Tour Visitors Can Drink Up City’s Brewing History

Written by Stanley A. Miller II for Milwaukee Tap/The Journal Sentinel

There are brewery tours that give visitors some company propaganda and a cup of beer.

And then there is the Legacies of Milwaukee Brewery Tour, an all-day junket under the guidance of an archaeologist and a local historian specializing in the city’s brewing culture and industry.

“It’s very in-depth and . . . you can’t find this anywhere else,” said Kevin Cullen, an archaeologist at Discovery World who started hosting the Legacies tours last year.

“Sure, people are enjoying the beer on the bus,” Cullen said. “We are tempering it with history and comedy along the way. It’s a great way to see the city in a way you’ve never looked at it before.”

The Legacies tours are an intellectual’s brewery adventure that includes introductions to local brewmasters, being ferried to historical breweries both still standing and long gone and even visiting the final resting places of the city’s founding beer barons.

It’s also a party bus, serving up beer specially brewed by Cullen, who started the tours as part of Discovery World’s Distant Mirror archaeology program.

Cullen crafts specialty batches for the tour at Discovery World’s MillerCoors THIRST Freshwater Innovation Lab, which houses a micro-scale brewery showing each step of brewing beer and highlighting water’s role in each step.

“It’s tasty stuff, and people learn about the brewing processes from a historical perspective,” Cullen said, noting the next tour will be fueled by a Bavarian bock.

Past tours have covered the brewery histories of Milwaukee’s downtown, west and south sides. The north side is up next with a tour launching Saturday. Stops on this ride include historically important brewery sites and brewery-owned saloons called tied houses in the Schlitz Park, Brewers Hill and Riverwest neighborhoods.

Beer fans also get a tour and a meal at Stonefly Brewery in Riverwest, as well as guided walk-throughs of Sprecher Brewing Co. in Glendale and Big Bay Brewing in Shorewood.

Leonard Jurgensen, Legacies tour historian and author of “Beer Barons, Brewers, Bottlers and Others Buried at Forest Home Cemetery,” said the E.L. Husting Brewery will be one of the most historically significant stops on the north side run.

The site, on the northeast corner of N. 5th and W. Vliet streets, is home to the oldest standing complete brewery in Milwaukee with all of its structures surviving, Jurgensen said, including the brew house, mill house, offices and bottling plant opened in 1877.

“You can go into the basement and step into 140 years of brewing history,” Jurgensen said, noting the city has lost many other older sites to bulldozers and wrecking balls.

“We are quickly losing our brewing past,” Jurgensen said.

Jurgensen said the Husting site still has several artifacts from its brewing days, including the ammonia-powered refrigeration systems.

Milwaukee’s identity as a brewing city may still be popular knowledge, but much of the history that built that reputation isn’t, Cullen said.

“It fell out of popular imagination of how we were a city founded on beer and the density of breweries,” Cullen said.

Cullen notes that many of the city’s lesser-known brewery sites are now converted buildings or empty lots, including several where he has used ground-penetrating radar to seek out the foundations of the original brewery buildings.

“We allow time for exploration and looking at the fine details . . . a lot of it comes to architectural history,” Cullen said. “You want to show them the full range and what the industry has done for this city.”

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