Shlemiel, Schlemazel, Hasenpfeffer is Back

Nearly 100 years before Laverne and Shirley sang their way to work at the fictional Shotz Brewery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin was already a beer city.

Today, more than a half dozen new breweries are looking to re-ignite the notion, but this time as a craft beer city.

In a complete bit of happenstance, multiple breweries are either opening as start-ups, moving into the city from other places in Wisconsin or expanding with a taproom all this summer.

Those that are opening just this year include Good City, City Lights, Third Space and Urban Harvest. Moving into the area from other parts of the state are Black Husky (from Pembine) and MobCraft (from Madison). Those join recent openers from the last year or so in the area like Brenner, Company, District 14 and Enlightened.

Kevin Wright, the brewer and co-owner for Third Space, said he moved back to his home city to open a brewery after working for Hangar 24 near the Los Angeles area.

“Man, everyone saw what I saw,” he said when he thought back to hearing of all these other breweries opening in 2016. “This city is under served by the number of breweries and for the passion of beer here. I think a lot of people saw this at the same time and love this city and want to bring that craft beer culture to this city. We [along with co-owner Andy Gehl] grew up here and came back to build something for this community. It wasn’t revolutionary, obviously since everyone else saw it as well, but it’s exciting.”


Steve Pribek of Urban Harvest was the first of the new wave of breweries in Milwaukee to open. After a few soft openings, he made his grand opening a few weeks ago and was slammed all weekend. He was excited for the prospects this many new breweries could bring to the beer culture of Milwaukee.

“It reinforces the title of being a beer city,” he said. “Just this street alone [South 5th Street] with Brenner here and MobCraft coming in is exciting. We are all a little different, in size and how we operate, we can all greatly benefit from each other. We aren’t carbon copies just opening up.”

Just a few years ago, the “Big Three” in the city was Milwaukee (MKE), Lakefront and Sprecher. Much larger in barrelage than the many newbies that will be putting out around 1,000 bbls or more, the older craft breweries are welcoming to the new breed.

“I’ve never been to a city that has too many breweries,” said Lakefront president Russ Klisch. “They never seem to close and everyone seems to have an increase in demand and knowledge of craft beer. The more people learn, the more people won’t go back to drinking bland beer. There are still people out there to convert.”

Enlightened opened in early 2015, but founder Tommy Vandervort is proud of his inclusion into this new wave. After starting as a 1/2 bbl production facility, the brewery is opening a taproom this summer and expanding to a 3-bbl system.

“We don’t look at each other like competition, it’s a very fraternal type of thing,” he explained. “The older breweries, we owe a lot to them because they did it before any of us. They blazed the trail for what craft beer could do in Milwaukee. So I think Milwaukee is ready and it’s a good city to do this kind of thing. The more selection, the better. We are mostly going to be in different neighborhoods so we can cross promote and set up tours. We are looking forward to all of them getting going.”

Competition can breed higher quality was what many echoed, downplaying any aspects of “too much at the same time.”

“I’m hoping it’s a rising tide and we are all in it together,” said Good City brewer Andy Jones, who left his job at Lakefront to start his endeavor. “I’m excited to see how some of these great brewers are going to get to show off what they do.”

Added Wright: “Competition … forces you to be better. If someone had just one choice, they will drink you since it’s all they can try. If they have four or five options, if you aren’t making quality beer, they are going to shift away from you, which helps you work at getting better.”

City Lights founder Jimmy Gohsman pointed out that the newer breweries have joined together to form a Milwaukee Craft Brewery League and is working with VisitMilwaukee to help spur the increase in beer tourism.

“We want to raise awareness of the entire craft beer scene in Milwaukee because up until last year there were mostly just the main three,” he said while standing inside the building that will eventually be a tank farm, QC lab and canning facility. “We want to bring beer greatness back to Milwaukee where it should be.”

Although City Lights plans to can from the start, many of the breweries have said they expect to be a neighborhood bar that happens to make its own beer. Growth can come in stages many said.

Sprecher president Jeff Hamilton echoed those thoughts.

“It’s a difficult time to get up and running beyond their own doors,” he said. “I think there is room for craft beer expansion but I think most will be drank on premise at or near these breweries. There isn’t shelf space being created or even a lot of taps being made other than by the breweries themselves at their taprooms.”
Added Vandervort: “A lot of the smaller brewers have that attitude of let’s just focus on where we live. There is a market here, we don’t have to take over the Midwest or just in the state. That’s a part of this new class of brewers. For us, we don’t want to take over the world…or even go across state lines. There is plenty to go around here in Milwaukee and surrounding areas.”

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