A Quick, Drunk History of Milwaukee

At one time considered the “Beer Capital of the World”, Milwaukee was home to four of the largest brewers in the U.S. Now the city is home to only one: Miller Brewing Co.


At one point in its history, Milwaukee was the self proclaimed “Beer Capital of the World”. The Wisconsin city had access to wheat (it was the world biggest exporter of it by 1860) and the water of Lake Michigan, but this isn’t why it became such a behemoth beer producer. It all started with ze Germans, revolutionary advertising and one of the largest disasters of the 19th century.

The Rise

Milwaukee has always been a beer town. Even before it was officially a city, Milwaukee had one tavern per every forty residents. A boom-town that quickly filled up after the discovery of large iron-ore deposits in nearby Dodge County, the city attracted large numbers of immigrants in search of the American dream. A decade and half after its incorporation in 1846, the city’s population had increased by a factor of five. Many of these new residents were Germans — intellectuals who had fled the Revolution of 1848 spreading throughout Europe — who were drawn to Milwaukee for its uniquely bumping scene of German Catholicism.

By 1880, native Germans made up 27 percent of the city’s population — the highest concentration of a single immigrant group in any American city — and with the Germans came beer halls, beer yeast and the know-how for brewing. Among these immigrants were Frederick Miller, who leased a brewery in town in 1855, Joseph Schlitz, who did the same in 1856 and Frederick Pabst, who followed a decade later. Along with Valentin Blatz, these four men represented the biggest breweries in town.

A panorama of Milwaukee in its heyday, with most of the breweries in the back left.

Then, at about noon on October 8, 1871, a fire started near a barn in Chicago — which was in the midst of a severe drought — and spread to over 3 square miles of the city, destroying 11 of the city’s 23 breweries, much of its water works and the housing for a third of the population. In response, many breweries in Milwaukee, following Schlitz’s lead, floated vast shipments of free beer to Chicago through Lake Michigan. Word got out, loyal drinkers were made and Schlitz became known as “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” A year before the fire Schlitz produced around 6,800 barrels of beer. By the end of 1871, Schlitz produced 12,381 barrels.

In the years directly following the fire, increasing demand sent over half of Milwaukee’s beer out of the city; the city’s brewers shipped more beer than those in New York, Philadelphia or St. Louis. The brewers took advantage of the spark of growth and widened distribution and advertising heavily. In 1882, Pabst began tying a blue ribbon to every bottle, which, combined with other promotions, helped them increase from a 100,000 barrel output in 1872 to 1 million barrels in 1895.

Schlitz sent Commodore Dewey and his men a reward of 3,600 bottles when they captured Manila during the Spanish American War in 1898.

Schlitz, Pabst’s biggest competitor, had an output of 547,196 barrels in 1891, double that of their 1881 numbers. Schlitz also started getting creative in response to Pabst’s campaigns. The brewer sent Commodore Dewey and his men a reward of 3,600 bottles when they captured Manila during the Spanish American War in 1898, making the Commodore thirsty enough to order a trainload more. In total, 700,000 barrels of beer were shipped to the Philippines during the war, much of it coming directly from Milwaukee.

When, in 1909, Teddy Roosevelt visited Africa to hunt, there were 80 cases of Schlitz beer waiting for him at Mombassa. The beer company made sure that Roosevelt’s photograph was taken and distributed widely. These tactics helped the collective output of Milwaukee brewers top American beer production, even as late as the 1950s.

The Demise

For many years Schlitz overtook Pabst to hold the title as the biggest brewer in the biggest beer town in America. But in an effort to meet growing demand, the brewery introduced the accelerated batch fermentation process in 1967, which allowed for 25 percent more production capacity and shorter fermentation times. Word got out that the recipe had changed and the beer wasn’t aged as long, putting a dent in the Schlitz name. Then, not even a decade later, Schlitz was forced to dump 10 million bottles in Memphis and Tampa due to a haze discovered in the beer.

With Schlitz’s image already crippled, legal trouble from sketchy ad campaigns opened the door for Miller and Pabst to outsell Schlitz. Then, in June 1981, a workers’ strike caused Schlitz’s board of directors to close down their Milwaukee plant, the final in a series of mistakes that led pissed off Milwaukee residents to coin the slogan, “Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee furious.”

German brewing skill, revolutionary advertising and one of the largest disasters of the 19th century helped the collective output of Milwaukee brewers top American beer production.

Shortly after, in 1982, Schlitz was purchased by Stroh Brewing Co. of Detroit, a company that Pabst then acquired in 1999. Having closed down the Milwaukee-based Pabst brewery in 1996, Pabst moved first to San Antonio and then to Los Angeles where it now resides as part of one of the biggest brewery partnerships in the U.S.

Milwaukee brewers were the first to offer “premium beers”; they took the lead on the development of the beer can in the late 1930s; and they represented the American spirit of entrepreneurship and commercial success. Today, however, the only major brewery left in Milwaukee is the Miller Brewing Company, run by MillerCoors (based in Chicago).

You can still tour the historic Pabst Brewery in the city, along with MillerCoors’ facility and a handful of other craft breweries, including Lakefront Brewery, which opened in 1987. The new craft brewery is one of many that have sprung up in Milwaukee, representing a shift from mass market to microbrews. The city may never host mass market giants again, but the entrepreneur spirit lives on.

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