In Milwaukee, America's great lager-making tradition lives on
It's visible everywhere on the Milwaukee landscape: in the ribboned-globe logo painted on buildings that once were Schlitz brewery-controlled saloons; in statues depicting King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer; in the monumental ruins of Pabst Brewing Company and the still-bustling MillerCoors brewery; in the lagering tanks of a group of small but scrappy modern-day microbrewers. Despite the late 20th-century shuttering of all but one of its big breweries, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, America's "Brew City," remains awash in beer, specifically lager, the bottom-fermented, cold-brewed beer that originated in medieval Bavaria.
I grew up in Philadelphia, where, in 1840, a Bavarian immigrant brewed what is widely considered America's first lager; the beer I came of age drinking was Yuengling Traditional Lager, brewed in eastern Pennsylvania by the nation's oldest operating beer company. Hoppy craft ales get more attention nowadays, but I'm attracted to lager's crisp effervescence, and I'm fascinated by its history. The traditional German beverage became the beer of the American masses, the industrial drink against which the modern craft ale movement defined itself. Today, American lager's past— and future—is nowhere more apparent than in the nation's most Germanic city.
"Milwaukee was the frontier, an area open to settlement when Germans started coming to the States in the 1840s," local historian John Gurda told me when I paid the city a visit recently. We were sitting in Hooligan's, an East Side pub, chatting over pints of toasty Maibock lager from Capital Brewery, in nearby Middleton. "In the 2000 census, people of German descent made up 38 percent of Milwaukee's population," Gurda continued. "That's the country's largest concentration." As if to illustrate his point, when I crossed the street to visit Von Trier Tavern, I watched patrons sip from steins beneath an elkantler chandelier that once lit the home of brewer Frederick Pabst, who hailed from Saxony.
When Pabst assumed co-ownership of his father-in-law's Best Brewery, in 1864, he joined the city's rising class of German-American beer-makers: Valentin Blatz of Blatz Brewing, the Uih-lein brothers of Schlitz, Frederick J. Miller, whose brewery is now MillerCoors. The Welsh brewers who preceded them had made ale, a style of beer whose yeast sits on top and ferments quickly at relatively warm temperatures. Ales were thick and murky back then; they easily soured. The new brewers' lager (German for "to store") was made with yeast that settled to the bottom while the beer aged in ice-lined caves, developing clarity and malty heft. Originally, lagers were brown, due to use of darker barley malts; in Germany, styles ranged from dry dunkel (dark) to rich doppelbock (double bock). But as lighter malts were developed, one style came to prevail in the States: American pilsner, a pale, sparkling lager.