Milwaukee: new Blue Ribbon City emerging on Pabst campus

signageTwo things make this Milwaukee brewery tour atypical: Your free pint is tapped before the sightseeing begins, and five minutes – tops – are spent talking about how beer is made.

What visitors learn will pertain much more to advertising, architecture, relationships and rebirth than hops, lagers, filters and fermentation. The 90-minute tour at Best Place is all about brewing history and the rise, fall and resurrection of the Pabst Brewing campus.

Pabst used to be the world’s largest brewer. At its peak, in 1978, 15.6 million barrels of beer were sold. Within 20 years, the Milwaukee plant closed.

The work of brewing happened in 28 buildings on 20 acres, northwest of downtown and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Now 14 historic structures – German Renaissance Revival in design and made with cream city brick – remain, and they are undergoing a massive overhaul.

Business offices, apartments and satellite campuses for Cardinal Stritch University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have opened. The work continues, and that’s where the Best Place brewery history tours come in.

Tours begin in the 1858 Blue Ribbon Hall, which was a school before the brewery needed more room for a bottling house. Guide Scott Smith, who wears a striped Pabst deliveryman’s shirt, is full of unusual facts like this.

He knows how often Pabst employees got a beer break (every three hours) and why the company insignia has a “B” in the middle (for Jacob Best, who started the brewery in 1844).

He points out King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer, made of painted metal and weighs 900 pounds in a courtyard outside of Best Place tavern. (One block uphill, the king shows up again, made of stained glass and two stories tall at a boutique hotel.)

When did the name change to Pabst? Why call it “blue ribbon” beer? What difference did the addition of icehouses and chemists make? Scott answers these questions and others as he explains the dawn of a brand, the end of a business and the clever repurposing of buildings long left dead.

Add video clips of vintage television commercials, a narrated walk through the past and an introduction to The Sternewirt, a cozy tavern whose windows show off pretty courtyards and walls contain painted German scenes and proverbs.

One example: “Das Trinken Nicht Vergessen” (the drinking is not forgotten).

“We may no longer be the beer and brewing capital, but what a rich beer and brewing history we have,” says Jim Haertel, owner of Best Place, which is the former Pabst headquarters, visitors center and gift shop.

It’s been 15 years since his first letter to brewery complex owners, asking how much they’d want for the closed campus, which was quickly falling into disrepair.

He struck a deal, risked life savings and eventually sold most buildings; now the late philanthropist Joseph Zilber’s Brewery Project LLC is the developer (thebrewerymke.com).

Besides brewery history tours, Best Place has a gift shop (whose merchandise includes vintage beer collectibles), and the second floor soon will host special events (including the August wedding reception for Jim’s son).

Jim also wants to develop a speakeasy bar, “beer B&B” (lodging that includes breakfast and in-room tapped beer) and a beer/brewing museum.

“To be honest, I had no connection to this place, but I had to have those buildings and rejuvenate this piece of Milwaukee,” he says.

Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, 901 W. Juneau Ave., Milwaukee, is closed on Tuesdays but otherwise offers twice-daily tours. Cost is $8, which includes a tap of Schlitz or Pabst. bestplacemilwaukee.com, 414-630-1609

One block uphill from Best Place is the Brewhouse Inn and Suites, a 90-unit, extended-stay hotel in buildings 20 and 21 of the original Pabst brewing campus.

The décor? “Neo-Victorian, industrial, steam punk” is how hotel literature describes it. Showstoppers are a row of gleaming copper tops from long-ago brewing kettles, two-story stained glass window and five-story atrium.

The extensive reuse of materials during building renovation helped the project earn platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Example: The reception desk is made of 1,550 beer bottles from Milwaukee-based brewers.

Connected to the inn is casual dining at Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub, where pizzas are popular. jacksonsbrpdowntown.com, 414-276-7271

Rates at Brewhouse Inn and Suites, 1215 N. 10th St., Milwaukee, start at $143. brewhousesuites.com, 414-810-3350

For a more traditional brewery tour in Milwaukee, consider:

Lakefront Brewery, 1872 Commerce St. – The $7 tour includes a souvenir glass and four pours. Visit on a Friday evening, when the cavernous Beer Hall livens up with music by the Brew Haus Polka Kings; hundreds show up for the 4-9 p.m. fish fry. Lighter nibbles served at other times. lakefrontbrewery.com, 414-372-8800

Sprecher Brewery, 701 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale – Pay $5 to tour and get a souvenir glass and four beer samples, plus unlimited soda samples at the indoor beer garden. Weekend reserved beer-cheese tastings (10 pours) are $20. Tapas-beer pairings (usually Thursday nights) are $30 for at least 12 craft-beer samplings. sprecherbrewery.com, 414-964-2739

Milwaukee Brewing Co., 613 S. Second St. – The $10 tour on Fridays and Saturdays includes a souvenir glass, several craft beer samples and a token for one more afterward. milwaukeebrewingco.com, 414-226-2337

MillerCoors, 4251 W. State St. – Indoor-outdoor tours of Miller Valley and its 150 years of brewing history are free and end with samples. millercoors.com, 414-931-2337

Big Bay Brewing Co., 4517 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood – No guided tours, but a tasting room and gift shop are open Wednesday to Saturday. bigbaybrewing.com, 414-226-6611

Milwaukee chefs take an interest in pairing good beer with good food. Upcoming specialty meals include:

Collaborative Beer Dinner, 6 p.m. March 25, Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub, 222 E. Erie St., $95. hinterlandbeer.com, 414-727-9300

Three-course cooking demo and beer tasting, 7 p.m. March 27, Chef Michael Feker’s School of Culinary Magic, 6910 W. North Ave., $70. ilmito.com, 414-443-1414

Five-course Samuel Adams Utopias Beer Dinner, 6 p.m. March 31, Dream Dance Steak, Potawatomi Bingo Casino, 1721 W. Canal St., $75. paysbig.com, 414-847-7883

Pizzeria 3301 beer-pizza pairings, 7 p.m. April 18, May 16, Villa Palermo, 3301 Canal St., $30. facebook.com/pizzeria3301, 414-982-6060

Milwaukee Food and City Tours presents three-hour bus tours with stops at four longtime taverns during the “Pre-Prohibition Historic Bar Tour,” which begins at 2 p.m. on some Saturdays. Cost is $55 ($40 for those who don’t drink alcohol). milwaukeefoodtours.com, 800-979-3370