Home Brew: Great Milwaukee Lagers
photo by Beth Rooney
Initially, Milwaukee's were "small breweries with big dreams," said Gurda, but they soon expanded through modernization, aggressive marketing, and luck— the temperance movement and taxation drove alcohol consumption from whiskey to beer, and the 1871 Chicago fire knocked out competition and opened up a key market. By 1874, the soon-to-be-renamed Pabst Brewing Company was the nation's largest beer-maker. Beer gardens were popular destinations featuring German food and entertainers like the woman who lit herself on fire and dove from a platform into the Milwaukee River.
Today, that woman graces the label of the Milwaukee Brewing Company's Flaming Damsel Real Blonde. "Our core brands are based on quirky stories from an entrepreneurial time in the city's history," Jim McCabe, the craft brewery's president and founder, told me as he poured me the copper-colored lager. We were shouting over the hum and clink of the bottling line in his brewery in the Third Ward neighborhood. The Flaming Damsel was crisp and bright, but with an ale-like earthiness and hop aroma. Next we sampled the Hoptoberfest. Along with a caramel sweetness, it offered unconventional floral, pepper, and citrus hop notes. These ale-like "transition" lagers, as McCabe's brewmaster, Rob Morton, calls them, make sense from an outfit founded as a brew-pub: Ale is often the first choice of craft brewers because it's cheaper and faster to make. Also, ale brewers can use multiple varieties of hops to impart flavor, while tradition demands just one hop and one malt when making an elemental German lager like pilsner.
"Anyone can brew ale," declared Dave Reese, the beer-maker at one of the local brewpubs, Horny Goat Hideaway. "Lager demands finesse." He's working on a project he hopes will rectify a longtime imbalance. "Last year, while we were pouring our own stuff at the bar, we were the city's number-three account for Miller Lite," Reese said. "I want to make my own low-calorie lager. But we're not gonna use corn syrup like they do at Miller."
It's a common complaint: Though craft beer is gaining ground, domestic industrial beers still make up more than 70 percent of all beer consumed in the U.S. And though craft brewers wax nostalgic about Milwaukee's once-great breweries, when it comes to making lager, they're not looking back. "The older brewers had their thing: American pilsner. It's fine beer, but it's one-dimensional," owner Russ Klisch told me when I visited his Lake-front Brewery, in an old power plant on the Milwaukee River. There, brewery tours end with a group rendition of the theme song from Laverne & Shirley, the TV show about two Milwaukee gals who worked the bottling line at the fictitious Shotz Brewery. "Give us any chance, we'll take it / Give us any rule, we'll break it / We're gonna make our dreams come true / Doin' it our way!" It feels like an anthem for Klisch himself. He and his crew brew innovative beers like a fruity Cherry Lager using tart cherries grown in Door County, in northeastern Wisconsin, and the unfiltered Local Acre Lager, loaded with organic Wisconsin barley and fresh hops. "Expanding the tradition," said Kilsch, "is where we come in."