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A 2004 Beer and Steam Odyssey through the US Midwest

Part 2: A train journey to historic breweries, bars and brew-pubs in Milwaukee

Sunday 20th to Monday 21st June

US Midwest P2 1A reasonably early arrival back at the hotel the previous evening was a blessing in disguise as we had a fairly early start the next morning. This Sunday was first day of our steam-hauled excursion around the Midwest.

The reason for its operation was a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Grand Excursion from Chicago. The original was when the rich and influential of Chicago were treated to a trip west to cross the Mississippi River, very much a boundary in those days.

In 1854 the first railway had reached the river. Beyond was mostly virgin land, undiscovered by the white man and often occupied by the red man. Entrepreneurs had acquired property at very cheap prices and they wanted investment from Easterners. So a special train was organised from Chicago to Rock Island and those travelling were taken across and up the river and shown the “promised land”. The journey was known as the Grand Excursion.

US Midwest P2 2The idea in 2004 was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the railway at the river with a considerable interest on the water itself. Again there was a special train from Chicago to Rock Island although by a different route to the original.

The steam locomotive entrusted to haul this train is based in Minneapolis, over 400 miles from Chicago. So a tour of many days was devised to get it there and back.

So, it was the following morning, Sunday 20th June that we found ourselves at Minneapolis Junction. Literally a junction, it was not a station in the conventional sense, but was home to the locomotive that was to pull the train over the next two weeks. This was 261, built for the Milwaukee Road (Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul & Pacific Railroad) in July 1944 by American Locomotive Company (Alco) of Schenectady, New York.

US Midwest P2 3Well, that’s the technical bit over. It worked on freight and passenger trains of the railroad’s middle section until it was taken out of service in 1954 after just ten years of service. The advancement of the diesel locomotive caused its premature demise.

Luckily it evaded the scrap merchant as it was presented to National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1993 it was restored to operational condition again, and has not looked back.

Currently it is looked after by the Friends of the 261 who maintain and operate it, mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This society has also made a magnificent job of restoring classic coaches from the Milwaukee Road and other railroads. The signature vehicle is Cedar Rapids, which is to be found on the end of all their special trains. It is a “Skytop Lounge”, built in 1948. Although we travelled in coach class (seats) as there were no overnight journeys involved, Linda still managed to have a conducted tour of this car, whilst I wandered around the yard.

US Midwest P2 4Just four were built for the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which ran from Chicago to Minneapolis and back every morning and afternoon. They had outward facing seats and a lounge bar. All of the Milwaukee Road’s express trains were given the Hiawatha name. The Twin Cities Hiawatha was at one time the fastest train in the world and will remain as the fastest scheduled steam-hauled train for ever more. The schedule was so tight that these trains had to achieve 100mph or more on a daily basis along the line from Chicago to Minneapolis.

The longest distance a Hiawatha train travelled was from Chicago to Tacoma in Washington state on the Pacific coast. This was the daily Olympian Hiawatha and six “Skytop Sleepers” were built for it to go on the back of the train. This version had a reduced amount of seats, no lounge bar, but did have eight bedrooms. From the outside they had the same curved rear end, which is 90% glass.

US Midwest P2 5We left Minneapolis on the tracks of the BNSF (Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad) yet originally built by the Great Northern Railroad. After St Paul we crossed to the home track of the locomotive, the Milwaukee Road. However that company has long since disappeared having become bankrupt in 1980. Its transcontinental line has mostly been abandoned. Nevertheless the eastern part of its system was profitable and is now owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway and that’s whose tracks we were on all the way to Milwaukee.

We followed the eastern bank of the Mississippi River to La Crosse then turned further east passing the interesting station of Wisconsin Dells where we passed over a deep sandstone gorge with a blue river at the bottom with a pleasure boat passing under the bridge. This is apparently a well-known tourist destination. After over 300 miles we arrived in Milwaukee Union station, opened in the 1965 in the style of the times, see photo above left. In 2007 it was extended to include long-distance buses and is now the Milwaukee Inter-modal Station and does looks very different.

