Thursday, August 22, 2013

Exploring the beers that made Milwaukee famous

 MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN – You can’t visit Milwaukee without noticing one of the main things that have made this city famous: beer.

When you’re in its downtown core, you are bombarded with signs of the breweries that have put this city on the map, whether it be Pabst, Miller, Schlitz or any of the smaller breweries that have contributed to its brewing heritage; even its Major League Baseball team promotes that heritage, as the Brewers plays its games in the majestic Miller Park.

And there are four brewery tours in the city that offer visitors a look behind its respective sudsy history (not to mention sample its famous suds). Last month, while I was staffing a two-week BBYO youth leadership camp in nearby Mukwonago, me and my colleagues Todd and Marty spent a day off in Milwaukee. After checking out the Harley-Davidson Museum, we decided to explore how Milwaukee was also built on beer.

That’s when we checked out the site of one of Milwaukee’s oldest and best known brewers, Pabst, which was established in 1844 and is still going strong (especially with its trademark Pabst Blue Ribbon beer). Although the original Pabst brewery facility closed in 1996, the buildings that made up the Pabst brewery are still standing and have been converted into the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery.

Named after Jacob Best, Sr. and Phillip Best, who established the brewery in 1844, the Best Place is run by its chief steward Jim Haertel, who purchased the facility for $10 million and has devoted himself to preserving Pabst’s brewing legacy to Milwaukee by gradually restoring the facility to its former 1880s glory. Haertel (pictured below at left, in the middle of the old Pabst corporate office that he is in the midst of renovating) is a walking encyclopedia of brewing history, and is always seen entertaining visitors at the guest center with his vast encyclopedic knowledge (especially how Milwaukee’s brewing dynasties have deep bloodlines through marriage). I even tried to stump him about Groucho Marx’s involvement with the Pabst family in 1944 when he hosted the radio show “Blue Ribbon Town” (and got then president G.W. Pabst drunk on Miller High Life beer, thereby ending his gig as the show’s host); he then proceeded to tell me a couple of anecdotes about Groucho and “Blue Ribbon Town” that I never heard or read about before.
Haertel then gave me, Todd and Marty a private tour of the old Pabst facility and its offices, starting with Blue Ribbon Hall, a beautiful reception hall with a traditional wooden beer hall décor that can accommodate up to 300 people (and was once used to film a series of Pabst TV commercials during the 50s and 60s). When we were shown the old Pabst corporate offices, including the original company boardroom and Captain Frederick Pabst’s office (with his rolltop desk, pictured below), you could sense the ghosts of Milwaukee’s brewing tradition seeping through its walls.

One vivid example of this aspect of preserving Milwaukee’s brewing history is the Brewhouse Inn and Suites, which is located across the street from the Best Place. The most distinguishing features of this all suite hotel, which occupies the building of the original Pabst brewhouse, are the enormous copper kettles that were used to brew their beer and the stained glass murals that date back to the 1880s, which have been integrated into the hotel’s décor (both are pictured below).

And how have Haertel’s efforts to preserve Pabst’s legacy to the city of Milwaukee paid off? The Best Place and the Brewhouse Inn and Suites were both certified as historic structures by the National Register of Historic Places. Not bad for a beer that helped to make Milwaukee famous.

The Best Place also has quite an interesting souvenir shop, with everything type of memorabilia that caters to the beer lover in you. There's mugs, glasses, old fashioned beer steins, collectibles, hats, insulated bottle and can holders that extol the virtues of Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, Old Milwaukee and several brands that are no longer on tap (plus t-shirts, including this one pictured below, which shows a rather interesting way to promote Pabst Blue Ribbon beer).

For more information about the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, go to; to find out more about the Brewhouse Inn and Suites, go to

Most of this posting originally appeared in the August 17, 2013 edition of The West End Times.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Visit to "Hog Heaven" -- the Harley-Davidson Museum

Milwaukee is a city that is chiefly known for two things: beer and “hogs”.

Regarding the latter category, I am not referring to the animal where pork products are derived from (and in the form of sausages, which goes well with beer … but that’s a topic that will be tackled in next week’s column). What I mean by “hogs” are the roaring, high-octane, free-wheeling motorcycles made by Harley-Davidson, which is recognized around the world as one of the leading manufacturers of those two-wheeled vehicles that represent freedom, rebellion and the love of the open road.

