30 Years in the Brew City: Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery celebrates craft brewing milestone

Lakefront's El Wisco, Fuel Cafe, and IPA // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Lakefront’s El Wisco, Fuel Cafe, and IPA // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

As a Milwaukee girl, beer runs deep in my family. And there was one name that almost always made the list of beverages in the cooler for a weekend away: Lakefront. Bottles of Fixed Gear, Riverwest Stein, and Hop Jockey Double IPA would chill next to the signature green eyeball on a neighboring bottle of Lakefront IPA.

Nestled on Commerce Street along the Milwaukee River on the southern edge of Milwaukee’s Brewer’s Hill, Lakefront Brewery is the veritable anchor of Brew City’s craft brewing scene, and this year marks 30 years in business.

We took the opportunity to chat with Lakefront owners, brothers Jim and Russ Klisch about what’s made the company successful in its first three decades, what’s changed in that time, and where they’re headed next.

 

The Growler: It’s 1987. Why did you decide to get into brewing?

Jim: Russ bought this rudimentary book on brewing for my birthday, and we literally looked in the phone book for a place that sold equipment. A friend told us we should try brewing pale ale, and I had to ask him what that was. We just went from there and discovered this growing homebrewing community. And [Russ] was an engineer, so we thought we could build a brewery on the cheap from other people’s junk. We paid out of pocket for most things, and it grew, slow but sure.

Milwaukee was kind of slow to get into the craft brewing scene, though it’s picked up in the past few years. The big breweries kind of took all the talent at first. I think people thought that if you can get a nice, steady job with benefits, why would you go off on your own to brew? Plus the domestic brands had a lot of power in the state. Milwaukee in general tends to be a little behind trends—making sure things catch on before they go all-in, but then they’re out for quality. Now our city has come into the fold, and new breweries are springing up like mushrooms.

Jim and Russ Klisch pouring their first beer, Riverwest Stein Amber Lager at Gordon Park Pub in Milwaukee // Photo courtesy of Lakefront Brewery

Jim and Russ Klisch pouring their first beer, Riverwest Stein Amber Lager at Gordon Park Pub in Milwaukee // Photo courtesy of Lakefront Brewery

G: What’s changed in the last 30 years?

Jim: The craft beer business has really blown up. It used to be—when we started—that we looked in the checkbook, and if there was money in the account, we’d buy something. Now, to be successful as a new brewery, you have to hit the ground running with a million-dollar promotional and business plan.

Russ: Our building was a coal-burning power plant in its former life, and we were the first operational building on the street in 1999. Now there are condos everywhere—this street certainly doesn’t look like it did then.

Jim: Millennials are returning to the city to work, live, and play. And drinking habits are shifting, too—the “share of stomach” is following along with them. The taproom is where people want to hang out and drink right now. So we have food every day in the beer hall—you really need to have a fish fry to balance the 13% ABV barrel-aged Eisbock, I think.

Russ: When we started, beer meant Miller, Bud, Pabst, Schlitz—and if you were blindfolded, you couldn’t tell which one you were drinking. And at first we imitated European styles, and tried to replicate them. Now we’re innovators—we’re coming out and brewing something different. Not just us, but all the little guys. Now American beer is second-to-none in the world. In a way, we feel like we’ve helped change beer in Milwaukee—and in America.

Photos courtesy of Lakefront Brewery

G: Lakefront has been at the forefront of many changes in the industry. Which stick out in your mind?

Russ: In 1981, Schlitz closed, and in 1996, Pabst closed. Those were sad days in the city, but they also signaled a change that was happening in the industry.

In 1996, we became the first brewery in the country to get a license and brew certified organic. 2005 was when we got label approval for gluten-free beer. Previously, anything without 25 percent malted barley couldn’t be classified as a beer. We helped come up with the new policy, and Lakefront was first in line with New Grist, made with rice and sorghum.

2011 was when we brewed our first all-indigenous beer—Wisconsinite Summer Weiss hefeweizen—made with 100 percent Wisconsin-grown hops, malt, yeast, and water. And in 2016, I helped develop the Cellar Certified hourglass labels for age-able beers.

Lakefront Brewery co-founder Jim Klisch hoists a Riverwest Stein Amber Lager, the brewery's flagship beer // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Lakefront Brewery co-founder Jim Klisch hoists a Riverwest Stein Amber Lager, the brewery’s flagship beer // Photo by Kevin Kramer

G: What would you say to someone just getting started in brewing?

Jim: You have to understand the three-tiered business—brewers, distributors, retailers—and know how much money it’ll take to succeed at each of those levels. If you’re going to build a $3 million brewery, how will you pay for it? You have to be prepared mentally to take on that challenge, because it can overcome you. You have to know if you can still walk away at the end of the day.

There’s more brewing capacity now than ever before, but beer sales overall are not increasing. Domestics are fighting back and effectively controlling prices by buying up smaller brands and fixing craft beers at $8.99 a six-pack. Many regional brands are feeling the pressure because of it. But once you start brewing, it changes your life. All of a sudden, you want to start experiencing the other flavors and great things in the world. You become aware of beer hot spots—like a “beer tourist”—and so much more interested in the flavors out there and what this human community has to offer.

Visit lakefrontbrewery.com for updates on 30th anniversary events and beers.