It took only a couple of hours to hear the inevitable.
“What do you have that tastes like Miller Lite?”
In a city made famous by pale and mostly bland beer, I was surprised it took so long.
The question arrived early on a Saturday evening at Good City Brewing, which opened about two years ago near Milwaukee’s handsome, weathered downtown. During a wave of brewery openings in a city most familiar with the classic brands made there — Miller, Schlitz and Pabst — Good City has been particularly popular. But the sudden diversity of beer choice can leave some drinkers befuddled.
The bartender was surprisingly thrown by the question. He briefly wore a pained expression while calculating the options. Ten beers were on tap, five of which were bitter-meets-fruity pale ales, IPAs and double IPA. Those wouldn’t work. The most obvious choice, a Pilsner, was probably too robust, he said.
The woman said she wanted something “light” and “smooth.”
Finally, the bartender handed her a 1-ounce taste of En Fleur, described by Good City as a “session saison.” It was a light, yet heavily herbal Belgian-style beer clocking in at just 3.8 percent alcohol — even less than a Miller Lite. The woman smiled.
“I like that,” she said. “I’ll have one.”
Milwaukee’s history is as beer-drenched as any city’s in the nation — its baseball team is the Brewers for heaven’s sake — but it has been curiously late to the national rise of small and local breweries. During the past decade, the number of breweries in the U.S. has climbed from 1,500 to about 6,500. Craft beer’s share of sales rose from less than 4 percent of the industry to more than 12 percent.
Yet Milwaukee’s craft beer scene had remained largely static, highlighted by Lakefront Brewery, which opened in 1988 and began leading lively, beer-swilling tours long before such things were common.
But during the past two years, a better-late-than-never renaissance has arrived. At least a dozen new breweries have opened in and around Milwaukee, including Good City, which seems to have been assembled from the modern build-a-brewery playbook: concrete floor, exposed brick wall, Edison bulbs glowing above a blond wood bar and fermentation tanks churning out waves of hoppy beer.
Good City had grown quickly. It began distributing kegs to local bars a month after opening and followed by packaging its beer in bottles and cans in December. An eager audience has led Good City to already expand once, putting it on pace to produce a healthy 5,000 barrels of beer by 2018.
The city made famous by Miller, Schlitz and Pabst has rediscovered what else beer can be.
“We had enough of seeing the good things going on in other places,” Good City co-founder Dan Katt said. “We felt driven to do something here, especially a taproom similar to what we’ve seen in Western Michigan, or what Revolution has going on in Chicago, or what’s happening in Asheville or Portland.”
Other newcomers include Third Space Brewing, which launched a taproom and production brewery along an industrial strip beside the Menomonee River; City Lights Brewing, which opened a few months later less than a mile from Third Space; Black Husky Brewing, which started in 2010 in the tiny town of Pembine but moved to Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood in August 2017; MobCraft Beer, the “world’s first crowd-sourced brewery,” which launched a taproom and brewery in 2016 after four years in Madison; Urban Harvest Brewing, a tiny spot started by a longtime home brewer; Enlightened Brewing, which moved into an expanded production space and opened a new taproom in summer 2016; Broken Bat Brewing, which opened in April 2017; and good old Pabst, which is trying to redefine itself under new ownership as a quasi-craft breweryLike Minds Brewing.
New breweries in many cities are playgrounds for the cool — the bearded, the flanneled and the trucker-hatted. Not so in Milwaukee. In true Midwestern style, the taprooms I visited attracted robust, varied and down-to-earth crowds. Until dinnertime, families with kids were more likely to be present than not. Each taproom had at least a few gray-haired folks.
At Black Husky, appropriately enough, an occasionally barking dog sat at the bar. And by 8:15 on a Saturday night, in the cavernous Third Space taproom, a broad cross section of people cradled beer: people wearing trendy clothing labels, a family gathered for a reunion, and even a dozen women at a bachelorette party with the future bride wearing white lace in her hair. Patrons seemed to revel in discovering their new world of beer options.
Six locals in their 40s and 50s joined my eight-top table and spent the next 30 minutes passing around their glasses to figure out what they liked. Among the beers was It Was All a Dream, aptly described on the menu as a “juicy IPA,” Acres Edge, a “toasted oatmeal stout,” and That’s Gold, an approachable German-style kolsch ale.
The one woman nursing a glass of water wasn’t having any of it. Though she was game to try.
“This is fruity though,” a man told her, passing over the juicy IPA. “You might like it; it’s very good.”
She shook her head.
“No? Come on!”
After that group of drinkers left, five bar-hopping buddies took their place. Nate Voelz, who works in furniture repair, is a lifelong Milwaukee resident who is cautiously optimistic about the beer renaissance in his hometown.
“What’s going on is huge,” Voelz said. “But I don’t know if all these new breweries can survive.”
Good City’s Katt believes there’s enough variation among the new breweries that any operation with a solid business plan will be just fine.
