Lakefront Brewery By: Chris Wise
Milwaukee’s own Lakefront Brewery Inc. started in 1987. The industrious and inventive microbrewery located on the Milwaukee River has become a Milwaukee landmark. Its rich history includes partnerships with local taverns, preservation of local historical pieces, unique tours, family style dining options and most importantly, great beer.
The history of Lakefront has its beginnings in a classic sibling rivalry: one brother thinking he could brew a better beer than his brother. It started when Brewery President Russ Klisch bought his brother, Jim, a brewery book on home brewing. While Russ considers Jim’s cooking skills subpar in general, he was thoroughly impressed with his brother’s first effort. So impressed, he decided he didn’t want to be shown up by his brother, and set out to create his own, better brew.
The competition between the two brothers quickly spilled over into local home brewing contests and winning some in the process. Soon, friends and family were encouraging the brothers to make a business out of their shared interest in brews. It seems an interest in the beer industry has been strong in the Klisch family for years; many of Russ and Jim’s relatives have been involved in the industry in one way or another since his grandfather drove a delivery truck for Schlitz brewery. Russ has fond memories of his grandfather and his involvement in the beer industry: “It was a cool job if you got to bring beer home at night.” In addition to driving the delivery truck for Schlitz’s, their grandfather also served as a chauffeur for the Uihlein family who owned and operated the Schlitz brewery. With several other family members owning taverns throughout the Milwaukee area, the Klisch brothers had deep roots in the Milwaukee brewing heritage, and decided to open their own brewery.
The brothers picked a small property, a former bakery, located close to their houses as the spot for their brewery, at 818 East Chambers Street in Riverwest. Using only 55-gallon stainless steel drums and old dairy equipment, the brothers sold their first barrel of beer to Gordon Park Pub on December 2, 1987. Lakefront’s popularity took off after first opening, upping production to 72 barrels of brew in 1988, and 125 in 1989. After so much success in selling their beers to pubs and taverns around the area, the brothers decided to buy an old bottling machine and selling their brew directly to the public. The brother’s were incredibly resourceful at bringing old, used equipment back to life for use in the brewery, leading to one critic noting they had a “Frankenstein operation” because all their equipment had lived and died in a previous life.
As the brother’s turned their basement brewing competition into a viable business, they soon found they had reached production capacity at their original location. In 1998, the Klisch brothers were producing 3,000 barrels a year in the cramped 3,600 square foot Riverwest property. They needed to expand in order to keep the business growing, and began the search for a new property.
With so much history in their family’s background in the Milwaukee area, it is no surprise their next location would be similarly rooted in the history of Milwaukee. The building, located at 1872 North Commerce Street, housed the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company’s coal-fired power plant since 1908. In 1998, the city was considering tearing the building down unless a local business could step in and buy the building off their hands. It was a perfect fit for both the brewery and the city, and in 2000 Lakefront officially opened their doors at their new location. At the same time, Russ replaced the patchwork brewery system that had operated at the previous brewery, in favor of a new brew house.
Lakefront has continued to incorporate themselves further into Milwaukee’s storied history and love affair with brewing. The lights that adorn the outside of Lakefront’s brewery come from a beer hall in the Plankiton Hotel in Milwaukee. The beer hall was to be opened on the same day World War I started, and with prohibition following thereafter, the beer hall never opened, and the lights sat in storage with other Milwaukee historical artifacts. Lakefront also purchased the original chalet of Bernie Brewer, the Brewer’s mascot, when the team rebuilt their stadium, and installed it in their brewery.
While the Klisch brother’s have made sure to respect the history of brewing in Milwaukee, they have not shied away from being on the cutting edge of brewing. Lakefront was the first brewery to produce gluten-free beer to be certified by the government, and currently 25% of their production is gluten-free, which opens them up to a market largely ignored by beer producers. Coming out of a discussion the brothers had at a brewers convention with ATF representitives, they realized the federal rule that beer contain at least 25% malted barley excluded beer drinkers allergic to wheat and barley. After writing the ATF with their plan to brew a beer based on sorghum rather than wheat and barley, and thus Lakefront’s New Grist was born.
