considering the lineage of the building – the last of the legendary brewing company’s campus to be redeveloped. While Pabst still has a token presence in the area in the form of the brewpub up the street on Juneau, McCabe notes all the surrounding buildings were abandoned by Pabst in 1997 after nearly a century and a half in Milwaukee – and the tour doesn’t whitewash that sometimes painful history.
MKE has plans to build displays for the many Pabst relics that came with the building and have been brought forward from former employees and their families since the MKE project began. The splashiest is an enormous sign that for years marked the Pabst Showcase stage at Summerfest. McCabe restored and hung it from the ceiling in prominent view, and when the tour guide reaches the point at which Pabst leaves a jilted Milwaukee, its neon lights will flicker, leaving only the letters “BS” illuminated.
A taproom-restaurant – kind of
Perhaps the foremost question from people who haven’t been to the brewery and Glass + Griddle is about the arrangement between the two.
Physically, patrons enter the building into the restaurant, next to an area with traditional dining tables, across from which is the brewery tour check-in desk and gift shop. Beyond, the ceiling opens up, soaring two stories to an enormous skylight above upscale picnic bench-type seating with the restaurant’s bar – peppered with MKE beers but also wine, spirits and beers made elsewhere. Lots of plants on the walls and among the seating add to the atrium vibe. Further to the east end of the building is an event space with a skyline-and-fermenting-tanks view.
Walls separate the event space, the brewery and its bar and the Glass + Griddle space, but they’re nearly all glass, so it does feel like a single space through which you can circulate as you please – which is exactly what McCabe and Glass + Griddle developer and owner Scott Lurie intended.
The upscale restaurant and more casual brewery under one glassy roof will let people pick and choose their experience, or mix them during one visit, McCabe notes. But the MKE identity is front and center, the brewhouse looming over everything. Diners will probably be able to smell the delicious cereal-like wort when it’s being brewed, according to McCabe. “That’s the goal,” Lurie says. “You feel like you’re at Milwaukee Brewing.”
The restaurant and brewery work together but are separately managed and operated, McCabe says, a necessity borne of state law that bars brewers from owning restaurant licenses and vice versa.
But what about the beer?
The brewery’s initial setup will allow McCabe’s team to make about 20,000 barrels of beer a year, up from the 14,000-15,000 annual barrels MKE is at right now.
McCabe expects to brew the first batch in early October, and he’s excited about its capabilities in working with new ingredients, and familiar ingredients in new ways. MKE’s portfolio is liberally spiked with unusual ingredients, Rishi tea foremost.
“This thing is completely designed to handle all different types of ingredient additions and different temperatures and styles and a whole myriad of things that we couldn’t do before,” he says. “We’ve got so many developmental ideas that we can’t execute out at Second Street.”
He also talks eagerly about fermented malt beverages – hard sodas, seltzers and the like. “That category is pretty interesting,” McCabe says. “Since we have the expertise and equipment for it, you’ll probably see us playing in that space.”
It’s a sign of where MKE might go with its additional capacity, although 5,000 or so new barrels probably isn’t as much as you might have seen a few years ago. After years of breakneck growth for all sizes of craft brewers, it’s been tougher sledding in the past year-plus, particularly for bigger brewers – craft or macro.
The new volume will allow MKE to push harder in existing Wisconsin markets and expand its distribution in neighboring states beyond its current modest toehold in the Twin Cities metro area – cautiously, and as market conditions allow, McCabe says.
“There’s a danger zone in becoming too big, but we’re falling into a sweet spot between 15,000 and 100,000 barrels,” he says. “There’s tremendous growth in the long tail – the little teeny guys – but most of the growth is in the regionals between 15,000 and 100,000.”
There’s a lot of space for brewery operations to expand on Ninth Street, up to about 70,000 barrels. McCabe quickly reframes questions about the headwinds in the brewing industry as setting up future opportunity after competition thins out. “There won’t be 7,000 brands out there on the shelves,” he says. “You’re going to see a lot of breweries really challenged in this environment if they don’t have something really distinctive. We’re building this for that five-year mark from now. We’re establishing ourselves and our new quality capabilities and tightening up our portfolio to be ready. As things evolve in the industry, the opportunities are only going to get better.”
MKE will continue to brew at the wholly owned Ale House, which has a 15-barrel system, and at Second Street. The fate of the latter is still being determined – McCabe has listed it for sale for $3.15 million, a price he told Urban Milwaukee’s Michael Horne in May was the “right price” to let go of an asset he plans to keep using – but the leading option now is to retool it to produce barrel-aged and sour beers, possibly under a new label, McCabe says.