According to Brewery President Russ Klisch, the whole brewery started with his brother, Jim. Near his birthday, Jim expressed interest in beer making, and Russ humored him with the gift of a homebrewing book. To Russ’ surprise, Jim read the book, and brewed a beer. By Russ’ account, Jim was no gourmet cook, but he made a pretty good beer. Impressed, Russ decided he could brew one better. In short, sibling rivalry and common interest lead to both brothers entering homebrewing contests and winning awards. It wasn’t long before family and friends encouraged them to turn their hobby into a business.
The Brothers decided to start small and chose a location within walking distance of their home: the site of a former bakery in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. They began brewing with 55-gallon, stainless steel drums and used dairy equipment. On December 2, 1987 they sold their first barrel of beer to a tavern within “rolling distance” of the brewery.
Lakefront’s production grew with their popularity: by 1988, sales jumped to 72 barrels; by 1989, 125 barrels; and sales began doubling after that. In 1990, owner Russ Klisch built his own bottling machine and began bottling their beer. The Brothers brought in more used equipment to meet the ever-expanding demand; a visiting food critic once commented that Lakefront was a “Frankenstein operation”, because all their equipment had lived and died in a previous life. In 1998, production had reached nearly 3,000 barrels in the small 3,600 square foot space, and Jim and Russ decided it was time to move.
1872 N. Commerce Street
The search was on for a new location and the City of Milwaukee had a building to sell. In 1908, Lakefront Brewery’s current building housed the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company’s coal-fired power plant. In 1998, the City considered tearing down the old power plant location, unless a non-industrial business was interested in the location. The City thought beer making an appropriate industry, and allowed them to buy the building and move in.
The move was completed, and additions were made to both the building and brewery. In 2000, Russ replaced the homemade brewing equipment with a real brew house. Production has increased throughout the years, and in 2017 had reached 46,848 barrels. Lakefront currently offers 20 different beers available in over 30 states and distributed to Ukraine, South Korea, Sweden, China and Canada. The brewery is known for its innovative ales and lagers, as well as its infamous brewery tour.
Lakefront’s pioneering spirit has created many U.S. brewing-industry firsts. Among these, the brewery introduced the first beer in the United States made from 100% in-state-grown ingredients with the barley, wheat, hops and a first-of-its-kind, indigenous Wisconsin yeast strain (Wisconsinite Summer Weiss), the first certified organic brewery, producing the country’s oldest certified organic beer (Organic E.S.B.), and the first government-certified, gluten-free beer (New Grist).
Lakefront Brewery has one of the most popular brewery tours in the United States; over 80,000 people tour the brewery each year. Lakefront was one of the first—if not the first—to offer beer at the beginning, during, and after the tour instead of requiring visitors to wait until the end.
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Lakefront Brewery is the proud owner of Bernie Brewer’s Chalet. When the Brewer’s built their new stadium, the Chalet needed a new home, and the Klisch Brothers had just the home it needed. Russ jumped at the opportunity to buy the item. As a stop on the tour, it offers folks a piece of Milwaukee baseball history.
Russ has received many compliments for the unique chandeliers inside the Beer Hall. The lights were originally designed for—and hung in—the Plankinton Hotel’s beer hall in 1916. Unfortunately, the hotel broke ground on the same day World War I started. Shortly thereafter, prohibition started, and the room was never used as a beer hall. The lights hung in the hotel restaurant until 1982 when the building was demolished. The city removed the lights and stored them in a warehouse—along with other Milwaukee artifacts—until an online auction was held to sell everything. With the opening bid at $5,000, the brothers bid $5,013, but were quickly out-bid by an antique dealer from Chicago offering $10,000. However, the City wanted the lights kept in Milwaukee, and agreed to sell them to the brothers for their price. Jim and Russ are very proud of the lights’ heritage and beauty, and had spent over $1,000 restoring each light.
The Klisch brothers and their employees are not only great brewers, but they pride themselves on innovation within their industry.
