One of the Midwest’s best craft breweries is opening a new location at ground zero of Milwaukee’s brewing history.
Central Waters Brewing, based in the small Central Wisconsin town of Amherst, is looking to open by late summer or early fall in the 149-year-old former First German Methodist Church at 1037 W. Juneau Ave. in the former Pabst complex just north of Downtown. The space had been the Milwaukee reboot of the historic Pabst brand in Milwaukee from 2017 until it closed last December.
Central Waters brings impeccable brewing chops to the project, particularly with a hugely successful line of high-end barrel-aged beers. It made about 9,600 barrels of beer last year, making it the eighth-biggest independent craft brewery in Wisconsin by production.
It was one of multiple breweries Pabst sought out to sublease the building, said Anello Mollica, co-founder and brewmaster of Central Waters and a Milwaukee native. He and partner Paul Graham first toured the space in early spring.
“Paul and I have always entertained the idea of opening up a second location somewhere. Over the years, we’ve looked at lots of different spots, not just in Milwaukee, but we’ve considered other places as well. But nothing really like this space,” Mollica said. “When we were driving back [from that first look], it was just like, man, this is it. Something like this isn’t going to come our way again.”
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After weeks of seemingly having the deal done from Central Waters’ end, Mollica said Pabst signed the deal to make it official on Friday.
Mollica plans to make few modifications to the 10-barrel system Pabst leaves behind, adding a canning line to produce beers that will be sold exclusively at the taproom. The Milwaukee location will brew entirely its own beers; Central Waters standards like Mudpuppy Porter, HHG Pale Ale, Rift IPA and Ouisconsing Red Ale will be available at the taproom but made in Amherst. And Milwaukee-made beers will head back to the home base as well.
One thing Central Waters won’t be doing in Milwaukee is barrel-aging beer. The brewery space doesn’t have surplus room for all those barrels – something the Amherst brewery dedicates thousands of square feet to. But those beers will be tapped in MKE.
Mollica said the taproom will become a southern hub for the special annual beer releases and anniversary parties that draw hundreds of beer fans to Central Wisconsin from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, though details of how that will work are still being worked out. He’s excited for the taproom to have celebrations of its own as well, noting Milwaukee’s rich tradition of block parties and a dead-end stretch of 11th Street just around the corner.
Central Waters’ will be the third Milwaukee taproom operated by a brewery outside the area. Hacienda Beer, an offshoot of Baileys Harbor-based Door County Brewing, launched a taproom on the East Side in spring 2019, a few months before Minneapolis’ Indeed Brewing opened its brewery and taproom in Walker’s Point.
The building, which for decades before Pabst took it over in 2017 was the Forst Keller restaurant, does have a kitchen space, and Mollica said his team is considering restaurant partners to operate that side of the business but wasn’t yet ready to offer further details.
“We’re not restaurateurs, let’s be honest,” he said. “We run breweries, and I think it would be a lot more of a draw and just a lot better fit to pair up with an existing restaurant than to try to create our own thing.”
What Mollica and Graham do want to be clearly their own thing is the space, and it’s going to take some work to get the bright, white-walled space more in line with the elevated rustic, natural-wood vibe of the Amherst taproom. “It’s a Pabst facility, and we want to make it a Central Waters facility,” he said. “We want people to come in there and see it right away as a Central Waters space.”
That means the giant lighted Pabst sign hanging from the ceiling will need a new owner – if they can pry it away from Mollica. “They’re going to have a really hard time getting it out of my basement,” he laughed.
Some of the work inside the national landmark will require approval from various regulators, Mollica said. “I’m hoping we can be open by Sept. 1,” he said. “I’m being very optimistic, but I’m hoping we can do it.”
His brewery’s arrival in Milwaukee will be a homecoming for Mollica, who grew up near 50th and Villard on the North Side and attended Washington High School. And his dad was a Pabst drinker.
“For me personally, it’s the cherry on top,” Mollica said. “It’s awesome to be able to go back to my hometown, arguably one of the most famous beer cities in the world. And not just that but it’s a building in the brewery district in one of the most famous beer cities in the world. I’m just humbled and honored that Pabst chose us.”