In 1996, Lakefront produced the first certified organic beer in America with their Organic ESB(Extra Special Bitter). In 2004, Russ and number of other brewers wrote the USDA, outraged they had begun letting brewer certified as “organic” use hops that were not organically grown. Russ and his fellow brewers won over the USDA with their love of great ingredients and honest brewing process. Lakefront also produced the second Pumpkin brew in America after Jim stumbled upon an old Pumpkin beer recipe of Thomas Jefferson’s. Lakefront was also most-likely the first brewery in America since prohibition to brew a fruit beer, with their seasonal offering Cherry Lager. Lakefront also has one of the only indigenous brews in America, using only indigenous ingredients from the Wisconsin area.
With so many great products, a rich history and an eye on innovation, Lakefront has become one of the most popular breweries in America today. Production numbers have been steadily rising over the years, jumping from 33,000 barrels in 2012 to 41,000 barrels in 2013. They have also been steadily expanding their market for their delicious brews, as Lakefront is now available in 35 states. In 2006, Lakefront became the first brewery in the state and the first business in the City of Milwaukee to receive the Travel Green Wisconsin certification. Travel Green Wisconsin recognizes tourism-related businesses that are reducing their environmental impact through operational and other improvements. Lakefront owes it success to the competitive nature of the Klisch brothers, Jim and Russ, who took a basement brewing competition to the big stage, and have produced some amazing beers along the way.
An American-style Amber Ale, Fixed Gear It pours a glaring crimson tone with a rocky white head and a brilliant floral-citrus aroma, thanks to an aggressive dry hopping. Its immodest, malty spine and intrepid caramel flavors blow in via gratuitous amounts of 2-row pale and dark caramel malts. A balanced citrus bite comes from Chinook and Cascade hops followed shortly by mild, fruity esters from the ale yeast. Weighing in at a mean 6.8% ABV and 54 IBU’s, this one’s got an attitude.
Lakefront’s original organic offering, this extra special bitter British-style ale uses only 100% organic and fresh ingredients. Organic bravo hops lend a citrusy bite to the malty flavor to yield a very refreshing taste. Coming in at 5.8% ABV, this ale pairs well with most foods, and has been one of Lakefront’s best sellers since 1996.
Another certified USDA organic brew, this organic coffee stout comes in at 6.4% ABV. Coffee aromas dominate the nose, with a background of roasted malt. The fine balance of mild organic hops, gentle brightness of choice coffee and the full mouthfeel from roasted malted barley make this an unforgettable brew.
The Bridge Burner pours a deep, fiery amber with a rocky off-white head. The assertive aroma is dominated by dry, earthy American hops: citrus, floral and pine tree notes all make a showing. The hops dominate, lending a hefty bitterness to the palate, but are backed up by the caramel malts, which lend a substantial body without any extra sweetness. A warm alcohol burn finishes it off with a nod to its considerable 8.5% ABV. 2009 Los Angeles County Fair gold medal barley wine winner.
New Grist is a one-of-a-kind beer brewed without wheat or barley: the first of its kind that can be enjoyed by those with Celiac Disease. At 5.1% ABV, each batch of the brew is tested to ensure no gluten has been allowed to enter the product before it is shipped out. New Grist is brewed from sorghum, rice, hops, water and yeast. These ingredients are carefully combined to form a crisp, refreshing “session ale” brewed for those on a gluten-free diet, or anyone with an appreciation for a great tasting, handmade beer.
Local Acre is the first beer since prohibition that has been made with 100% ingredients that have been grown and processed in the state of Wisconsin. The organic 6-row lacey barley from a hard-working farm in Columbus gives Local Acre its malty-sweet backbone, hazy golden straw color and generous body. Diligent farmers in Hortonville and Mazomanie supply Nugget and Cascade hops for a delicate bitterness with a mild hop flavor and a slightly citrus aroma. Taste the soul of Wisconsin and you will find a well-balanced, unfiltered, homegrown lager with an ample body, yet a crisp, pilsner-like finish.
Proudly distributed locally by Galli Beer Distributing Company