Milwaukee history: I

By Gregg Smith

If ever a city was destined to become a brewing center it was Milwaukee. Give a 19th century brewer his wish for locating a brewery and Milwaukee would make nearly everyone's short list. What tempted the brewers were exactly the same characteristics that attracted settlers to the area of southeast Wisconsin.

Newcomers to the Cream City were greeted by a good harbor coupled with access to plentiful ice. More appealing to the brewers was a strata of subterranean rock studded with caves. Cool temperatures were essential to the fermentation of beer, and brewers in the era before refrigeration relied heavily on ice and caves to extend the brewing season. Finally, there was the matter of customers. Here too Milwaukee was a winner, it was surrounded by settlements of German immigrants. It had everything brewers desired.

Despite the high concentration of Germans the city's first brewery was neither owned nor run by any of their number. It was three Welshmen who earned the title "first."

Richard Owens, William Pallet and John Davis opened an English style brewhouse, producing ales in 1840. Inspired by civic pride, they named their enterprise the Milwaukee Brewery. When compared to the standard brewhouse of the day their facility was at best crude. Lacking proper equipment, they began brewing with a makeshift brew kettle fashioned from a copper lined wooden box. In spite of the unsophisticated equipment the brewery had a brew capacity of five barrels.

Owens was the driving force behind the Milwaukee Brewery an late in the first year he secured a traditional brew kettle from Chicago. Output soon doubled. By 1845 Owens was ready to run the brewery alone, he bought out his partners and changed the name to the Lake Brewery.

Eventually tiring of the long brew days, Owens rented out the facility to Powell and Pritchard of Chicago. The new partners continued to brew ale only until the business died of financial causes in 1880. If the deceased brewery would have been given an autopsy the cause of death would have read the same as what ale'd other breweries around the country. At the time it closed it was the last remaining ale brewery in Milwaukee. What killed it was a competing style of beer - lager.

Sad as it was that lager beer brought the demise of the city's oldest brewery, it did lead Milwaukee to the title of Beer City, USA. Lager brewing was the path to fortune for the nation's brewers and three of America's four largest lager brewers would call Milwaukee home.

Of the city's big three in beer, two trace their origin not only to the same year, but the same man. It was in 1844, and Wisconsin was still a territory when Jacob Best started what would turn into one of brewing's most recognized names. Constructing a brewhouse at 917 Chestnut street, he opened the business with his four sons: Phillip, Charles, Lorenz and Jacob, Jr. as partners and named the undertaking Best Brewing Co.

A high concentration of German settlers and the hot midwestern climate was perfectly matched to the light crisp taste of lager and propelled the business toward success. After eleven years of growth, Jacob Sr. retired in 1853, leaving the business to his sons Phillip and Jacob Jr. They renamed it Empire Brewing.

By 1860 Phillip bought full control of the company and with one owner directing operations nearly everything was in place to vault the brewery to national attention. Fate would add one last element. In the next installment discover how the Best brewery changed its name to one recognized by nearly everyone in North America.

Gregg Smith


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