How Did Milwaukee's Drinking Culture Start?

Aug 16, 2019

For some people, it's not an evening out in Milwaukee without a cocktail, a beer, or a glass of wine. But why does so much local social life revolve around alcohol?

The city's known across the country for its drinking culture.

"Milwaukee is the second-highest city in America per capita for bars. There's one bar per 1,800 people in Milwaukee. In America, there's one bar per 4,800 people. This is a bar town!" said the host of the Paramount Network show "Bar Rescue" when visiting Milwaukee.

Tracy Plock has noticed the presence of drinking in Milwaukee too. She's lived in the city for six years.

"I come from a town in California where drinking is a thing, but it's not as much of a cultural thing as it is here in Milwaukee," Tracy says. So, she reached out to Bubbler Talk to learn how Milwaukee's drinking culture started.

To find out, we headed to — where else — a bar. Over at Y-Not II, a quirky tavern on Milwaukee's Lower East Side, we met people spending an afternoon drinking. 

"You gotta big head on you! That's one of Tony's rules: foam is beer and beer is money, so never toss over the foam, it'll settle down," says Jackie Brennan, a regular. Tony DePalma owns the Y Not II.

Many factors played a role in the success of Milwaukee's breweries.
Credit Alesandra Tejeda

She's coy about whether people in Milwaukee drink more than elsewhere.

"Hmmm … I plead the fifth on that one," she says.  

But bartender Andy Steffenhagen says many who visit Milwaukee marvel at how locals can drink them under the table.

"Absolutely, yes, that's happened many times," he says.

Finding people to chat about drinking was pretty easy at Milwaukee Brewfest, which took place at the lakefront in July. Here's how several people think Milwaukee's drinking culture began:

"I definitely feel like it started from kind of the roots of brewing here. So, I think, whenever the Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst started, everyone was just like, 'Hey! We're a beer city,' " says Mike Richter.

Sarah Lloyd says, "Well, I would say that it's probably from our German heritage."

While Bob Augustyn says, "It's the water, hehehe."

It's all of the above, according to historian Jim Draeger. He adds that Milwaukee's been a brewing powerhouse for 150 years.

"The largest brewery in the world was in Milwaukee. That was variously Schlitz and Pabst for most of the history of brewing in Milwaukee," says Jim.

He says many immigrants who settled here came from drinking cultures — the Polish, German, English and Irish.

Other factors that played a role in the success of Milwaukee's breweries: access to cropland, pure water and the railroads. Also, the Chicago fire knocked out what could have been Milwaukee's biggest brewing competitor, says Jim.

Jim Draeger says breweries contributed to the drinking culture by paying employees in beer. They also promoted the social aspects of drinking, selling beer at beer gardens and brewery-run taverns.
Credit Alesandra Tejeda

"One of the things that made Milwaukee a major brewer was that Chicago, unfortunately, burned to the ground in the 1870s. That allowed Milwaukee to expand into the Chicago market and get access to the rail system in Chicago and be able to ship beer nationwide. By the 1870s, Pabst is already shipping beer coast to coast," he says.

Jim says breweries contributed to the drinking culture by paying employees in beer. They also promoted the social aspects of drinking, selling beer at beer gardens and brewery-run taverns.

"And in some ways the neighborhood tavern was the 19th-century version of Facebook. It was where you got together to connect with your friends and family and colleagues," he explains.

Wisconsin's drinking culture also was the result of legislative choices — both by state and municipal governments, says Julia Sherman of the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project.

She says municipalities have approved a high number of alcohol outlets, and that she would like them to issue fewer liquor licenses.

And she notes policy decisions from state government as a whole.

"We have a very low tax rate on beer, our beer tax hasn't been increased since the year that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon," says Sherman. "And as a result, we have some alcohol-related problems in Wisconsin."

Andy Steffenhagen, Y-Not II bartender, says many who visit Milwaukee marvel at how locals can drink them under the table.
Credit Alesandra Tejeda

Unlike other states, Julia says Wisconsin hasn't increased the tax significantly.

"As a result, we have some alcohol-related problems in Wisconsin," she says.

In last year's city of Milwaukee Community Health Survey, more than one-third of respondents reported binge drinking in the past month. That means in one sitting, women had four or more drinks and men had five or more.

Back at Brewfest on the lakefront, Sean Sheptoski, of Appleton, sees both plusses and minuses of the drinking culture.

"I love Wisconsin. Milwaukee's a great city. It's an industry, it's an economy, but I think we need to reconsider some things," says Sean.

He points out, bars and drinking aren't the only game in town.

"I mean, the whole bar scene's a social construct. Why can't we have fun just by playing board games at home?" says Sean.

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