Pabst Brewery's history is defined by major highs and profound lows. With the opening of a craft brewery and pub on the historic campus, it's all about revitalization.
As a teenager I babysat for a child whose father worked for Pabst Brewing Company. Their refrigerator was always packed with that brewery’s signature beer, and Blue Ribbon memorabilia decorated their home. Pabst, with origins dating to 1844, was a source of pride in that family, as it was in many Milwaukee households.
But after decades of prosperity, sales began to slide, and by 1996, production at Pabst’s MKE headquarters came to a halt and the buildings were abandoned. Now, life has returned to the beautiful old bones just west of our sports-arena-to-be. The latest development is the christening in spring of the first Pabst craft brewery, in a 144-year-old former German Methodist church on the brewery campus. Deftly restored and renovated by Engberg Anderson Architects, the second-floor brewpub is a tour-de-force with communal table seating, a copper-topped bar and a dramatic ceiling light fixture spelling out “Pabst.”
The pub boasts 12 tap lines that include oldies like Andeker (first made in the 1950s) and the ’30s-era Old Tankard Ale. The food menu was built to enhance and be enhanced by the beer. (They even found ways to incorporate “spent” grain – a brewing by-product – into menu items such as the delicately delicious salted crackers on the charcuterie plate, and a thick falafel burger patty.)
The current crop of craft brewpubs have brought with them a more modern food menu featuring locally sourced ingredients. With a menu courtesy of head chef Rebecca Berkshire, formerly of small-plate haven Balzac Wine Bar, Pabst has followed that trend, but with its own German flair. Berkshire’s fare features more successes than failures.
Things start with wee bits, including round, marigold-colored pickled eggs with the subtly floral flavor of dill pickles ($2) and crisp, bronze house potato chips served with a thick, creamy sweet-onion dip ($5). Starters include tasty green tacos, stuffed with crispy Brussels sprouts, crunchy celery root slaw and a salsa made of India Pale Ale ($7), and oyster fritters, which had a nice crispy exterior, but a few were doughy on the inside ($7). Their flavor melded fresh thyme with earthy mushrooms.
By this point you’ll have noticed rectangular aluminum sheet pans passing by you that hold enticing looking sandwiches and piles of coarse-cut French fries. The standout is the sloppy pig – pulled pork in sweet dunkelweiss BBQ sauce, topped with blistered shishito peppers and celery root slaw on a toasted bun ($11). The fries are just salty enough, and pillowy-crisp. I was intrigued by the falafel burger, mostly to learn how the spent grain is used in the patty ($11). It’s not detectable in this dense burger elevated by (and it needs it) sour cucumbers and curry ketchup.
Pabst makes some fine contributions to brewpub fare, for instance the polished brat-in-a-blanket ($13), a mild, juicy sausage from Manitowoc’s Ney’s Big Sky farm, wrapped in light flaky croissant dough and baked. Add mild sauerkraut, sweet onion marmalade and pickled mustard seeds – a lot of complementing flavors there. And instead of a pasta-based “mac” and cheese, tender, caramelized cauliflower florets and sweet peppers are coated in a terrific beer-cheese bechamel, ($12). The spent grain again pops up in the crumb topping on the homey, satisfying stone-fruit cobbler ($6) with IPA caramel sauce and Purple Door Ice Cream.
Would that founder Frederick Pabst, whose portrait hangs inside the pub, were here to see his company now. The path has made some sharp turns, of course, but it’s the journey, right? ◆
PABST MILWAUKEE BREWERY
1037 W. Juneau Ave., 414-908-0025.
Hours: Dinner Mon-Sun, Brunch Sat-Sun.
Prices: Sandwiches, entrées $11-$22.
Service: Casual but efficient and friendly.
Listen to “This Bites” on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee (FM 88.9) Fridays at 8 a.m. with Ann Christenson and 88Nine’s Tarik Moody.