Let's Talk About Milwaukee's Drinking Culture

A Milwaukeean by osmosis, not birth, reflects on what booze means to us.

When I moved to Milwaukee, I was shocked to realize how central drinking is in the experience of this city. I quickly learned the answer to “What are you doing tonight?” almost always includes alcohol. But it took longer to adjust to how drinking infiltrates almost every social activity – is it truly a work softball game without a couple of beers?

Sometimes it seems like any and every gathering is just an excuse to throw back a few cold ones. The first time I ordered a bloody mary and received the requisite beer chaser, I was utterly bewildered. Does this drink taste so bad that I need to wash it down, like a shot? These days, when I order a bloody in a different city, I always ask for a beer as well, because the two balance each other so well. I even have a hardline opinion on what beer makes the best companion: It’s Miller High Life. Obviously.

All of this is a sharp departure from my upbringing in suburban Illinois. An ordinance passed by the religious residents of the then-rural town banned all alcohol sales, and it remained in force until the mid-1980s. The effects lingered long afterward; there were no bars operating within the city limits when I grew up.

The only drinking establishment I remember from my childhood was at the very outskirts of town, the unincorporated part where things got sketchy. The place looked condemned, standing at the center of a concrete lot. When I watched scary movies and saw the dilapidated manor where no soul dared to go, I thought of that bar.

I never set foot in that dive, but now I wish I had. What I once saw as an uninviting, dank haunt, I now see as a strange relic that probably had its own brand of charm and character. That change of heart is borne of spending most of my adult years discovering the wonders of Milwaukee’s ubiquitous neighborhood bars, many rich with history that comes from serving residents for generations.  They may have a never-crowded bowling alley downstairs, or a surprisingly epicurean food menu. On these well-worn bar stools, I started to understand why Milwaukee loves to drink so much.

Of course, everybody knows that Milwaukee is a beer town, with alcohol pumping through its veins since the mid-19th century. This liquid romance started when Germans immigrated here in the 1840s and, naturally, continued doing what they excelled at back in their homeland: brewing and drinking beer. In 1843, there was one tavern for every 40 residents. The sometimes-rowdy establishments held political town hall meetings and even doubled as polling places on Election Day. These German Milwaukeeans established beer gardens, big parks in which beer could be consumed in a pastoral setting during the midmorning and afternoon – places where the new residents could gather and enjoy their New World surroundings. In short, beer was an accepted part of life – social, sure, but also economic and even civic.

It was those newcomers’ alcohol-positive attitude that set the tone for today’s drinking culture. The public beer garden concept faded through the 20th century but returned in 2012 with the grand Estabrook Beer Garden in Shorewood. Now there are outdoor drinking spaces in parks all around the city and pop-up gardens in the suburbs, offering an opportunity to bask in the sunshine with neighbors while downing a liter of lager.

My romance with Milwaukee’s neighborhood bar scene led me to get a job in a local drinking establishment. The place was truly a second home to customers. The connections between the patrons, the owner and the bartenders were real and meaningful. Birthdays, holidays and even anniversaries were celebrated at the bar. Some of the lucky inner circle gained the privilege to smoke downstairs. When a regular was absent, we worried, as if a sibling hadn’t come home from school. Had she gotten in an accident? Had his mother fallen ill? There were deeply ingrained loyalties but also long-held grudges. One guy wouldn’t set foot in the bar across the street because the bartender kicked him out a decade ago.

Milwaukee’s passion for drinking is sometimes disturbing, and working behind a bar provides a front-row seat to some depressing moments. When bad situations arose, I reflected on the societal benefits of my hometown’s formerly dry status. Maybe they had it right? But then I would think about all the people I’ve met and relationships I’ve formed along the way. Almost all of these were made in the intoxicating presence of alcohol.

This Story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s 2019 Drinking Guide. 

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Kevin is a freelance writer residing in Milwaukee. He’s contributed to The Shepherd Express, Third Coast Daily, Pop Matters and the sadly now-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee. He looks forward to forging a deeper connection with the city’s impressive music scene during his gig as a Music Notes blogger. His talents include music criticism, riding a bicycle, drinking tasty beers and a crafty croquet swing. His weaknesses comprise Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, professional wrestling and his ever-growing record collection. He’s in desperate need to find more physical (and hard drive) space for the exceptional albums Milwaukee musicians keep churning out.