Lake Effect On-Site: Brewery District

Nov 23, 2019

The Lake Effect team brought the pub back to public radio with the latest Lake Effect On-Site in Milwaukee's Brewery District, to explore the history of the area and the beverage that made Milwaukee famous.

The Brewery District has undergone a lot of changes over the last century. At one time, the complex was the center of operations for the Pabst Brewery, which was first founded in Milwaukee in 1844. The brewery has not only had a huge impact on Wisconsin, it's also a cornerstone of the nation's beer history.

Historian John Gurda explains, "By 1868, Pabst is the largest brewery in Milwaukee. By 1874, Pabst-Best is the largest brewery in America. Thirty years — 1844 to 1874 — from zero to number one in the entire country."

(L to R) Bonnie North chatting with former architecture critic Whitney Gould and historian John Gurda on stage at the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery & Taproom for Lake Effect On-Site: Brewery District.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

But the intervening years were less kind to the brewery. Temperance and prohibition were disruptive, but according to Gurda the label's deathknell came in the 1980s. That's when the company was purchased by an investor who cut back capital spending and, "erased the advertising budget. He didn't just cut it, he erased it," Gurda explains. 

The brewery closed in 1996, and the buildings started to deteriorate. The area has now been transformed into the Brewery District, which former architecture critic Whitney Gould dubs a "dandy example" of how old, historic buildings can live alongside new construction. 

"For years in the preservation community, there was the feeling that when you built new buildings in old neighborhoods, that they really had to sort of look like everything that was here before. And the problem with that approach is that nothing is ever going to be as good as the old stuff," she explains. 

"This development here, is an example of how you can marry good, contemporary architecture to historic preservation and really have a sense of speaking to history," she adds.

Lake Effect explored the history of the Brewery District and the beverage that made Milwaukee famous in the Pabst Taproom.
Credit Jason Rieve

The renovations in Milwaukee's Brewery District have transformed the neighborhood from a blighted area near Milwaukee's downtown, to a neighborhood full of businesses and residences. Just a short time ago, many of these buildings were largely empty and unused, and that's what attracted photographer Paul Bialas to the area. 

Bonnie North on stage with photographer Paul Bialas.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Bialas photographed these buildings before the renovations and turned those photographs into the book Pabst: An Excavation of Art, which documents the place historically and artistically.

"I had a lot of respect for [the complex] and thought, 'I can't believe I'm able to be here and do this' ... [There were] rooms where, it did look like the employees had just got up and walked out. There's a calendar on the wall from 25 years ago, there's a beer glass on the table, a harnischfeger ice cube tray on the table — things that really take you back to the history of Milwaukee," says Bialas. 

Bonnie North speaking with brewers Zack Krueger and Jim McCabe.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

There would be no Brewery District without the work of brewers, like Jim McCabe and Zack Krueger. McCabe is the founder and owner of Milwaukee Brewing Company, which set up shop just outside of the former Pabst complex. Zack Krueger is the head brewer for the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery, which operates as a test kitchen for the larger Pabst brand. 

Both McCabe and Krueger say that a lot has changed in beer culture since they both began, despite the fact they're both relatively new to the industry. And although the basic process of brewing beer hasn't changed much since Captain Pabst's time, the flavor profiles are always evolving. 

"As people's palates change, we continue to innovate and that pushed us to try new ingredients and flavors." - Jim McCabe, MKE Brewing Co. Founder

"One of the famous quotes when the world was moving to temperance and lighter beers was Captain Pabst saying, 'I long for a time when a man wanted a darker beer.' And the fact is it continues to change as people's palates change, we continue to innovate and that pushed us to try new ingredients and flavors," says McCabe. 

This presents a challenge for brewers like Krueger, who works to craft beer that can be recreated for large-scale distribution. 

"The biggest challenges that I face, when we deal with brand managers that want to scale a product — usually it's an IPA or something, and they want to use some really bold hops ... it's always a challenge to explain to them that while that's amazing and we can do it at this scale here — at 10 barrels — when we look at some of those styles of hops they can be $30, $40 per pound of hops and we just can't scale that up to a large facility," Krueger explains. 

(From left) Tanner and Trapper Schoepp speaking with Bonnie North on stage at the Pabst Milwaukee Brewery & Taproom.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

Throughout the night, the show at Pabst Milwaukee Brewery & Taproom was underscored by musicians Trapper & Tanner Schoepp. Trapper has been a part of the Lake Effect family for a decade, starting as an intern when he was a freshman at UW-Milwaukee. During that time, he was also honing his skills as a musician and songwriter, and released three albums. 

His most recent album features him and his brother Tanner, and includes a song called "On, Wisconsin" which he is credited as co-writing with Bob Dylan. Trapper explains that he found some of Dylan's unfinished lyrics, which included a song about Wisconsin. He finished the song, recorded it, and people started to pay attention. 

Tanner and Trapper Schoepp performing on stage at the Pabst Taproom for Lake Effect On-Site.
Credit Audrey Nowakowski

"Billboard took notice, NPR took notice, Rolling Stone took notice, and then Bob Dylan's lawyer took notice," says Trapper, to a round of laughter from the audience. 

He continues, "It was good, though. I was scooping couscous at the Whole Foods grocery store on North Avenue, there, and I actually got an email that said: Bob Dylan approves the joint publishing of 'On, Wisconsin,' with Trapper Schoepp. And I just dropped the couscous scooper, walked around the over-priced grocery store and spent $300."