US Midwest P2 6Luckily we had two nights in a hotel here as Tuesday had been designated as a day away from the rails. Our hotel was close to the Milwaukee branch of Rock Bottom so as soon as we had checked in we were enjoying a beer there. Following the usual sample set of beers we had cask-conditioned Honey Creek Pale Ale. The pub has a terrace overlooking the Milwaukee River and we thought it was adequate without being outstanding. This outlet was the thirteenth in the chain, opening in 1997. See photo above right.

The following day (Monday 21st June) found us embarking on a long walking tour of the old and new of Milwaukee’s breweries. Now, some background information: Milwaukee was the premier brewing city of the USA, akin to Burton in England or Edinburgh in Scotland.

US Midwest P2 7From the 1840s onwards there was much European settlement in the city, mainly from what was to become the country of Germany. The Germanic influence is very apparent in the names of these old breweries. The only exception is Miller whose massive brewery is the west of the city centre. Yet even this is not as it seems, as that brewery was founded by Friedrich Müller in 1855. He was an immigrant from the principality of Wüttemberg, who Anglicised his name. It remained in family ownership until 1956.

However, our perambulation through the streets of the city began in a brew-pub, the Milwaukee Ale House. Like Rock Bottom it was established here in 1997. Being just out of Downtown this place has a more definite pub feel than Rock Bottom. Lots of wooden furniture and bare wood floors. It has many games machines and electronic darts. See photos above left, right and below left. The brewery of the Milwaukee Brewing Company (as it is known) is to be seen behind glass walls.

US Midwest P2 8The first half of our pubs and breweries tour of Milwaukee was entirely along the south to north axis of Water Street. After leaving the Milwaukee Ale House we were continuously interrupted en route by rain showers. These were quite severe but thankfully didn’t last too long. It was an extensive walk of almost a mile till we eventually arrived at the Water Street Brewery, another brew-pub.

This was opened as long ago as 1987. As mentioned above the historic breweries of Milwaukee were established by German immigrants so overwhelmingly the beers were lagers in the Pilsener style, along with wheat beers in the days before prohibition. So, it is entirely possible that this brew-pub gave the drinkers of the city their first chance in a long time to enjoy draught ales brewed in the British / American mode.

It is located in the traditional brewing area either side of the Milwaukee River and inside the owners have created what can only called a museum of brewing in the city.

Along the walls are wooden cabinets containing over 6,000 cans. To that add vast numbers of posters, trays, a large number of neon signs and much, much more. This is a large purpose-built pub that has a pretty good vibe about it and their beers are quite reasonable. I would like to visit again.

US Midwest P2 9The rain had stopped as we moved on. Around a hundred metres away from the pub is the intersection between Water Street and Juneau Avenue.

Looking down Juneau to the other side of the river we could see the erstwhile Pabst brewery with its high bridge crossing from one side of the street containing the pipe that transferred beer from the brewery to the kegging and canning plants (please see photo below left).

It was well known for its flagship brand Blue Ribbon which was probably the dominant beer in the Western Great Lakes area including Chicago. It was named for the ribbon that was tied around the bottle neck until 1950. The brewery was established in 1844 by Jacob Best. His son Phillip Best took control in 1860 and in 1863 Frederick Pabst, who had married Phillip Best’s daughter, purchased the 50% of the company and gave it its name.

US Midwest P2 10The brewery was abruptly closed in 1996 when the production of beer was contracted to Stroh Brewing of Detroit. As they owned the Heileman’s Brewery in La Crosse, Wisconsin, this was where the brewing was transferred to. In a strange twist the brewery-less Pabst company purchased Stroh in 1999 and then sold the La Crosse brewery to the City Brewery (please see a report of a visit to the City Brewery, later in this piece). From 2001 Pabst brands have been brewed by Miller in Milwaukee.

The main brewing hall was still intact in 2010 and in 2017 a micro-brewery and tap room opened within the old brewery premises offering new brews and recreated classic past Pabst beers.