“There’s an ‘old school versus new school’ mentality going on, depending on who you’re talking to,” Katt said. “The old school would say there’s too many new breweries and they can’t pay attention to all this.”
And the new school?
“The people who have been waiting for it,” he said. “Especially considering our great beer history, we owe this to ourselves.”
If you go
Milwaukee is rife with breweries and taprooms that have opened in recent years. Among those worth a visit:
Black Husky Brewing (909 E. Locust St., 414-509-8855,) spent years 200 miles north of Milwaukee but selling most of its beer to the city. Finally, it made the move south, and it has quickly won a loyal following. The beers I tried were largely pitch perfect. Be sure to try Sproose, a double IPA made with spruce tips.
Enlightened Brewing (2018 S. First St., 414-364-6225) has one of the coolest taprooms you’ll ever see: a rustic space with no separation to the brewery, which sits raised immediately behind the taps. The epitome of the scrappy craft brewery. Be sure to try Prototypical Porter, a rich, but easy-drinking porter.
Good City Brewing (2108 N. Farwell Ave., 414-539-4343) distills all the pieces of modern craft brewing into one brewery and taproom. There were plenty of hoppy beers on the menu, but I found them hit and miss, so the recommendation here is Detail, another excellent porter.
Third Space Brewing (1505 W. St. Paul Ave., 414-909-2337) opts for a rustic-meets-industrial motif in a fun, laid-back taproom. There are plenty of quality IPAs out there, and Upward Spiral is one of them.
Nothing says Midwest quite like the easy-drinking flagship of Wisconsin’s most renowned craft brewer. As one industry veteran recently described it, Spotted Cow isn’t just a beer — “it’s an institution.” Spotted Cow may not be New Glarus’ best beer, but its enduring charm is undeniable, fueled mostly by its accessibility (“fun, fruity and satisfying,” the brewery says). Spotted Cow can please persnickety veteran beer fans or someone more likely to reach for a can of “lite” beer. Also in its favor is Spotted Cow’s irresistible name, its charming hand-drawn label (a cow jumping over the state of Wisconsin) and the fact that New Glarus doesn’t distribute beer beyond the Cheeseland borders. If you want the most classic of Midwest beers, you need to step into the heart of the Midwest. Doesn’t get more Midwestern than that.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
The IPA that taught the Midwest to love IPAs. Two Hearted dates to 1993, but has morphed gradually into its current form, which was recently named best beer in the U.S. (for a second time) by readers of Zymurgy magazine. There’s nothing flashy about Two Hearted — it’s built on the classic IPA motif of fruity citrus and bitter resinous pine. Bonus Midwest points for being named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.(Bell’s)
Most ambitious breweries age imperial stout in bourbon barrels these days. First to do it, back in 1995, was Chicago’s Goose Island. Though most Goose Island production has been exported to Anheuser-Busch breweries, Bourbon County Stout is still made in Chicago and remains a benchmark in the genre. Other breweries may rival or even surpass the quality, but “Bourbon County Stout” is among the most iconic words in beer for a reason.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Two Hearted may be the Midwest’s pioneering hop bomb, but Alpha King hasn’t been far behind since debuting as Three Floyds’ very first beer, in 1996. Plenty of other trendy pale ales have appeared since — including Floyds’ own Zombie Dust — but Alpha King remains an expert piece of Midwest beer history. And it’s still a damn fine pale ale.(John Dziekan / Chicago Tribune)
A chocolate oatmeal coffee stout isn’t so radical now, but 15 years ago it sure was. An instant classic that remains so, even after graduating from rare specialty release to a year-round part of Founders’ portfolio.(Jim Karczewski / Chicago Tribune)
I was at one of Chicago’s better bars recently, where all sorts of trendy IPAs and adjunct-laden stouts were on tap. The most satisfying thing I drank? This smooth and roasty porter, which originates to 1990 and remains tasty as ever.(Bonnie Trafelet / Chicago Tribune)
Few of the new generation of Midwestern breweries have captured hearts and minds quite like Side Project, which did in fact begin as a side project for Cory King, a brewer for Perennial Artisan Ales at the time. Now on his own, King makes mostly sour and funky ales aged in oak. The beers aren’t released with much regularity so it’s difficult to recommend any one in particular. Instead, it is the Side Project portfolio — especially those oak-aged wild ales — that are recommended. The beers are available only at Side Project’s two St. Louis-area locations. If ever there was cause for a road trip, this is it.(Cory King / Side Project Brewing)
A modern classic that got the Midwest on board with the bold fruity-citrus direction hop-forward beers were headed, while almost single-handedly putting the Hawkeye state on the beer-drinking map.(E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)
First introduced in 1999, this French-style ale from suburban Chicago is a well-honored example (seven major medals during the past 11 years) of elegance and balance — not too hoppy, not too malty, not too earthy, not too dry but a little bit of all of the above. Biere de garde never quite caught on in the mainstream, yet Domaine DuPage was still somehow ahead of its time.(Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
Often imitated and rarely duplicated, Abraxas was one of the first notable “pastry stouts” — those boozy black beers laden with a spice drawer of ingredients. This one, made with ancho chile peppers, cacao nibs, vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks, was visionary when first released shortly after Perennial launched in 2011. It continues to excel in its harmony and balance. The barrel-aged version is even more impressive.
