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

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning