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“A large city, near the Miller Factory”: The Glorious Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Great Midwestern Brewer

“A large city, near the Miller Factory”: The Glorious Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Great Midwestern Brewer

The following is an excerpt from The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer by William Bostwick:

Yelp reviews of the Miller factory tour are, to be blunt, as bland as the beer. “Kinda cheesey but that’s OK,” one reads. “Better than I expected,” says another. Bottom line? “It’s free, people!” It has, one optimistic reviewer wrote, “the possibility of being fun.” A potential, it was clear, based on the number of samples at the end. All agreed the free pours were the tour’s best part, but adjectives were rare. Gone is the poetry heaped on coveted abbey brews or the rarest lambics. “Wonderfully cool,” one reviewer wrote about the sample pour of Miller Lite — or was it the MGD64? Folks didn’t seem picky. “Did I mention it was free?” Without fail, every review does.

I went to Milwaukee by ferry, nosing my station wagon into the hold of the boat with a few dozen other bleary tourists, donuts and drive-through coffee steaming up the windshields of their rental cars. Gray lake, gray sky, gray clouds — into the gloom we sailed. A fitting, if faint echo, I thought, of Miller’s glory days, when drinkers would ride trams up to the bluffs over Whitefish Bay for a day of Great Lakes sun.

In the nineteenth century, a trip to the Miller brewery was a bucolic escape from industrial city life. Biergartens were all the rage, and brewers competed in size and lavish style, serving barrel after barrel of light, refreshing lager beer to their German countrymen, thirsty for a taste of home.

Brewers Tale CoverPicture them: Rolling lawns swarmed with thousands of revelers, the tinkling din of steins raised in toasts, the men joining arms in their performance groups, called Turnverein, to sing throaty choruses of the homeland, or put on impromptu shows of acrobatic skill. Dangerous surely, even under lager’s more lighthearted spell, but nothing like the marksmanship competitions held at some of the breweries’ backyard firing ranges — true tests of the drink’s intoxicating properties. While the men danced, sang, and shot, women in their Sunday best, twirled their parasols, strolling among the flower beds sipping mocha coffees — a new drink, made popular at the Miller garden — and nibbling cakes plucked from passing waiters’ silver trays. This was the warm, bright Gemütlichkeit the Germans brought, and Americans took to it with a passion. Rivers of lager poured through the gardens, faster and more roaring than the darker beers of days past. The New York Times reported in 1877 that Budweiser drinkers typically drained three times as much beer as those who drank the darker bocks and malty dortmunders of previous generations. On a good day, guests at the Miller garden emptied nearly 2,000 gallons.

The more they brewed, the more they sold, and the more lush their gardens grew. At Miller’s, high on a bluff above the Menomenee River, drinkers could hike a 35-foot observation tower for “a striking view of the then unsettled river valley,” a mid-century ode to the park in the St. Louis Sentinel recalled. At Schlitz’s — built in 1896 for a whopping $75,000 — the tower was 60 feet. Frederick Miller let visitors sneak around a state-run toll road by detouring their buggies through his private grounds; Pabst set up a direct trolly line to shuttle drinkers from downtown Milwaukee to his seven-acre Bielefeld Garden on Whitefish Bay. George Ehret’s $220,000 garden in Weehawken, New Jersey had its own ferry service from Manhattan.

For me, though, my trip to Miller felt more a bracing plunge into the cold pit of industry than a warming pastoral escape from it. I was coming to the end of a cross-country beer tour, and the breweries I had visited so far were quaint craft affairs. Some had reception areas, a few had gift shops, and some, just a bar in front of the fermentation tanks with fresh beer, board games, organic burgers, and malted-grain pretzels. I’d usually show up unannounced. I’d find a wandering employee, and they’d call into the back — out would tromp a brewer in rubber boots. He’d dry his hands on the seat of his overalls, grab me a beer, and show me around. No safety glasses? No problem. “You’re a home brewer?” he’d ask. “You’re probably good.” And he’d lead me into the back, hopping over hoses, squeezing between fermenters, ducking into basement barrel rooms. He’d pull tastes from this tank or that, or snag a freshly filled bottle right off the conveyor belt — watch your fingers. (The best way to taste it, said one brewer, as he reached around a Lexan safety screen with a Mr. Bill doll masking-taped atop it, when the beer is still churned up and creamy from the filling process.) Things at these breweries were always under construction, being built or just barely hanging together. One Michigan brewery I toured boiled their wort in an army-issue coffee maker and fermented in a peanut butter storage tank snagged from a closing Quaker Oats bakery; another fed caps into its brand-new German bottler down a piece of vinyl gutter hung from the ceiling.

Miller would be different. First of all, I had to call ahead (931-BEER). I had to get tickets. I had an appointment. I’d be chaperoned. In craft breweries’ slap-dash spunkiness, I saw a human hand — each piece of masking tape, each humble, home-grown fix leaving a deep, personal fingerprint on every pint of beer they made. At the other end of the bland grayness of Lake Michigan was a faceless factory.

