In 1997, Jim McCabe and Mike Bieser, passionate homebrewers, embarked on a new venture by establishing the Milwaukee Ale House. With the restaurant expertise of Jim’s brother John, they saw a brewpub as the perfect choice. The Ale House found its home in the Saddlery building, a multi-floor establishment that not only housed a saddle maker but also a sailmaker and the brilliant mind behind the invention of the Hula Hoop.
MKE Brewery was established with a firm commitment to produce exceptional beers by utilizing the finest local ingredients and partnering with sustainable and innovative local suppliers. Its origins trace back to the inception of Milwaukee Ale House, a brewpub featuring a unique 15-barrel brewery.
Drawing upon his engineering background and passion for home brewing, founder Jim McCabe ingeniously designed a highly efficient and resilient brewery, which was expertly constructed by W.M. Sprinkman in Franksville, Wisconsin. In October 1997, MKE Brewery proudly crafted its inaugural beer, marking a significant milestone during a period when Milwaukee predominantly favored lagers.
Nestled within the Historic Third Ward, the Milwaukee Ale House swiftly gained recognition for its exceptional beer and became a favorite gathering spot for large crowds. To enhance the experience, they transformed the lower floor into the Hopside Down, which boasted a unique advantage: being situated at river level, it became one of the rare brewpubs accessible by water. The Hopside Down featured six slips, catering to those arriving by boat.
Behind the names of many beloved beers, intriguing stories unfolded. One such example was Louie’s Demise, which drew inspiration from a captivating nineteenth-century photograph portraying a group of men reveling in their drinks. Jim and Mike would frequently raise their glasses in tribute to these men, unaware that the photo captured a somber moment—a wake held in honor of their relative Louie, whose life had been tragically cut short during an argument over a woman.
For over ten years, the Ale House has delighted craft drinkers with a rotating selection of year-round Ales and more than 300 unique seasonal flavors. This commitment to variety and quality has cultivated a loyal fan base who truly appreciate the brewery’s dedication. Furthermore, a new generation of craft beer enthusiasts has emerged, displaying a profound knowledge and equal passion for the Milwaukee Brewing Company’s creations.
The brewery’s popularity has surged alongside the nationwide trend towards innovative Craft beers. In November 2007, the Milwaukee Brewing Company took a significant step by kegging their inaugural brew at the 2nd Street Brewery, a state-of-the-art facility with a 50bbl packaging capacity. Upholding their core principles of sustainability, creativity, and innovation, the 2nd Street Brewery seamlessly combines modern technology with vintage equipment, resulting in both creative flexibility and energy efficiency.
MKE took the lead in introducing Wisconsin’s first “micro-canning” system, resulting in reduced energy consumption throughout the entire process and making their products more portable for outdoor activities. They also offered contract brewing services and were involved in producing early batches for Big Bay Brewing Co.
MKE established its reputation by focusing on ales, setting itself apart from lagers, and introducing various series of specialty beers. One notable series was the Herb-In Legend Series, which incorporated teas from Milwaukee’s Rishi Tea company into their brews. Among the standout beers in this series was O-Gii, a robust wheat beer with an impressive alcohol content of 9.2 percent by volume (abv). Another noteworthy collection was the Destination Local Series, featuring high-alcohol beers with label designs reminiscent of vintage airline luggage tags. These labels paid tribute to the brewery’s location by incorporating Milwaukee’s airport code, MKE. Many of these beers were initially crafted and tested at the brewpub and later transitioned into packaged brands due to their popularity.
By 2016, the Second Street location had reached its maximum operational capacity, with production levels exceeding the previous year by 30 percent (10,702 barrels). To address this challenge, MKE secured a lease in the former Pabst Brewing Co. complex to expand its business. Initially, they utilized the site at 1311 North Eighth Street for storage, but had plans to develop brewing facilities and public spaces, including a rooftop beer garden.
In September 2018, Milwaukee Brewing made a significant move from its original, smaller facility in Walker’s Point to a new brewery. The new brewery was located in a former distribution center for Pabst Brewing Co., built in 1977. This new location on South Second Street became MKE’s primary production brewery, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities in a spacious former Pabst warehouse.
Covering an impressive 43,000 square feet, the brewery, situated at 1128 N. Ninth St., had an initial brewing capacity of approximately 20,000 barrels per year. However, with the potential for expansion through additional equipment, it could accommodate up to 70,000 barrels. It should be noted that the reported production of about 10,000 barrels in 2021 might not include beer produced for other companies at the same facility, as per the state Department of Revenue.
Milwaukee Brewing’s new brewery boasts various amenities for visitors, such as an indoor tasting room, an outdoor patio, and a rooftop bar and event space. These areas provide breathtaking views of Downtown, including the adjacent new Arena District. Founder Jim McCabe anticipated the brewery would be fully operational by mid-2018, allowing MKE to initially produce and package up to 30,000 barrels of beer annually, with room for further growth. The heart of the new operation is a 60-BBL/4-Vessel Sprinkman Brewhouse and a spacious cellar, much of which is visible to guests through floor-to-ceiling glass partitions.
While the new facility took the lead, the Walker’s Point brewery continued its operations and served as a pilot brewery. The additional capacity provided by the new brewery facilitated the expansion of MKE Brewing’s barrel-aged and sour beer lines. In line with their commitment to environmental responsibility, the new brewery maintained its DNR Green Tier certification by implementing advanced energy recovery systems and eco-friendly outdoor systems, including utilizing Milwaukee’s underground steam system to minimize environmental impacts.
The pandemic had a significant impact on the brewing industry. Brewers were forced to close their taprooms and restaurants, and sales of canned and bottled beer declined. MKE was no exception, and the company lost a significant amount of revenue during the pandemic.
