Beer town feels distinctly flat as brewers bottle out; MILWAUKEE DAYS

  • @dusborne
Winter is many months old and the ice on the Milwaukee river is fractured and grubby. Appropriately, it is also strewn with empty beer bottles. This, after all, is Beer Town USA. If you think cars in Detroit and cigars in Havana, then what comes to mind in this city will forever be the brown stuff.

Or will it? They are still drinking quantities of beer here and a few folk are still making it. But these days the people of Milwaukee are mostly crying in it. Two of the city's greatest breweries, Schlitz and Pabst, are no more. Only Miller remains.

The beer heritage of Milwaukee, which sits on Lake Michigan, 100 miles north of Chicago, dates back to the early 1800s when beer-loving Germans were settling here at the rate of a thousand a week. By the century's end, brewing provided more jobs than any other industry.

Suds and sausage remain etched in the Milwaukee's heart. Laverne and Shirley of the television sitcom of the same name - still in re-runs here - worked in the fictional Schotz brewery. The city's beloved baseball team, the Brewers, is soon to get a new home; it will be called Miller Stadium.

It was Schlitz that dreamed up the legendary slogan: "The beer that made Milwaukee famous." But then, in the early 1980s, after selling out to rival Stroh, Schlitz split. Left behind was a huge and ornate brewery that has now been converted into high-priced apartments.

In 1968, Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Glenn Sutton's "What made Milwaukee famous (has made a loser outta me)". Now Milwaukee is the loser. Even Old Milwaukee, a dark beer that remains popular country-wide, is brewed in Detroit. Miller, founded in 1880 as the Plank Road Brewery, is owned by Philip Morris, the conglomerate that gives also us Kraft cheese and the Marlboro Man.

The latest agony, however, has been delivered by Pabst. Although its brand may be obscure internationally, Pabst was the city's first major brewery after its foundation by German immigrants in 1840, only four years after the creation of the Wisconsin Territory. By the late 1880s, with Captain Federick Pabst at its head, Pabst had become the largest selling beer in the nation. Pabst Blue Ribbon actually had blue ribbons on its bottles.

In this century, Blue Ribbon grew into the beer of choice for blue-collar workers in the Midwest and especially in this heavily blue-collar city. With its blackened bricks and crenellated walls, the Pabst brewery looms from a hill above downtown like a Dickensian jail. A single chimney rises from the plant's heart with Pabst spelt out in white ceramic tiles.

Today, the plant is empty. Lorry trailers with the Blue Ribbon logo are still backed up to some of the loading bays but a notice in the door of the gift shop and public beer garden says tersely: "Tours suspended until further notice." A few bulbs are burning inside, but the brewery is silent.

The end came in December last year. Pabst's owners since 1985, the S&P Corporation of California, contracted out the brewing of Blue Ribbon and closed its Milwaukee facility. Almost 300 jobs were lost as well as the health insurance of 700 former employers. Gone also was a bit of Milwaukee's civic soul. Wayne Watkins, a Pabst employee of 28 years, explains: "They didn't just kill a bunch of jobs for brewery workers. They killed a family."

The feeling of betrayal is palpable. Straight after the announcement, bars across the city held "drink it or dump it" Pabst nights to exhaust their stocks of Blue Ribbon. Few establishments will serve it now. Even in the posh Pfister Hotel, a request for a Pabst earns a look of disgust. "We don't serve it any more," the server replies. "That company is evil".

The anger extends to the office of the mayor, John Norquist. With photographs behind his desk of himself downing beers with supporters, he reasons that the US, unlike Europe, does not practice industrial policies that might have given Pabst a prop to stay open. I press him, however. Was he a Pabst drinker before? Certainly. Will he drink it now? Certainly not.

Proud natives urge me, however, to visit one of the micro-breweries that have recently mushroomed across the city. The big breweries may be leaving, they insist, but the brewing spirit of Milwaukee still lives.

I am happy to comply with a stop at a micro-brew restaurant called Rock Bottom, on the banks of the river. In the converted halls of an abandoned bank, Rock Bottom serves some ales brewed on-site that are delicious. I am puzzled, however, by the giant photographs on the walls of landscapes from the American West - Colorado peaks and sunsets in Utah.

Rock Bottom, I discover, is about right. This place has nothing to do with Milwaukee and its proud history of brewing. What it does represent is the slow homogenisation of the US. It is the one-formula-for-all, shopping- mall principle. Rock Bottom is just one more outlet of a company based in Boulder, Colorado and listed on the Nasdaq securities exchange. Poor Captain Pabst. How he must be spinning in his grave.

David Usborne