History on Tap | Midwest Living
More
Close

History on Tap

"Another beer tour?" My family looks puzzled. We've chuckled along with a high-spirited guide at Lakefront Brewery, traipsed through the huge Miller-Coors factory and are scheduled to visit Sprecher Brewery. On our first visit to Milwaukee, we're doing our best to get the full brewing experience.

"But this one's right here," I say, pointing out our hotel room window at Brewhouse Inn and Suites to a turreted building across the street. "And it's a beer history tour."

An hour later, we're sitting in Blue Ribbon Hall at Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. Owner Jim Haertel is showing vintage beer commercials, tossing out tokens for free beer to guests who answer questions correctly and entertaining us with stories about Pabst. He must have done this hundreds of times, but he's so enthusiastic that the crowd is laughing, clapping and cheering.

"I'm telling you my story not to get your applause, but to tell you to follow your dreams," Jim says. "Find your passion and go for it. You don't want to be on your deathbed thinking, If I'd only… "

The Pabst story begins with Jacob Best, a German immigrant who founded a brewery in Milwaukee in 1844. In 1863, Frederick Pabst, a steamship captain who had married into the family, bought a share in the enterprise, which eventually became Pabst Brewing Company.

Along with Schlitz, Blatz and Miller, Pabst was one of the major brewers in Milwaukee. In its heyday, company perks included guaranteed beer breaks every three hours. Truck drivers? "They'd just put a case or two between the front seats," Jim says. "Different times."

The good times came to an end in 1996 when the 20-acre Pabst factory closed, the victim of declining sales, pension disputes and corporate wrangling. The beer is still being made—in Milwaukee, it's part of the Miller-Coors output—but the Pabst headquarters are in Los Angeles.

So what do you do with 25 abandoned buildings, built between 1870 and 1969? That’s where Jim—and a handful of others with vision and passion—comes in.

As Jim tells the story, he cashed out his IRA for a $50,000 down payment on the Pabst complex in 2001. Other investors eventually came along, and the area is slowly coming back to life for residential, office and commercial uses. One example: the Brewhouse Inn and Suites, which opened last year in the former brewhouse and millhouse after a $20 million renovation. The six-story, 90-room boutique hotel preserves items of brewery history, like gleaming copper brew kettles.

Jim's piece of this world is called Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery and includes the old administrative building, Blue Ribbon Hall (painted in 1944 with murals depicting the story of brewing), a tavern, two courtyards and a gift shop that dates to the 1930s. He envisions that one day he might operate a "Beer, Bed, and Breakfast."

The 75-minute tour of Best Place ($8, including a glass of Pabst, Schlitz or non-alcoholic drink) covers just the spaces that Jim owns, but the history is rich and the story inspirational.  

In one of the courtyards, you'll pass a statue of King Gambrinus, a legendary symbol of brewing. When the Pabst brewery closed, Gambrinus was removed, put in storage, and then carted to an employee cafeteria in Illinois. Jim wanted the king returned to what he felt was his rightful place. So one day in 2011….

But I'll let Jim tell you about that. 

Want to receive weekly digests of the midCetera blog? E-mail blog@midwestliving.com with the subject line "Subscribe."