(Aitor Rodriguez Godoy)
Jolly Pumpkin claims a lofty distinction in American brewing: the nation’s first all-sour, all oak-aged brewery. There’s really not a bad beer in Jolly Pumpkin’s lineup, but this low alcohol (4.5 percent) farmhouse ale is an essential starting point with a web of earthy flavors: lemon, rind, straw, hay and a touch of oak and a bit of a tart tealike character. Layered, complex and approachably refreshing.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Beer drinkers in a certain swath of the lower Midwest and Plains states — Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska among them — would likely cite Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat as the single most essential beer to come out of the Midwest. (Said one such person, “Countless people cut their better beer teeth on that beer.”) But here’s where my bias comes in: among Boulevard Brewing’s very fine lineup, it is Tank 7 saison that was the game changer. Introduced in 2009, Tank 7 is as responsible as any beer for bringing the earthy, elegant style — one that 10 years earlier wasn’t being made by any American brewery — into the mainstream.(Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune)
This IPA was a later arrival — in 2014 — for a brewery that’s been grinding out renowned beer since 2005. But Todd the Axe Man was among those shepherding in the new era of IPA: bold, robust and fruity. An instrumental part of the Midwest’s transition from where hoppy simply meant “bitter” to meaning “fruity and bitter.”(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Goose Island gets credit for launching the barrel-aging revolution, but the best barrel-aged coffee beer in our fair region may be this one from central Wisconsin. Rich coffee sits alongside notes of ripe fruit, creamy vanilla and chocolate. This beer had a couple of down years with infected batches, but the most recent release shows Peruvian Morning to be back atop its game.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Amid so much regional German influence, it only makes sense a German-inspired craft brewery should make a definitive version of one of the most iconic German styles of all. Afterburner is a toasty Oktoberfest beer with lingering depth and body and a long bready finish.(Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
It was an unlikely sight when it first appear in 2015: a traditional tart Belgian-style beer … in a 12-ounce can! As part of Destihl’s Wild Sour series, Flanders Red is just what it should be: tart and jamlike fruitiness wrapped in pleasantly puckering sourness, lingering like sour candy.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Pity the oatmeal stout. It isn’t full of trendy hops. It isn’t crammed with weird, sugary ingredients. It’s just good beer — creamy, roasty and satisfying. The Poet has been one of the Midwest’s definitive oatmeal stouts for nearly 20 years. It remains so.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
There was a “holy smokes” moment back when this little brewpub an hour south of Chicago won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2012 in the American-style pale ale category, one of the festival’s most competitive. But the beer was pitch perfect: An initial burst of lush mango and grapefruit notes dry out into a clean, bitter finish accented by a dash of juicy sweetness. Tastes have moved on, but this remains a definitive American pale ale.(E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)
This wasn’t supposed to be Off Color’s flagship. But the people spoke, and they came down firmly on the side of a modern American saison, a zesty explosion of orange, lemon, clove, honey and a touch of vanilla laced with bright yeasty backbone. Refreshing and effervescent.(Bill Hogan / Chicago Tribune)
New England style IPAs — also known as hazy or double dry-hopped IPAs — have been all the rage, but there’s a problem: A lot of them are bad. The Midwest’s definitive version arguably comes from this small brewery just east of Lansing. It has everything a beer of this style should: massive fruit stand-like citrus and a decadently soft body balanced by just enough bitterness.(Old Nation Brewing)
An alluring web of toffee, caramel and milk chocolate and a wisp of coconut mingle in a beer that’s also lightly nutty and deeply drinkable. Sadly, this beer was only available in Chicago for a short time. But hey, Michigan isn’t so far.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Very much of the new generation of stouts, a fudgy, sweet decadent treat that makes the beer nerds go mad.(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Capital Brewing, dating to 1984, is of the old guard of Midwestern brewing — which makes it a perfect fit for an old guard German style like maibock. This malty golden-copper brew, rife with caramel richness and a wisp of butterscotch in the sweet, grainy finish, is released every spring. As the brewery says: “When you see our Maibock hit the shelves you know things are about to get better … including the weather!” How Midwestern.(Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)
Upland has waded into an ambitious sour beer program, and one of the most revered is a golden sour ale aged on fresh Indiana pawpaw fruit.(Joseph C. Garza / The Tribune-Star)
It’s no exaggeration to call Piece one of the nation’s great brewpubs. The pizza is delicious and the beer, made by Jonathan Cutler — who has been the brewer since Day 1, in 2001 — is even better. Cutler makes a variety of styles well, and his dozens of medals prove as much. Among the classics is the dark German-style ale, rife with notes of banana and cocoa. It’s typically a cold-weather release for Piece, which makes it one of the few reasons to — gasp — actually look forward to winter in the Midwest.
(Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)