The ferry ride was uneventful. The sky stayed gray and drizzly. I pulled off the boat without a map, a little nervous I’d miss my appointment. How strict did they keep Miller Time? I shouldn’t have worried. There’s an old joke about St. Louis: “a large city on the Mississippi, located near the Anheuser-Busch plant.” Even in Milwaukee’s drizzly haze, I couldn’t miss the giant Miller sign. Miller wouldn’t be an escape from city life; Miller was the city itself.

At Founders, I had shared the parking lot with a Christian scooter gang; at Kuhnhenn’s, a dusty pick-up with local-pride bumper stickers (“Say Yah to Da U.P., Eh!”). Miller’s lot was packed with RVs and tour busses. Rogue’s was patrolled by chickens, Sierra’s perfumed with hop dust. Miller’s lot was strewn with hot dog wrappers and broken-off wrist bands. The beer garden was gone but its spectacle remained.

“This line fills 2,000 cans per minute. As fast as you guys can drink ‘em.”

On display, though, wasn’t consumption — fields of picnic tables full of happy drinkers — but production. Instead of parading marching bands and waiters with silver trays, forklifts hefted kegs behind plate-glass windows. The Miller Garden’s lookout tower once oversaw a lush, verdant river valley. Here, a four-flight climb, prefaced with a warning to the more, er, Gambrinus-built among us (they could sit it out and meet the group at the bar) revealed a set of boil kettles, gleaming under the fluorescents. Not a ferris wheel or orchestra pit in sight; The bottling line was the star. The whir and whoosh of hydraulics mingled with the tour guide’s Midwestern drone, her vowels’ rounded hills beaten as flat as the prairie. “Quality is our main objective,” she recited as our group watched efficient machines efficiently be efficient. “This line fills 2,000 cans per minute. As fast as you guys can drink ’em.”

And where, among these mechanized marvels, where in this temple to capitalist efficiency, where was the brewer? Buried alive. The rain began to fall harder, and we trumped down into the caves. It was here we conjured the ghost of Frederick Miller.

William Bostwick [Photo credit: T. Ford Bostwick]

Author William Bostwick [Photo credit: T. Ford Bostwick]

Carl Best built these lagering caves in the 1850s, chasing his big brother Phillip’s success. The older sibling’s Best Brewery, soon renamed Pabst, was on track to be the world’s largest; but poor Carl’s Plank Road Brewery tanked and, bankrupt, he sold the empty caves to Frederick Miller in 1856. Today, they’re hallowed ground, vitrines of vintage bottles, illuminated relic-like by wrought-iron pendant lights. The Miller Girl in the Moon swings above like a censer. (My favorite piece of so-called breweriana, she’s graced Miller’s packaging, sometimes prominently, sometimes as a hidden “easter egg,” since the early 1900s.) And then, the pendant lights dim and the man himself, Frederick Miller, appears. He’s a hologram projected on the cave’s back wall. I’m taken aback at first, but then I realize he fits perfectly. Miller is all tech now, linked to the past in ghostly image only, and the brewer isn’t a person, he’s a marketing trick. That’s the essence of Miller, on display: Machines make beer; people sell it.

I didn’t try to brew a recreation of Miller at home, as I had done with herbal Viking grog, traditional British IPAs, or Westvleteren’s medieval monk-brewed XXI. Why bother? The flavor of those beers told the story of their creation — or rather, the story of the brewer who created them. Miller’s lack thereof speaks to an equally polished-pure process. No hand imprints that frosty bottle, nor its watery taste — Miller is machine-made, human-consumed. It felt a more authentic experience, and truer to the beer’s story, to buy some paraphernalia at the gift shop, and a bottle of beer at the corner store on the way home. The trail had run cold. There was no brewer I could channel. To truly understand the nature of Miller, I had to buy it.

My six-pack of High Life cost $5.99; my Girl in the Moon magnet was only fifty cents. The beer tasted light and thin and sweet, with just a touch of sugary citrus — not fresh-squeezed, but more like SunnyD; watery, day-old corn flakes dusted with powdered Tang. It didn’t conjure a story of its creation, but rather hazy collegiate memories of consumption. It tasted just as it always has; just as, surely, it always will. The magnet remains on my bathroom mirror.

Back at Miller, the post-tour beers were, indeed, free. At the “Bavarian-style Miller Inn,” we munched Chex Mix, we drank, we wrote some post cards. “Welcome to Miller Valley,” they said, above an old-timey sepia photo — not of the factory, or of a brewer, but, naturally, of a salesman, proud and apron clad, peering out under a wide brimmed hat and driving a pair of horses pulling a wagon laden with barrels. “Do you know what time it is?” I wrote to friends. As if they couldn’t guess.

