Milwaukee: Lakefront Brewery makes history

Russ Klisch decided to ferment beer after brother Jim gave home brewing a try. “It wasn’t the worst thing I ever had,” Russ deadpans, but he figured he could do it better.

That was 1982, and Russ (schooled as a chemist) today operates an unconventional laboratory in a former Cream City brick power plant. His Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee – the oldest certified organic brewery in the nation – makes award-winning, craft beer in an ecologically thoughtful manner.

Within Wisconsin are more than 70 breweries – brewpubs to global beer distributors – and several produce award winners, but Lakefront products also have made history. Organic ESB, out since 1996, was the nation’s first certified organic beer. Ten years later, New Grist appeared as the first gluten-free beer. In 2009, Local Acre became the first beer made with Wisconsin-grown hops and barley.

“We are the next wave of growth for breweries,” Russ believes. “Brewers in the 1800s became very innovative in Milwaukee,” and Lakefront Brewery intends to uphold the spirit of this historic tradition.

Creativity extends beyond beer formulas. “We do things differently, like giving you a beer before a tour starts,” Russ says. Guides – who include home-brew brother Jim, a retired police detective – joke around while explaining the brewing process.

What makes the brewery a leader environmentally?

– Every week, 15,000 pounds of the grain residue from brewing goes to Growing Power Inc., a Milwaukee nonprofit that specializes in urban gardening and bringing healthful food to all income levels. Growing Power uses worms to turn the spent grain into nutrient-rich compost.

– The brewery’s home since 1998 is a refurbished 1908 coal-fired power plant on the Milwaukee River. The first location was a former bakery, where reconditioned dairy equipment was used to make beer.

– A portion of the brewery’s energy comes from wind power. Water in a heat exchanger that cools boiled beer is reused.

– The brewery works with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, East Troy, to revive and support hops as a state farm crop.

Visit Lakefront Brewery a Friday night, and you can add supper and song to the experience. That’s when a big room of the cavernous building is devoted to polka music and a longstanding Wisconsin tradition: the fish fry. The mood is boisterous, the setting family-friendly and beer ice-cold.

For more about tour days and times at Lakefront Brewery, 1872 N. Commerce St., Milwaukee:, 414-372-8800. The $7 tour cost includes a take-home glass, four beer tastings and a coupon for one beer elsewhere in Milwaukee.

The brewery, whose first barrel of beer was sold in 1987, also makes Lakefront Golden Maple Root Beer, which includes Wisconsin maple syrup. It’s not as syrupy in taste as traditional root beers.

Most of Wisconsin’s three dozen (and counting) wineries use grapes in their beverages.
A few opt for other fruits, some of which are locally grown.

Least typical is the fermentation of honey and fruit into mead, a product common thousands of years ago, during the Renaissance. Few people make mead commercially today, but Jon and Kim Hamilton of southern Bayfield County’s White Winter Winery are exceptions.

Jon was a psychotherapist and home brewer before commercial mead production began in 1996. He describes mead as “the oldest unknown fermented beverage in the world” and estimates 95 percent of his ingredients come from within 150 miles of home.

At least 25,000 pounds of honey annually turn into variations of handcrafted mead, hard ciders and other alcoholic concoctions that involve honey.

Melomel mixes honey and fruit. Metheglin involves honey and spices. Acer combines maple and honey mead. Mulled Cyser (mead and cider) has earned international awards.

Some of these products are seasonal.

“People think of honey as a generic product, but it’s all about the terroir” of the area where the bees live and eat, Jon explains. “Honey has just as much of a distinction in taste as the varietals of grapes do when making wine.”

Jon honed his taste for honey as a boy, thanks to the combs from hives tended by relatives. “Honey has been a family business for generations,” says Jon, who as a teenager even made beekeeping a research paper topic.

For more about free tours and tastings at White Winter Winery, 68323 Lea St., Iron River:, 800-697-2006. A series of outdoor porch concerts occurs on some Sundays during summer.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota for 50-plus years have worked to develop high-quality grapes that are cold-hardy. Since 2000, research unfolds at a winery and laboratory specifically designed for this work. More than 10,000 vines grow on 10 acres; one of the success stories is Frontenac, a hybrid and Midwest-friendly grape whose rose and port wines have earned awards internationally.

For more, check out (click on “cold hardy grapes”). The educational facility is not a tourist attraction.

The Wisconsin Brewer’s Guild presents its first Wisconsin Summer Solstice Beer Lovers Festival from 1-5 p.m. June 26 at Bayshore Town Center, in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale. More than two dozen breweries will participate. For more:, 608-441-1992. The group, which aims to enhance the state’s brewing heritage, also organizes events for American Craft Beer Week, May 17-23.