Road Trip: Milwaukee Brewing Co.

I should’ve made reservations. The Milwaukee Brewing Company offers a slew of tours, but all were sold out by mid-afternoon. “You can come back at 5:00 for our tasting session,” said the helpful young lady at the entrance, but it seemed more like an apology than a sales pitch. Like a “participant” trophy given to the fat kid who barely finishes a race. I cursed myself for a lack of foresight and agreed to her offer.

So yeah, I’d gone to Milwaukee. Why? I figured I needed a mini-vacation. After all, the dread of winter is fast approaching, and with it, the guilt-sodden specter of family holidays. And then there’s the fact that Milwaukee is the Ur of beer, the epicenter of the American brewing narrative. “Mill-e-wah-que,” Algonquin for “the good land.”

Also, it’s close.

I’ve been to the city before, of course. I’ve visited Sprecher (decent tour), Lakefront (fantastic place), and even Miller (worth seeing, if only for the sheer scale of the operation). But I’d never been to Milwaukee Brewing Company.  I have long admired the design of their packaging, and as a Green Bay native I can’t help but take delight in the fact that they named a beer after a hyper-local Northeastern Wisconsin stew (Booyah). So Milwaukee Brewing Company (henceforth referred to as MKE) became my target. And it was frankly something of a disappointment to learn that an actual tour was not going to be in the cards.

So I agreed to the tasting session. In exchange for $10 I was given a wristband for later entry and two tickets that could be used to obtain two beers. There was also a plastic token that could be redeemed for an MKE beer at a number of nearby bars. I accepted this as a consolation prize and went on my way.

The nearest joint that accepted this token turned out to be a rather charming dive bar. The bartendress informed me that she would happily accept it, but since all tap beers were ½ off, it would behoove me to use my token at a different bar down the street. “And if you check in on Facebook, you get a free shot of whiskey!” she noted with pride.

“I don’t really use Facebook,” I said apologetically. This is true.

She did not hide her disappointment. “Huh,” she said. “That sucks.” She thought for a moment. “I guess I can just pretend that you checked in.” She whirled towards the back of the bar and moments later was back with two shots of booze, one for each of us. I choked it down and ordered a pint of Louie’s Demise to wash it down. This was followed by another. And then a tall boy of Schlitz. This turned out to be a marvelous way to kill a few hours.

Eventually I stumbled my way back to the brewery. It’s essentially a warehouse with a bar plopped in the middle of the space, opposite the grain mill and set amongst the pallets of kegs. In addition to a small herd of people who had arrived for the tasting session, the place was packed with folk who had finished their tours and were drinking in celebration. I fought my way to the bar, ordered a Sasquash Pumpkin Porter, and offered my ticket. To my surprise, the bartender waved it away and moved to the next supplicant. How generous, I thought. Did I unknowingly say the secret word?

I gazed at the crowd of people ordering at the bar. In my slightly pickled state, it took me a few moments to realize what was going on — the tickets were needed for only a select few high-octane beers. Everything else was mine for the asking. Pint after pint, available as part of the entrance fee. Holy damn. What a fantastic deal. Game on.

Naturally, my brain did not retain data in an efficient manner, but my intelligent phone device serves as my backup memory bank. I began furiously punching away at notes, which I present here somewhat edited for clarity:

  • Drinking the Sasquash. Pumpkin porter? Roasty, but very mild pumpkin flavor. A touch of ginger, perhaps? Is this a holiday beer? Drinkable gingerbread?
  • Barely anywhere to stand. An insane asylum of drunks amongst the tanks. Hiding near the grain grinding thing. The grinder? What’s that called?
  • Overheard: “I haven’t been at a party like this since college.” Sure — lots of standing around with blaring music barely understandable in the background. Occasional yelling for no discernible reason.
  • “Love rock”: Vienna-style lager. Good all purpose German beer. Malty, some hops. Easy drinker.
  • Mini-tour! “This is just a teaser to get you to come back for the real tour,” says the guide. Stripped down version: beer is made from these things, the grain comes from here, goes in there, goes up thataway, hey do you need a beer? Go get a beer!
  • Ordering off the big chalkboard at the back of the bar area. Trying and failing to understand the system. “No, only the ones that have checkmarks are available, man. If it doesn’t have a check, we’re out. You can’t have it.” Takes me three times to get it. Can’t have the big IPA I wanted.
  • What am I drinking? Did I get a Booyah? Probably just because I like the name.
  • Putz on a pallet jack. Bartender is PISSED.

Oh, that last one I remember with perfect clarity. I was standing over by some massive bags of malt when I noticed a preppy looking fellow in his 20s break away from his group of identically dressed cohorts and weave his way over to a pallet jack stored in a corner. He looked back to make sure his friends were paying attention, then pulled the large piece of industrial equipment away from the wall and began awkwardly riding it like one of those ridiculous razor scooters.

Shockingly, this did not go well. He managed to propel himself a distance of about 15 or 20 feet, narrowly avoiding some innocent by-drinkers. I hoped that he would careen into a nearby mountain of bottles and get shredded by the debris, but luckily for him one of the bartenders noticed him.

I have never seen a twisted mask of fury like the one I saw on that bartender’s face. He must have had the power of teleportation, because one moment he was behind the bar, 30 feet away, screaming, “HEY…” In the next moment, he was on top of the jack-riding drunk, bellowing “…MOTHERFUCKER GET OFF OF THAT!”

There was never any threat of physical violence, as the bartender was a large mammal and the drunken putz was a fairly petite specimen. Already in a fairly flexible state, he went limp as the bartender pulled him off the jack. “YOU’RE OUT! GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT RIGHT THE FUCK NOW!” The putz was shoved towards his group, who immediately denied any knowledge of his existence. “Just get him the fuck OUT!” snarled the large barkeep, who stormed back to the bar. Once there, he snatched up a microphone, and the music abruptly shut off.

“HEY! WE LOVE HAVING YOU PEOPLE HERE, AND WE WANT YOU TO HAVE A GOOD TIME,” he shouted into the mic. A few drunken cheers bloomed from the opposite side of the brewery, where patrons were unaware of the events of the past few minutes.

“BUT IF WE’RE GOING TO HAVE THINGS LIKE THIS, WE NEED YOU TO RESPECT THIS PLACE! AND DON’T BE LIKE…”

He pointed his finger, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea to reveal the woozy putz staggering towards the exit.

“… THAT ASSHOLE! THAT MOTHERFUCKER RIGHT THERE! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE YOU FUCKING PRICK!”

His enthusiastic profanity earned him a smattering of applause.

Alas, around this point is where both my notes and my clear memories come to an end. I have a dim recollection of leaving the brewery and seeking out a nearby tavern with mediocre service (I think the bartender may have been weary of the MKE tokens being presented to her). I’m almost certain that I made my way to a German bar and witnessed a schnitzel of truly gargantuan proportions. I do recall that I dropped my souvenir Milwaukee Brewing Company pint glass as I entered a cab — the musical sound of the novelty glassware exploding into thousands of pieces is stuck in my brain. (“What was that?!” said the cabbie. “Oh, nothing,” I replied.)

So obviously I’ll need to return at some point. It was a nice glass. I could use another.