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
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
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