Fruit & Pumpkin Beers
Lakefront was the second brewery in the country to make a Pumpkin Beer and possibly the first to bottle a fruit beer in the country since Prohibition.
Lakefront Pumpkin Lager started with a suggestion from Pete Wolbersen of The Tracks Tavern. Jim found an old Pumpkin beer recipe from Thomas Jefferson and brewed a batch for Pete. Pumpkin Lager is now one of the brewery’s most popular seasonal beers.
An old home brewing recipe and a love for Door County cherries were the inspiration for Lakefront’s Cherry Lager. Once a seasonal staple, Lakefront has since turned their Cherry Lager into a Brandy Barrel-Aged product that has been released over more recent years.
In 1996 Lakefront became the first certified organic brewery in the country and made the country’s first certified organic beer, the “Organic ESB (Extra Special Bitter)”. The ESB has always been made with 100% organic malt and 100% organic hops. Russ Klisch believes in doing the right thing for the environment.
In 2004, a movement by a big brewer and two small brewers convinced the USDA to allow hops that were not grown organically to be put into organic beer. This was devastating to the organic hop growers in the country but Lakefront continued to support them and always brewed with 100% organic hops. Russ Klisch and other organic hop farmers wrote letters to the USDA to again require organic hops in organic beer. The letters worked and the USDA allowed a hearing on the policy. The USDA changed their policy after Russ Klisch—the only brewer involved—and several organic hop growers petitioned to require organic hops in organic beer. Today all organic beer is required to be made with organic hops.
In 2006 the brothers helped create a new category of beer when they became the first brewery in the nation to receive federal approval to brew a gluten-free beer.
The federal government’s policy required that beer be made with 25% malted barley. Aware that there are people intolerant to wheat and barley, the brewery wanted to create a gluten-free beer for these people to enjoy.
During a brewing industry trade show they talked to ATF representatives. Everyone working the ATF booth had a friend that had the celiac condition and wanted to help create a beer for them. The brothers were told to write a “Statement of Process” explaining what the brewery wanted to do and mail it to the lead official in the booth. Russ wrote the letter, sent it to the ATF, and six weeks later the new category of beer was approved and the brewery created New Grist.
New Grist, the country’s first government allowed gluten-free beer, was first brewed in 2005 and is made from only water, rice, sorghum, hops, and gluten-free yeast grown on molasses.
In 2005, Russ began to work with local farmers to grow both hops and barley here in Wisconsin. Both were grown here before prohibition and Russ wanted to help start the industry again and create beers with the flavor these local ingredients once provided. Russ provided hops rhizomes free of charge to several farmers to see if hops could be grown again in the state. The brewery also found local farmers to grow barley. Using local ingredients also interested other breweries and Russ helped form the Midwest Hops and Barley Co-op. This strengthened the relationship between local brewers and growers to create the best possible product.
In 2009, the brewery produced Local Acre, the first beer since before prohibition made with 100% Wisconsin-grown hops and malt. In 2012, the brewery took things one step further with the introduction of Wisconsinite. Wisconsinite is unique because it is brewed with a native Wisconsin yeast. This is the first time in North America that native yeast, along with locally grown ingredients, was used to make a beer. Jeremy King from Northern Brewer isolated the yeast by combining some of the brewery’s locally-grown malt in a test tube and finding wild yeast growing in it. After several months of trying to isolate the strain and brewing test batches, the Wisconsinite was born.
In 2006, a small group of like-minded independently owned Milwaukee businesses began to meet to discuss how to make Milwaukee a more sustainable community and how to highlight the unique character of our local businesses. A commitment grew from those conversations to create a network that could advocate to the community all of the benefits of choosing local businesses first. The founding members named their group Our Milwaukee because they felt the name demonstrated the pride they felt about their city.
Lakefront Brewery is a proud founding member of Local First Milwaukee and we encourage you to visit their website to learn more about living local.