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.

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