Milwaukee's brewing history is rich. Dozens of beers have contributed to that heritage, but here are a few that stand out.
Limiting a list like this to 9 (10 if you count Sprecher’s pair of 1986 winners) isn’t easy, but I consulted briefly with a few experts to ensure there were no glaring omissions: Paul Hepp is the co-founder of Stock House Brewing and a beer historian. Writer John Gurda has authored several books about Milwaukee’s history. Tom “Grynder” Ciula is a certified beer judge and knows more about beer than pretty much anyone I know.
Reuthlisberger opened the second brewery in the city in Walker’s Point and was the first German immigrant brewer in Milwaukee. His business didn’t last long, but his influence did.
“His lager beer ushered in the wave of German brewers that were soon to follow and helped give Milwaukee its beer identity,” said Hepp.
Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company
This list wouldn’t be complete without “The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous.” The brewery was founded by August Krug, and didn’t actually have the Schlitz name until 1858, when Joseph Schlitz assumed ownership.
“They were actually one of the top three breweries in the U.S. at one time, ahead of Budweiser,” explained Ciula.
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Pabst Brewing Company
Pabst officially change the name of Best Select to Blue Ribbon in 1899, and an iconic beer brand was born. Its fairly recent popularity as a cheap choice for hipsters earned it a cult following.
“It would be easy to argue for Pabst Blue Ribbon as being the most essential beer in Milwaukee beer history,” said Hepp. “PBR not only helped Pabst cement its place in Milwaukee lore, but also assisted in Pabst becoming a household name across the nation.”
Miller High Life
Miller Brewing Company
The brewing industry has changed drastically since 1903, but High Life’s easily recognizable bottle hasn’t undergone much of a makeover in 116 years nor has its popularity. The crisp brew continually ranks as one of the best-selling beers in the United States. That kind of consistency for more than a century isn’t easy.
“(High Life) took Miller from the local market to the regional ranks,” said Gurda.
Added Ciula: “It made Miller Brewing one of the top breweries in the U.S. It gave some class to drinking a glass of beer, the ‘champagne’ of bottled beer.”
Miller Brewing Company
Low-calorie beers weren’t unheard of prior to 1975 — Meister Brau Lite was a failed experiment a few years earlier — but Miller perfected it. The success was due in large part to the genius “tastes great, less filling” ad campaign that featured pro athletes and other celebrities, like hometown favorite Bob Uecker.
“It’s the beer that changed the entire direction and focus of beermaking,” said Ciula.
Added Hepp: “It was the creation of Lite (and then Miller Lite) in 1975 that spawned the whole ‘light beer’ movement and helped move Miller to No. 2 nationwide. Miller’s economic and philanthropic role in Milwaukee has been significant ever since.”
Special Amber and Black Bavarian Lager
Sprecher Brewing Company
These two Sprecher bottles debuted in the mid-1980s and represented the first craft beer in Milwaukee, well ahead of the craft beer curve.
“Black Bavarian Lager and Special Amber started hitting city bars in 1986, thereby paving the way for the first wave of craft breweries in Milwaukee as Lakefront, Water Street and Milwaukee Brewing soon followed,” explained Hepp.
Added Gurda: “[Special Amber] was Milwaukee’s breakthrough craft beer in the modern era.”
New Grist Gluten-Free Pilsner
The first gluten-free beer granted label approval by the U.S. Government, New Grist ushered in a new style of beer and earned shelf space around the country. That’s great publicity.
“New Grist made it possible for the gluten-intolerant to enjoy good beer,” explained Gurda.
Black Friday Imperial India-Style Black Ale
Limited release events with fanfare and long lines of beer aficionados just didn’t happen until Nov. 23, 2012. That’s when Lakefront, taking a cue from wildly popular Goose Island Bourbon County releases, unveiled this pioneering brew. Now, rare beer events happen with frequency. But it’s hard to compare any of them to what goes on at Lakefront on the Friday after Thanksgiving every year.
“There is no beer sale in the city that matches what happens at Lakefront Brewery [on Black Friday],” said Ciula.
Paradocs Imperial Red IPA
Raised Grain Brewing
A year after Raised Grain opened its first taproom in Waukesha, it took home a gold medal at the 2016 Great American Beer Fest. It was the first GABF gold by a craft brewery based in the Milwaukee area in 10 years, and it came at a good time. The win offered some legitimacy — whether it was essential or not is up for debate — to Milwaukee’s burgeoning craft beer scene. It also established Raised Grain as an important local player.