Lakefront Brewery got its start by selling a couple of barrels to the former Gordon Park Pub in Riverwest in 1987. The Milwaukee institution has come a long way since then and celebrates its 30th birthday this year.
Think of the craft beer landscape in 1987. Boston Beer Company and Bell’s Brewery were fledging operations, Deschutes Brewery was a year away and New Belgium Brewing wouldn’t open for four years.
That same year, Milwaukee, despite it’s big brewery history, had two budding craft breweries in Sprecher and a new outfit called Lakefront Brewery. The big local craft beer boom may be happening now, but at one point in the late 80s Milwaukee was way ahead of the curve.
Lakefront is celebrating its 30th birthday by returning to its roots. On Saturday, June 10, the brewery hosts a tap takeover at Nessun Dorma (2778 N. Weil St.) at 9 p.m. The space at one point was the home of the Gordon Park Pub, the spot that was the first to put Lakefront beers on tap.
“People told me you have to go downtown to big fancy bars and get your beer on there, then it will become popular and then you’ll be able to expand,” explained Russ Klisch, who along with his brother Jim founded Lakefront. “I tried going to a bar called Beer Barons by MSOE and the guy wanted four free half barrels, so I said no. Then I went to Brown Bottle, but they didn’t have draft beer yet. We essentially talked to the places we went to drink at. We were familiar with the bar owners. They felt sorry for us or liked that we were a local product.”
In December 1987, Gordon Park Pub purchased barrels of Riverwest Stein and Klisch Pilsner, and another Milwaukee brewery was born.
“Riverwest was not as happening a place as it is today,” added Klisch. “Nobody really came into the neighborhood frequently to drink. We started the brewery and we went to our first four accounts—Gordon Park Pub, Suds, Dino’s and Tracks. It brought people in from outside of the neighborhood. All of a sudden we had a neighborhood identity and that really helped us grow our brand. You need a sense of neighborhood and sell to the bars close to you.”
Lakefront set up shop at a small former bakery at 818 Chambers Street—where incidentally I attended my first brewery tour—until moving to the current location at 1872 Commerce Street.
In 2016, Lakefront produced 44,600 barrels, a far cry from the two barrels that the Klisch brothers rolled into the Gordon Park Pub three decades ago.
“I still feel like I’m ramping up today,” explained Klisch. “In a way, when you first start out you do have the vision that you’re going to be larger and get to where we are. I never expected to be part of a restaurant or have our tour operation as successful as it’s been. Those things you never plan on. But you do have the vision that when you get into it that you’re either going to go bust or you’re going to get big.”