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Nov 21, 2014

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Milwaukee history: II

By Gregg Smith

Soft breezes carry wisps of steam toward downtown, and with it the smell of beer brewing. For over 150 years brewing has permeated Milwaukee and over that time the image of a freshly poured beer became an unofficial symbol of the city. Strangely enough, the event that cemented the city's connection to beer was a retirement.

When Jacob Best Sr. walked out the door of Best Brewing in 1853 he left behind the moderately successful business he established nine years earlier. He also left four sons well steeped in the business of beer; their labor would lead to two of the city, and country's, most recognized names in beer.

Sons Jacob Jr. and Phillip were earmarked to inherit their father's business. Before long Jacob bought out Phillip's share and guided the company through its formative years. Knowing they would receive no such advantage, brothers Charles and Lorenz acknowledged the inevitable, and struck out on their own. In 1850 they completed construction of a new brewhouse in nearby Wauwatosa. During its first year of operation they called it the Charles Best Brewery, but within a year they adopted the name of the crude by-way at its front door - Plank Road.

While Charles and Lorenz slowly established business during the early 1850's a brewer to the royal court in Hohenzollern, Germany migrated across the Atlantic. Searching for a place to set up his own brewery, he worked for a time in Rochester, New York. Lacking favorable opportunities their he moved on, roaming the United States for nearly a year. Finally he found the conditions he was looking for in Milwaukee, an area he thought ready made for the brewing and sale of beer. It was there Fredrick Miller decided to set roots.

At some unrecorded point in 1853 Miller received an introduction to the Best Brothers and, after surveying their operation, entered negotiations to purchase the entire Plank Road facility. The sale was completed that same year and Fredrick Miller continued development of what would become another giant in Milwaukee brewing. Thus both Pabst and MIller shared common characteristics of: springing from the common roots of - Jacob Best's brewhouse, two owners named Frederick and growth to national prominence.

On completing the sale Miller rechristened the facility as the "Fredrick Miller Plank Road Brewery" and operated under that name until 1878 when it became "Fredrick Miller Menominee Valley Brewery". Guiding the company through its first thirty five years, Miller followed a philosophy of aggressive expansion and modernization. Then, in 1888, shortly after incorporating the brewery as the "Fredrick Miller Brewing Company", Fredrick passed away.

Upon his death sons Ernest, Fred A., Emil and son-in-law Carl took over management of the company which listed its address as 4008 State Street. What they inherited was the direct result of Fredrick's commitment and savvy guidance. From an original capacity of 300 barrels, his efforts led to an 1888 production of 80,000 barrels. Following in the path laid down by their patriarch, they continued to expand and modernize and MIller Brewing continuously increased production, reaching a total of 500,000 barrels in 1919.

During prohibition the company remained solvent by adopting the same strategy as other brewers. It produced cereal beverages, soda and various malt based products. On repeal Miller quickly modernized its facilities and expanded output around the country by a program of calculated by-outs.

For years it seemed Miller was content with occupying the ninth spot among national brewers, then in 1969 opportunity arrived. Phillip Morris purchased 53 percent of the company's stock and obtained the remaining 47 percent in 1970. New management followed the company's long standing tradition of modernization and acquisition and acquired a fist full of regional brands including Buckeye and Meister Brau, along with a little known Meister Brau label called "Lite."

Additional changes quickly appeared, most notable was an agreement to produce Lowenbrau in the United States. But overall it was the test marketing and subsequent wide distribution of "Lite" which caused a stellar leap in Miller's production and sales. From 5 million barrels in 1970 the aggressive posture of the parent company, award winning ad campaign for "Lite" and new brewery construction, increased production to more than 30 million barrels by 1977. Combined, it thrust the company into the number two spot among US Brewers.

During the 1980s Milwaukee's economy was shifting away from its solid beer base. One after another the city's brewers closed shop, some disappearing in a crash, and others in a slow fade, but not Miller. Winds of change blew favorably for the company, and occasionally those winds still carry a whiff of brewing beer downtown.

Gregg Smith

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