Back in 2017, Pabst tried to create a modern-day brewing destination on the sprawling campus where it had made beer for more than a century. It was a feel-good story – the return of a hometown favorite to brew the first beer on Pabst’s hallowed grounds in decades – but it never got much traction and the little brewpub closed in December 2020.
Less than a year after that closing, a relatively tiny brewery from central Wisconsin has taken over the space and succeeded where the behemoth failed.
The 24-year-old Central Waters Brewing of Amherst is unquestionably one of the best breweries in the state. It’s beloved by beer geeks across the country for its pioneering barrel-aging program – that is, putting big, boozy beers in barrels that previously held bourbon or other spirits to impart a whole new range of flavors. But it’s equally cherished by its small-town neighbors for tasty, straightforward beers that you can have, you know, a few of in a sitting.
It’s a big-tent approach to beer that has shown exceptionally well since opening the Milwaukee location in October. The 24 tap lines pour a mix of beer shipped from Central Waters’ home base and suds crafted in the building’s basement brewery by Brendan Williamson, the Milwaukee head brewer and a Good City Brewing alumnus. And so far, Williamson’s beers have stolen the show: bright, refreshing IPAs; a rustic, Belgian-inspired table beer; and Ode, a crisp, balanced American lager that’s an homage to the oceans of PBR made in the surrounding buildings generations ago.
The taproom’s kitchen, which for years kicked out schnitzel and spaetzle as the Forst Keller restaurant, has been taken over by the burger-and-fry-meisters of Dairyland. The juicy, beefy burgers (all doubles, $8-$11) are excellent, and you’ll keep shoving bundles of the thin, McDonald’s-style fries ($4-$7) into your mouth well after you’re full. The fried cheese curds here ($11) are among the city’s best – a light, puffy beer batter encapsulating a stretchy, salty and just chewy enough nugget. Use the rich, creamy dill dipping sauce sparingly for best effect.
All of this comes together in a space – an 1872 former Methodist church – that’s only subtly changed from the Pabst days. The Central Waters team, led by co-owners Paul Graham and Anello Mollica and Milwaukee general manager Eric Gutbrod (formerly GM of Draft & Vessel), softened the stark white of the taproom with more wood finishes and some branded banners and artwork. (Gone, of course, is the massive signature Pabst light fixture.)
There are challenges to this property that Pabst faced in its reboot: It’s kind of in a backwater of Downtown, pressed up against I-43, and parking is a constant hassle in the Brewery District. (Try street parking on Highland Avenue, just a block from the taproom, or take a Lyft.)
But already, Central Waters’ beer and Dairyland’s grub have proven to have a lot more gravity than Pabst had here: Saturdays have been bustling with beer geeks and young families mixing with nattily clad wedding-goers from the wedding venues in the area. Activity will only increase as the weather allows use of the beer garden out back and the dead end of 11th Street that can be used for block party-type events.
It’s a sweet homecoming for Mollica, who grew up near 50th and Villard on the North Side with a PBR-loyalist dad. “It’s the cherry on top,” Mollica says. “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.
What’ll You Have?
The beers brewed on-site rotate frequently, but here are three Central Waters standards to look out for:
Bourbon Barrel Stout: The beer that made Central Waters famous is a rich, fudgy feller with notes of semisweet chocolate, vanilla and oak.
HHG Pale Ale: Mosaic and Citra hops shine in this bright, juicy easy-drinker, which was inspired by the music of the band Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.
Shine On: A malty but clean red ale that showcases a commitment to sustainability. A cut of sales goes to Midwest Renewable Energy Association.