Falling for Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE -- Our timing couldn't have been more perfect for a visit to Milwaukee: The fall foliage colors were nearing their peak; the Brewers clinched the National League Division Series title on the second day of our stay; and the temperature was an unseasonably warm 80 degrees.
After deliberating other points to the south and west, Hubby Bryan and I ultimately decided on Milwaukee for our recent long weekend adventure -- what I have dubbed Bryan's Birthday Beer Tour -- mainly because the weather forecast seemed most favorable for that direction. We had also visited Milwaukee a couple years prior and knew we had only scratched the surface of things we wanted to see and do there.
On our previous Milwaukee excursion, Bryan and I toured the Lakefront and Miller/Coors breweries, attended a Friday night fish fry (a Wisconsin ritual), stayed at an Irish pub/hotel and caught a few glimpses of Lake Michigan. This time we set our sights on a couple of other signature Milwaukee venues; Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery; and the Old World Third Street section of downtown.
We discovered Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery by Googling Milwaukee breweries, knowing there were some we had left untapped. What we didn't immediately realize, however, is that Pabst is no longer a working brewery.
Because many brewery tours require advance reservations or fill up quickly, we called ahead. A friendly fellow named Jim answered the phone and quickly assured Bryan that "We've never turned anyone away." Just in case, we got there a bit early and took a stroll around the block of what was obviously an urban renewal project and spent some time in the gift shop, where the manager, Cheryl, eagerly chatted us up.
Eventually Jim came strolling in, glass of beer in hand, and we learned that he wasn't just a flunky answering the phone -- Jim Haertel is the owner of Best Place. He ushered our small group -- ourselves and two other couples -- into the Blue Ribbon Hall, beginning what turned out to be a captivating two-hour tour.
Blue Ribbon Hall was once used for employee and distributor gatherings and now is where Jim begins sharing the history of the brewery and his role in preserving it. The room was constructed to resemble a German guild hall. In 1944, to mark the brewery's 100th anniversary, artisan Edgar Miller was commissioned to create murals depicting its history and the brewing process -- and they are still remarkably intact and vivid. The tour fee includes a free pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Schlitz, served up by chief bartender Scott, and accompanied by pretzels, so we sipped and munched as we drank in the historical details.
Pabst was the first of the great Milwaukee breweries, founded in 1844 by German immigrant Jacob Best Sr. Ownership passed to his son, Philip Best, and then Phillip's son-in-law, Captain Frederick Pabst, who eventually changed the name from Best Beer to Pabst and was America's largest brewer from the late 1800s to 1946. Jim's presentation included a couple of scandalous tales about the Best/Pabst families as well as the showing of several classic Pabst TV commercials.
As the other big brewers grew and Pabst sales declined, the brewery was closed in 1996 and its iconic brands were brewed at other facilities. The buildings that made up the original brewery were virtually abandoned until Jim arrived on the scene.
Cashing in his 401k as a down payment, Jim received his accepted offer to purchase the brewery on the infamous date of Sept. 11, 2001. He persisted in his quest to preserve the brewery through several legal battles with partners and now is the sole owner of the parts of the complex that encompass Blue Ribbon Hall, the Captain's Courtyard, corporate offices, the guest center and original gift shop. Other parts of the brewery are being developed into a residential neighborhood -- condos and lofts with a "green" emphasis.
Although it has yet to be restored, we particularly enjoyed the second floor corporate office area, where Jim has commandeered Capt. Pabst's former office in the turret as his own. Original stained glass windows are still intact, and the woodwork is spectacular. Jim hopes to eventually turn the space into a second banquet hall.
While beer will likely never be brewed on the premises again, Best Place is still a place of hospitality. In addition to the tours, the facilities are booked nearly every weekend for special occasions such as banquets and weddings. The gift shop carries both new licensed Pabst and Schlitz merchandise as well as vintage beer memorabilia, some of which is for sale.
And by the end of the tour, you will be on a first-name basis with Jim, Cheryl and Scott.
IF YOU GO: Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery is located at 901 W. Juneau Ave. in Milwaukee. The gift shop is open from noon to 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Tours are at 1 and 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The Best Place Tavern, serving Pabst, Schlitz and a variety of locally brewed beers, is open from noon to midnight Thursday through Sunday, except when special events are booked. Phone (414) 630-1609 or go to www.bestplacemilwaukee.com.
Old World Third Street
Upon our arrival, we were happy to discover that the hotel we had booked was just a short driving distance from Best Place and within walking distance of Old World Third Street, now the centerpiece of Milwaukee's German heritage. After checking in, we strolled about six blocks down the hill to the area that boasts the city's premier German restaurant, a German beer hall, a number of Old World-style pubs, a renowned sausage shop and a cheese shop.
In one of the pubs, we joined the locals in cheering the Brewers on to their NLDS championship. The celebration continued at the Old German Beer Hall, modeled after the original Hofbräuhaus in Munich, Germany. With victory in sight, the patrons were all treated to an impromptu version of "Tequila" played on the alpenhorn.
On the other side of Old World Third Street, the Usinger family has been making sausage in the same location for 125 years.
"In the late 1870s a young German immigrant, Fred Usinger, arrived in Milwaukee with $400 in cash and his favorite sausage recipes, which he had learned as an apprentice "wurstmacher" (sausage maker) in Frankfurt," explains the Usinger sausage shop history. "He had ambition, dreams of a better life and the willingness to work hard for it. He went to work for Mrs. Julia Gaertner, a widow who operated a small butcher shop on Third Street. Within a year or so, Usinger had bought out Mrs. Gaertner, married her niece Louise and moved into living quarters above the store. The young couple worked 16 to 18 hours a day making and selling their sausage. Their best customers were saloonkeepers whose trade depended on the quality of their free lunches. As long as their customers relished Usinger's sausages, the saloons paid Usinger's premium price. At the turn of the century, Milwaukee's German aristocracy did their shopping on Third Street, and the store soon became a popular stop. Before long, Usinger's was shipping sausage as far away as New York."
Our favorite stop on Old World Third Street was the Wisconsin Cheese Bar, housed in another Milwaukee food institution -- the Milwaukee Cheese Mart. After shopping for Wisconsin-made cheeses and perusing the selection of cheese heads, hats and even ties, patrons can indulge in a glass of wine or local microbrews paired with the cheeses. We tried the homemade pretzels, which when dipped in a local mustard, were as good as I remembered sampling in Germany.
At the end of the day, we felt like we'd had a genuine "Old World" experience.
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