The company was facing financial difficulties. In March 2022, MKE announced that it was for sale. The company was struggling to make payments on its debt, and it was facing a number of other financial challenges.The company was unable to find a buyer. After being on the market for several months, MKE was unable to find a buyer who was willing to pay the asking price. As a result, the company was forced to close its doors.
The closure of MKE was a blow to the Milwaukee brewing scene. The company was one of the three oldest and most respected breweries in the city, and it had a loyal following of customers. However, the company’s financial problems and the challenges of the pandemic were too much to overcome.
In September 2022, the ownership of MKE underwent a change as it was acquired by Pilot Project Brewing Company, a company based in Chicago. Pilot Project Brewing Company is dedicated to cultivating innovative and small-scale brewing practices. In 2019, they established their Chicago location, which serves as a hub for assisting breweries in refining their recipes, optimizing production, scaling operations, developing their businesses, implementing effective marketing strategies, arranging distribution channels, and more. Furthermore, this Chicago facility not only operates as a brewery incubator but also features a tasting room that offers a variety of coffees, as well as a scratch kitchen that specializes in crafting artisanal sandwiches, salads, and other delectable pub-style dishes. The company was founded by Abel and his co-founder, Jordan Radke.
In Milwaukee, Pilot Project intends to revitalize the MiKE building, which includes enhancements to its beer garden, rooftop area, restaurant, and tasting room. Additionally, Pilot Project has ambitious plans to introduce five to ten new brands each year. Since its establishment, Pilot Project has successfully launched over 13 breweries, many of which have gained national recognition. Notable examples include Luna Bay Hard Kombucha and ROVM Hard Kombucha, both founded by women, Funkytown Brewery, which is Black-owned, Brewer’s Kitchen inspired by travel, Azadi Brewing led by individuals of Indian descent, and several others.
On Monday, September 26, 2022, Eagle Park Brewing & Distilling Company made an exciting announcement regarding the acquisition of MKE, the third-oldest craft brewer in the city. This news ensures the beloved Louie’s and other iconic MKE brews will not disappear. Furthermore, there will be no interruption in the production of these beers.
Under the terms of the purchase agreement, Eagle Park now possesses MKE’s intellectual property, recipes, and branding. Milwaukee Brewing’s flagship beers will continue to be produced by Eagle Park, retaining the original name while receiving a modern design update. Additionally, the Milwaukee Brewing brand will see the development of new seasonal and year-round recipes.
During the transition, production has been temporarily relocated to Eagle Park’s Muskego facility. Meanwhile, the Hamilton facility will function as a temporary taproom for Milwaukee Brewing. The search is underway to find a new home for the brewery within the city of Milwaukee.
IPA – Imperial / Double
A collaboration with Milwaukee’s own Rishi Tea, this IPA is infused with Organic Jasmine Tea, lending it a sweet, floral aroma. Strong citrus notes come from the generous amount of American hops. Hop Freak was born big and bitter but a sizeable malt bill adds balance to this beast.
IPA – Black / Cascadian Dark Ale
We made this beer with no other agenda. Brewed with a malty blend of Brewer’s Malts, Caramel 60, Extra Special Malts, Dark Chocolate, & Midnight Wheat, this beer has the subtle bitterness of coffee & chocolate. We dry-hopped it with a combo of Saaz & Vic’s Secret hops. This beer will prepare you to fight the Day Man, and steal the boy’s soul!
Wheat Beer – Hefeweizen
Recombobulation Russian Imperial Stout Bourbon Barrel Aged. Brewed with cocoa nibs & raspberry and aged in bourbon barrels, our new Russian Imperial Stout will remind you of a popular holiday treat: the Bourbon-Chocolate truffle. It’s a perfect beer for the holiday season!
Stout – Imperial / Double
MKE is one of over 1,000 breweries taking part in the Black is Beautiful Beer initiative. The initiative was started by a Texas Black-owned brewery called Weathered Souls. They invited any brewery to participate by brewing their recipe for an imperial stout. The participating breweries would then have to donate 100% of the beer’s proceeds to a local organization.
Red Ale – American Amber / Red
We took a batch of Louie’s Demise and added a bunch of Rishi’s Organic Blueberry Rooibos and Hibiscus Tea blends to our secondary fermentation vessel. After two weeks of cold infusion we filtered out the tea, carbonated it. It has a blueberry and strawberry nose with a slight malty aspect. Hints of Caramel and Munich malts come out as the beer warms. The flavors are subtle with the Hibiscus at the forefront of the palate. The tea blends add a smooth but tart finish to this beer. This is definitely a different beer.
Wheat Beer – Witbier / Blanche
Our unique Imperial Wit, O-Gii, infused with organic green tea and ginger gets a monster kick in the pants from aging in Rehorst Reserve Gin barrels from our friends at Great Lakes Distillery. These rare gin barrels with their rich botanicals of juniper, chamomile and orange compliment the already complex flavors in O-Gii. Hints of wood and vanilla round out the finish. Smooth, mellow and warming, this is a rare treat.
Pale Ale – American
Pull Chain Pale Ale is a fusion of English and American pale ale styles, with bitterness derived for an unusual and innovative hop schedule in the recipe. American cascade hops and British East Kent Goldings account for Pull Chain’s citrus and earthy flavors and aromas. They’re softened by malty undertones.
Farmhouse Ale – Saison
Complex flavors and aromas come from a variety of sources. Barley malt and wheat help create a smooth body and attribute a pleasant golden hue while the addition of malted rye and oats brings out a solid earthy flavor. The subtle hints of tangerine, peach and licorice are the hallmarks of the particular yeast strain used.