Exerpted from The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer by William Bostwick. Copyright © 2014 by William Bostwick. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer is available for purchase on Amazon.com via the following link: http://amzn.to/1nXoxVJ

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8 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    October 07, 2014

    Jesus, what an insufferable hipster. The reason why we have civilization is that we’re able to streamline production in factories. Factories made your car, your stupid glasses, your phone, your espresso machine, your tight jeans and my beer. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad beer just because it comes from a factory, you sentimental naif. Granted, Miller sucks, but it’s not because it lost its “human element”. Drink some Pilsners from Northern Germany to see how good macrobrews can be. At its best, industrial production provides the ultimate in quality control, something that microbrews just can’t match. Good beer is about properly executing a good formula, not about what creatures roam the brewery parking lot, or how “chill” the brewer is.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      October 07, 2014

      The demise of the Midwestern brewery is obvious to me. Americans have been drinking that swill called American beer in this country for decades not knowing anything better. With the advent of the micro-brew Americans woke up to the fact that has been obvious to true beer drinkers that have been drinking the likes of German Beer(the best beer in the world) forever, that typical watered down American beer really sucks. I stay away from micro-brews for the very reason you listed “Good beer is about the proper execution of a good formula” and i haven’t come across a micro brew that has done that yet as compared to A Warsteiner, Bitburger or Paulaner.

      Reply

      • Avatar
        October 07, 2014

        You haven’t looked hard enough. American craft beer is easily among the best in the world. Sure the Germans and Belgians have their specialties (trappist, lambics, bocks, etc.), but across the board American craft beer is supreme.

        Reply

  2. Avatar
    October 07, 2014

    If you want a true Milwaukee brewery tour, Miller is the last one you should have taken. If you ever make it around here again, take the Lakefront Brewery tour. Or – better yet – the Great Lakes Distillery tour. Those are both great.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    October 07, 2014

    As a resident of Milwaukee, I assure that the Miller Brewery has brewers. The problem you seem to be having is that you can’t see them on the tour? That’s because they’re busy overseeing a massive brewery undertaking. From a volume perspective, Miller outbrews micro/craft brewery’s yearly production in about a week (just a guess). The brewmasters are busy guys. Take into account that they are brewing not only miller products, but various other beers that are contracted by other companies to be brewed. All Coors products are brewed here (outside of Coors Banquet). Old Milwaukee? Brewed by the Miller brewery; the precious hipster beer Pabst Blue Ribbon? Also a Miller brew. Even Linenkugels and Henry Weinhard brews are made here. The Brewmasters don’t have time, they’re busy cleaning their wort tanks and mash tuns to prepare for the next batch.

    The other reason you’ll probably never see your brewer is the infrastructure, which is something I would have thought you would appreciate. The Miller Brewery in Milwaukee right now is still the Miller Brewery that originally started making Miller Beer in 1855. It has been retrofitted to a (somewhat) modern industrial design. That still leaves some difficult challenges from what you might expect. Most modern breweries are designed straight line; the beginning of the brewing process starts at one end of the giant building, and the packaging/distribution occurs at the other end. This brewery doesn’t have that luxury. The Brewhouse is in one building. The fermentation and aging processes are in another building, the packaging and distribution occurs in TWO separate buildings. The fact that all of this occurs without many issues, while still maintaining profitability should be a modern marvel.

    Say what you want about Miller. It may not be the greatest beer; god knows it pales in comparison to some of the local fare, but it has a purpose, and it’s still much better beer than anything made at that brewery in St. Louis. Give me a High Life or a Miller Lite over a Budweiser product any day.

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    October 09, 2014

    Miller High Life is my favorite beer. Microbrews are too much effort. I’m not looking for a taste test, so I can analyze the beer’s hoppiness, chocolaty accents and citrus flavors. I just want a drink that goes down easy while I watch baseball.

    Reply

  5. Avatar
    December 27, 2014

    I can appreciate the quality of writing, and perhaps the writer’s perspective – which is obviously an appreciation of small craft breweries. The article feels a little like a “hit job” with the author having pre-selected the Miller Brewery as the designated representative of faceless, tasteless, large-scale modern industrial-scale brewing. This seems like an opportunity missed for an article in Belt Magazine. To me, the Miller Brewery is an industrial miracle – a factory that has somehow managed to adapt and continue production after nearly 160 years of existence. This is one of the miracles of industrial production in the Rust Belt – that there are still examples of industrial facilities that have this continuity with the past, and such incredible resiliency. Think about how many high tech companies have come and gone just in the last 20 years of the Miller plant’s existence. .Another missed opportunity for the author was to tour some of Milwaukee’s other brewing industry legacy facilities, such as the former Pabst and Schlitz breweries that are nearing the final stages of multi-decade efforts for their adaptive reuse. I am certain that there is no other US city where so many major legacy breweries have been preserved and adapted for new uses.

    Reply

  6. Avatar
    January 02, 2015

    Okay, we get it — you happened to come to Milwaukee on a rainy day. Thank god because a sunny day would have completely blown your narrative. It’s a fool’s errand to expect your experience at the production plant of a massive, mass-market product to be anything like the experience at small, quirky artisan operations. Thanks for using the opportunity, though, to take a dump on our city.

    Reply

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