Milwaukee is the birthplace of Harley-Davidson, and this year, the company is marking its 110th anniversary. Celebrations are going to culminate this Labour Day Weekend with a three-day blowout that will attract over 100,000 H-D riders and enthusiasts to Milwaukee. Activities include a custom bike show, the 110th MDA Parade of Heroes which will showcase H-D riders from around the world, street parties, a “Harley-Davidson Hometown Throwdown” edition of UFC 164, and a three-day concert at the Summerfest grounds (Milwaukee’s answer to Parc Jean-Drapeau), with such headline acts as Aerosmith, Kid Rock, ZZ Top, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Blue Oyster Cult, Toby Keith and the Doobie Brothers.

Perhaps the nucleus of the Harley-Davidson universe in Milwaukee is its 20-acre museum, which is located on West Canal Street in the downtown area. It’s a fascinating, interactive celebration of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and how they defined a part of American history and culture, and how it forever changed transportation into an art and a way of life.

Last month, while staffing the B’nai Brith Youth Organization’s (BBYO) Chapter Leadership Training Conference in nearby Mukwonago, me and two fellow BBYO staffers – Todd Kay from Cleveland and Marty Paz from Las Vegas – decided on our day off to check out this virtual “hog heaven” (we're pictured above, atop a Harley-Davidson hog built for three).

From the moment you set foot onto the museum grounds, you are immediately immersed into the Harley-Davidson culture, which is quite evident with the manufacturing plant-style of the museum’s exterior (with the H-D logo proudly emblazoned above the entrance), to the long lines of motorcycles that are diagonally placed in its parking lot.

As soon as we entered the museum (the permanent exhibition begins on the second floor), you are immediately given an up close history lesson on the evolution of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, as a chronological procession of actual bikes are on permanent display from 1903 until the present. The museum also includes the oldest Harley-Davidson motorcycle in existence (called “Serial Number One”, pictured below), which is displayed in a special glass encasing, and is surrounded by the actual dimensions of the original shed where it was built 110 years ago (and believe me, that shed did not allow the designers, builders and mechanics a great deal of elbow room to create this piece of transportation history).

The motorcycles that are on display (as well as the countless pieces of memorabilia and artifacts) also tell the story of Harley-Davidson’s contribution to the development of the motorcycle as a vital means of leisure, commercial and military transportation, including the armed forces during both World Wars, the post office, courier companies, and of course law enforcement (police departments began using Harley-Davidson motorcycles as early as the 1920s).

As well, there are interactive exhibits, where for example you can see and demonstrate how a typical Harley-Davidson internal combustion engine works. One of my favorite parts of the museum was its salute to how Harley-Davidson and its bikes played a role in making its company more visible to the general public through pop culture (i.e., TV shows, movies such as “The Wild One” and daredevil Evel Knievel); there is even on display the two choppers that were driven by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 cult classic film “Easy Rider” (which are pictured above). 

But what if you wanted to experience the feeling of riding an actual “hog”? The museum can help you fulfill that wish with “Jumpstart”. Located near the main entrance, it gives the visitor that rare opportunity of what it’s like to drive a genuine Harley-Davidson bike. As you sit atop a current model of the bike, a licensed instructor from the Harley-Davidson University gives you a step-by-step lesson on how to operate and drive it, from starting up the engine, to accelerating and stopping, to changing gears, maintaining speeds and using the clutch (pictured on the right is my friend Marty Paz "riding" a hog). And by the way, don’t worry about driving off with the bike … the rear wheel is placed on a treadmill. The three of us tried this motorcycle ride simulation, and realized the great feeling one gets when they tear down the road on one of these high-powered machines, and what it involves to operate it (I handled it pretty well, I have to admit … although the engine “stalled” on me only once).
So whether you have a passing interest or a passion for motorcycles, or whether you are born to be wild or mild (I fall into the latter category, just take a look at me atop this vintage late 1920s/early 1930s H-D motorcycle), the Harley-Davidson Museum is the ideal place to discover America, and the world’s, two-wheeled love affair with the motorcycle.

For more information about the museum, as well as the Harley-Davidson 110th anniversary celebrations, check out their website at

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This blog post originally appeared in my Grapevine column in the August 10, 2013 edition of the West End Times.