US Midwest P2 11At the junction of Water Street and Juneau Avenue we turned through 180 degrees and looked at what was left of the Blatz brewery. Opened in 1846 as the City Brewery by Johann Braun with Valentin Blatz as his braumeister. Braun died and Blatz married his widow in 1851 and the the name was changed. It was sold to English interests in 1891. The end came in 1959 when it was purchased by Pabst. The Blatz name was continued as the beer was brewed by the new owners until they closed down. Today the brand still exists and is brewed in Milwaukee by Miller.

We then caught a bus to the north-east of the city. But not before observing an old tiled Schlitz sign on the wall of a deceased pub. It’s former brewery was also in this area on the other side of the river on 3rd Street. This famous company started in in 1849 by August Krug. When he died in 1856 Joseph Schlitz, his book keeper married his widow. He built a new brewery on 3rd Street. He died when the steamship Schiller sank off Land’s End in 1875. The company thereafter was run by the four nephews of August Krug.

US Midwest P2 12Success followed and it was the biggest brewery in the city right up to Prohibition. It also recovered very well after that unfortunate period and in 1948 produced over 4,000,000 barrels (bbls), the largest from a single brewery at that time. All went well until the early 1980s when they changed the recipe to cut costs, using a high temperature fermentation along with inferior and some artificial ingredients. This must be a lesson learnt as drinkers turned away from Schlitz when they detected the change in taste.

This situation wasn’t assisted after a disastrous and rather bullying advertising campaign. On that subject does anybody remember when they tried to enter the British lager market with “The Beer that made Milwaukee famous” slogan? They didn’t last long! Also, do you remember a single by Rod Stewart named “What Made Milwaukee Famous (made a loser out of me)” in 1972? It was written in the 1960s and has also been recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis.

US Midwest P2 13In June 1981 there was a serious strike of production workers and in 1982 Schlitz was taken over by Stroh’s Brewery of Detroit who closed it. The beer continued but by now it was a discount brand in supermarkets and was rarely found on draught. In 1999 Pabst acquired Stroh and thus the Schlitz brands along with it. A lot of research was done and in 2008 Schlitz was relaunched with the original 1960s recipe. The brewery is a now a residential and retail complex called Schlitz Park, although the brew house was demolished in 2013.

So back on Water Street we caught a bus from the corner of Juneau Street and it dropped us close to the Normad World Pub on East Brady Street, our next destination. It’s in the Lower East Side district. That’s Milwaukee, not New York! Even in 2004 this pub had become a bit of a Milwaukee institution. It’s noted for a great range of beers, domestic (national and local), also many imports.

US Midwest P2 14Of interest to me was that we were in a sports orientated bar but not any sport. This pub is dedicated to football, as in Association football. It opens early to show 15.00 k.o. games from England. During the week there are afternoon (local time) games from England and Germany that are played during the evening in Europe. They publish a play list of the games in advance and on it the game is futbal, which I think is Czech.

It is believed that the pub opened its doors for the first time just prior to 1883. The reason for this supposition is that the city required building permits after that year and this building doesn’t have one. It started life as a tavern but had become a café by 1940.

It reverted to being a saloon in 1945 when it was purchased by Sylvester T Nolde and was known as Nolde’s Bar. He owned and ran it for 50 years and it was very much a Schlitz pub as can be seen in photographs of that era that show the brewery’s standard advertisement similar to one shown left.

It was in the same place as the present day pub logo on the side of the building, also see above left. In 1995 it was taken over by Mike Eitel, the owner to this day. Then, he had just returned from travelling the world, hence the name. His empire has broadened and he now has Normad pubs in Madison, the state capital, and also in downtown Milwaukee.

US Midwest P2 15There was a short abatement of the rain that had dominated our day in Milwaukee, so we broke away quickly to walk approximately ten minutes to Wolski’s Bar, see photo below right. This has become an institution in the city and much further afield. What was just a neighbourhood pub has attained recognition around the world.

The story goes back to the 1970s when a group of regulars claimed that they weren’t being recognised for their devotion to the pub when they left at 02.00 in the morning.

