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The history of Milwaukee's tied houses and beer gardens

Roman Coin
Mallory Cheng
The Roman Coin on Brady Street is a former tied house.

For Lake Effect's last installment of the Tavern Tuesdays series, Rob Novak shares the lasting legacies of Milwaukee's beer gardens and tied houses. He is the historic brewing experience coordinator at Old World Wisconsin.

Novak starts by explaining the history of beer gardens: "We know that they started in Bavaria and the breweries there, they had these giant lagering caves. They lagered their beer over the summer. By the mid-1500s, they actually were not allowed to brew in the summer. ... So in order to make money in the summer, they decided that they would sell the beer that they have been lagering in their caves."

He says chestnut trees were planted above the caves because they provided a ton of shade — but the trees also created a park-like setting.

Germans then took up the tradition of beer gardens and it became a more social gathering with people bringing along picnics, getting together with friends and family. So when Germans immigrated to Milwaukee, along came their tradition of beer gardens.

"In Milwaukee," Novak shares, "the beer gardens were run by the breweries — Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz. All of them had large beer gardens, sometimes they evolved into also like a theme park setting."

As for tied houses, you can see examples of them all over the city of Milwaukee — look for buildings, usually on a corner, with a brewing medallion and some other decorative elements. Tied houses were similar to beer gardens, but weren't always owned by a brewery. "A brewery would either build a tied house and rent it out ... or they would supply everything in the bar," he says.

Tied houses stretch back to before the founding of the colonies. "In England, you had chains of pubs that were owned by breweries, and then they were rented out to people to run them," Novak says.

Novak says beer gardens started to phase out with the creation of the Milwaukee County Parks System and the temperance movement, and tied houses kept going until Prohibition.

"Immediately after Prohibition, those buildings would have all been sold if they were owned by the breweries. I mean, at that point, very few breweries actually survived through Prohibition anyway, a lot of those buildings had already been either turned into something else completely or they'd been sold as taverns that would open up independent of breweries," he says.

It wasn't until about 15 years ago in Estabrook Park that a beer garden returned to Wisconsin. "And now, people have kind of realized how much fun they are. They're great for communities, they're great for breweries," Novak says.

Tavern Tuesdays is in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Old World Wisconsin to bring you stories about beer and brewing in our state.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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