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Solar Sets Milwaukee Brewing Company Apart

Milwaukee's 4th annual Brewfest is on tap for Saturday in McKinley Park. One local operation stands out for its greenness.
The sign outside Milwaukee Brewing Company reads, “Milwaukee’s 1st Solar Brewery.” On its roof, are twenty-eight solar panels. They help heat the water to just the right temperature for brewing.

Jim McCabe dabbled in home brewing for years, while he traveled the country as an environmental engineer. But he say craft brewing beckoned him – so did Milwaukee. So, he started brewing small batches in the Third Ward and in 2007, started this operation.

Training in progress

Its early morning, and only McCabe and his master brewer are here.

“He’s in the process right now of combining the barley with the warm water. We preheat the water – which we’ll get to the solar thing - because we need about 145 to 152 degree water. That activates the natural magic of barley, which breaks starches down to sugars. And he’s actually training one of our young brewers as he goes,” McCabe says.

McCabe says experimentation is part of the thrill; he loves to blend in locally produced teas.

“We use a lot of Rishi teas in our beer, or some other flavors,” McCabe says.

The rest of his team starts straggling in. McCabe points to a reserved area at the north end of the brewery floor.

“This will be full of bikes when everybody gets here – all the hooks that you see,” McCabe says.

McCabe says the original allure of the building was a couple of giant walk-in coolers the previous owner left behind. They were just the beginning of his crusade to recycle and repurpose.

“Not just from other breweries but also from other industries because Milwaukee has a lot of manufacturing background; like our grain handling comes out of a caffeine plant over on National Avenue. Even our boiler system – which is the hot side of brewing including the sanitation efforts; we got those boilers on eBay,” McCabe says.

This is where biodiesel is created.

Used cooking oil powers one of the boilers. McCabe says one employee has taken a real shine to getting his hands on the stuff from local restaurants and...

“And county parks give us their oil to create biodiesel,” McCabe adds.

McCabe says a local steel company repurposes his empty malt sacks and Growing Power snatches up mounds of spent grain to fuel its massive composting systems.

“The spent grain is awesome for that. The grains residual sugar really fires up the compost,” McCabe says.

There have been pitfalls. Not long ago McCabe purchased an $8,000 trailer to hold materials outside and make pick up more efficient.

“It was stolen after a month at 11 at night and it was locked – so somebody knew what they were doing. So there are still challenges,” McCabe says.

McCabe says he’s not complaining. Twelve full time workers hum around the brewery – four more than a year ago.

His sales market now covers Wisconsin and dips down into Chicago. Yet McCabe doesn’t plan to dramatically expand.

“If we were to pick an ultimate footprint, it would be the Midwest – it’s going to be the states that touch Wisconsin and maybe as far as Ohio – but that’s all,” McCabe says.

As for the size of his brewery – McCabe seems content.

This is where you'll find McCabe's teams gather Friday afternoons to sample beers.

He says it’s part of his business ethos – balancing an efficient sustainable operation and the footprint you create.

“And we’ve already had people we’ve mentored go on to have their own brewery and that’s fun,” McCabe says.

That also means, the brewing week, ends. Every Friday afternoon, McCabe and his team kick back and sample beer.

He says the practice fuels the creative spirit.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.