So the astute management printed car stickers that proclaimed “I closed Wolski’s” indicating that the owner of the sticker had been there at closing time. It was an inspired move and stickers can be seen all over the US and often in remote places around the world.

US Midwest P2 16All through this it should be remembered that it is a quite ordinary pub in a residential district. It has an interesting history however. It was built in 1908 and located on Brady Street where we had just come from. It was later moved (the whole building!) to its present location on Pulaski Street, next to Pulaski Park. It then lead an uneventful life until its global fame started in the 1970s.

It has been in the same family all the time as it is owned by the great-grandson of the founder. We thought the beer range was adequate without being outstanding, with a few from local small brewers.

However we were bothered by one customer who claimed to be “100% Irish” yet was actually a third generation American. He was drunk, had no knowledge of what the Good Friday Agreement was and wanted to cause trouble. I started with him gently but he soon got the full force of my tongue. The barman then told him to shut up or go home. A good result and he left.

US Midwest P2 17The day had brightened up slightly when we set off to our next port of call in this area in the North-east of the city. This took the form of a long walk to our next watering hole. Firstly, we went west from Wolski’s to the Milwaukee River.

Rather surprisingly, considering it was about to discharge in Lake Superior, I was surprised that it was in quite a deep valley. As we crossed the high Holton Street Bridge I noticed something below.

On the right of the bridge was the building of the Lakefront Brewery. On a whim we decided to visit. Now we had to find a way off the bridge? We located a zig-zag path down to North Commerce Street and descended. We walked up the ramp to the main entrance door. See photograph above left, notice one of the supports of the bridge on the left. Inside we found one of the brewers and asked if we could take some photographs. He was amenable and pointed out several features including the faces painted on several of the vessels. I don’t know what their purpose is, maybe they are fermentation tanks? I believe the faces are of the founders of the company.

US Midwest P2 18Whilst we were looking around our new-found host suggested we might like a brief sample of their beers. This was very gratefully accepted as it exceeded our expectations when we peered round the front door. We had a small glass each of: Eastside Dark (5.5%), a dunkel-style beer; Cream City Pale Ale (5.6%); Riverwest Stein Bier (5.6%), a lager; White Beer (5.3%) a Belgian-style witbier and Cattail (4.5%) an English Mild. Sadly the latter is no longer brewed.

The brewery was founded by Russ Klisch with help from his brother Jim and their first beer was sold in December 1987. Their brewery was located in an old bakery building in Riverwest, the district we were now in. It was of 55 gallons (US) capacity. By 1998 their annual production had risen to 3,000 barrels (bbls) and a move had to be made if they wanted to brew more.

US Midwest P2 19So, they moved to the building we were now in. It has an interesting story to tell. It was built as a power plant for the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company.

Well, the tramway is long gone, although construction of a new one commenced in 2017. I sure the power for the lighting comes nowadays from a large power station. This one generated by burning coal bought in via the Milwaukee River.

It ceased production and was directly offered to the Klisch brothers by the City, who were going to knock it down if an occupying business could not be found.

A brand new brew house was installed in 2000. Production continued upwards and in the year 2012 the output was 33,368 barrels. It is different these days as it accommodates a public tap room, open daily. When we visited they had a function room but no pub.

After this very pleasant interlude we continued our walk across the northern suburbs of Milwaukee. We had to go for eight blocks north up Holton Street to Center Street. There we turned right and three blocks along we found Onopa Brewing Tap Room. This is a neighbourhood bar with a brewery, I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I liked the pub but I have to say the beers varied considerably.

US Midwest P2 20The brew-pub was established in January 1999 by Paul Onopa, hence the name. We visited in June 2004. That year the business was sold on. Nothing changed for a while then in March 2006 the pub closed. When it reopened in April it had a new look and a new name, the Stonefly Brewing Co. Amazingly it was to happen again as it closed again in October 2014. It reopened in May 2015 as Company Brewing. We then returned to downtown by bus and had one last one in the Rock Bottom before going to our hotel.

Bob Thompson
Part 2 of 5