When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Monday that Sprecher Brewing would be taking over the now-vacant Brenner Brewing space in Walker’s Point, the news landed with a splat in the beer community.
The plan for the space is somewhat nebulous, Sprecher president Jeff Hamilton told reporter Kathy Flanigan, but it’s built around a taproom focused on the Glendale brewery’s beer and 33-year history, which began two blocks away on Oregon Street. Sprecher does not plan to utilize the relatively big brewery that Mike Brenner left behind when he closed his brewery operation in November, Hamilton said in an email.
“We have no plans to use the brewing equipment and can’t see the possibility of that happening,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Walker’s Point play seems like a smart move for Sprecher. The brewery does not have the kind of taproom that is becoming an increasingly important part of business as competition crowds the offerings in bars, restaurants and bottle shops, and the Walker’s Point space will be that.
While Sprecher has won plenty of respect for its long-running beers – Black Bavarian in particular is an enduring bulwark of Milwaukee’s craft scene – the news coming out of Glendale the last few years has focused on expansion of its portfolio of hard sodas, actual sodas and radlers. None of that is particularly compelling to the fans of hazy IPAs and imperial stouts who are the tastemakers in the craft beer community.
In a broader sense, Sprecher’s main line and limited release beers, plus a handful of its excellent sodas, should have no problem filling 24 draft lines of tasty beverages.
But the concern is not what’s going to be in the former Brenner space, it’s what’s not going to be there. Brenner peaked in 2015, its second year in business, at 622 barrels of production, the Biz Times reported, but had the capacity to make much more. The brewhouse is the engine of a brewery, and the now-idle one at the Brenner space is a 30-barrel setup. To compare that to a couple of the young shining stars of the Milwaukee beer scene, that’s the same as you’ll find at Third Space Brewing and nearly twice the size of Good City Brewing’s 17-barrel brewhouse.
And that’s the opportunity cost for the public in this transaction: Sprecher is unintentionally blocking a mash-ready space for what could be Milwaukee’s next big brewery. We saw this in Madison in 2013 after Ale Asylum moved into its new brewery and Karben4 moved into its former space. Five years later, Karben4 sells its beer statewide and already feels like a stalwart in the state’s beer scene.
Instead of that – or at least a chance at that – we have 24 Sprecher draft lines in Walker’s Point, which sounds a bit like the Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub that’s a five-minute drive away from the brewery at Bayshore Town Center, without the food. (That and the five other such restaurants in the state are not owned by the brewery; the name is licensed to Madison-based Capitol Cuisine, which runs the pubs.)
Hamilton called any disappointment that the Sprecher taproom might have elbowed out an upstart brewery “an unusually provocative thought without any merit,” noting that anyone could have leased the spot. He also pointed out that many larger breweries have fermentation tanks sitting empty and suggested more closures are likely.
“There is a lot of overcapacity in the industry, and there will be many more opportunities like this ahead for those who want them,” he said.