The historic brewing company’s next step is one of its most interesting.
For the better part of my beer-drinking lifespan, Pabst has held a static position in my brain. That position was: They make PBR. I like an occasional PBR. That was it.
But in recent months and years, new ownership has shaken up that perception with the expansion of their Old Ballantine Ale, bringing fresh-brewed Stroh’s back to Detroit and, of course, their meteoric expansion of Not Your Father’s Root Beer.
All while managing to hang on to their allure of being the go-to “cheap” American macro lager favored by blue collar types, the apocryphal “hipsters” and bike messengers, and anyone else who wants to have a basic but decent beer that you can buy in bulk. (Not even my preferred macro, Miller High Life, has managed to supplant it — though it’s getting closer.)
Recently, I was planning a trip to Milwaukee, and as it turns out, I was staying right around the corner from where the new Pabst Milwaukee Brewery was just about ready to open its doors. A three-second email was fired off into the ether — Hey, could I come check it out real quick? And as it turns out, my trip was going to be just a few days before the official media visit, so yes, I could poke my head in and check it out.
So I did.
That was a month ago. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to sort through my thinking, but I’ve been considering the brewery’s place in the grand scheme of things since then. The first opening was in mid-April and a full kickoff music festival takes place this weekend, so now seems as good a time as any to set down some thoughts, and also to ask the question:
As a Chicagoan, should you really go check out the Pabst “innovation brewery” when you’re heading to Milwaukee?
Even with everything else going on in this MKE craft beer renaissance…I’m pretty sure the answer is yes.
The Pabst company is coming full circle with the opening of this facility. It’s located in a former church, community center and Pabst employee tavern that dates back to the 1870s, and it’s a beautiful structure. The bright brick exterior sits in the shadows of a former Pabst grainary, and across the street is a building that served as a brewhouse for a century (which is now the Brewhouse Suites, where I stayed and happily recommend).
In a city full of brewing history, only the Miller tour gives you this kind of historical proximity — though you’re not walking through lagering caves or the Plank Road Brewery house here. Even though you’ve got the freeway barreling by next to you, it’s easy to picture horsedrawn buckwagons outside laden with beer barrels, swarthy mustachioed beer barons strolling the streets, workers carrying home buckets of beer and singing German drinking songs that echo off the brick walls all throughout the neighborhood.
Use your imagination. It’s fun to picture. And you’re not gonna get that kind of feel drinking in, say, San Diego.
It would be the easiest thing in the world for Pabst to sit back, let their contract partners crank out PBR and Ranier and Stroh’s and Schlitz and 8-zillion varieties of Not Your Father’s ___ and Not Your Mother’s ___ and count their money.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to open up the stereotypical Brewery-In-A-Box with concrete floors, loft style ceilings, metal stools and Edison lights.
They are doing neither of these things.
They’re letting head brewer John Kimes screw around with recipes, experiments, test batches, and whatever other random ideas come down the pike. They’re working like so many other true craft breweries do – in a tiny, cramped, uncomfortable space on a 10-barrel brewhouse that’s basically in the basement. Every square inch is packed with stainless, which means any intention of expanding is pretty much stymied from the get-go (unless they start stacking tanks outside).
They do expect a capacity of up to about 4,000 bbls from here, which should be plenty of beer (even for Milwaukee drinkers).
It’s built to be small, relatively speaking, which is crazy for one of the biggest brewing companies in the country. And in a world where Miller and A-B are growing through acquisitions, this team appears to be interested in trying to forge their own path under the Pabst banner.
What the hell does a Pabst IPA taste like? A Pabst Saison, or a Pabst dunkel, even the much-discussed NEIPA available on opening day? Is Pabst going to innovate and come up with their newest national craft competitor in this bright, wood-accented room?
It’ll be fun to find out. It’ll be interesting to see if a former Miller brewer can crank out crazy stuff like any other upstart craft joint. Even the failures — and there will be failures, as there are at every brewery — represents a swing of the bat that other breweries aren’t taking.
Thankfully, they’re already kicking things off with more than just the usual amber, pale ale and oatmeal stouts that you get at more run-of-the-mill (read: safe) brewpubs. Anything from their World IPA series seems like the most likely option to jump from the Milwaukee space into a package format…but who knows. Maybe a Pabst Zwickel might make its way out into the world. Or a PB-Bier de Mars. We’ll see.
It’s A Starting Point.
Look, there’s no shortage of places to drink beer in Milwaukee. And in the past couple years, there’s been a new onslaught of craft brewers opening up shop to make their own way and try their own thing. No longer does Milwaukee beer mean only Miller on one hand, Lakefront on the other. Those days are long gone.
So as a place to begin a larger exploration of what beers Milwaukee has to offer these days? You’re looking at a great option. Start out in a former church as a show of faith — in what the city once was, and what it is becoming once again. Then go ahead and head to Bayview, Walker’s Point, the Old Third Ward, all the other MKE ‘hoods thriving with new beer blood.
So, yeah. At the end of the day, you should consider checking it out, if for no other reason than to tick off “Pabst IPA” as a thing you probably never thought you’d be able to try.
Plus, it’s super Instagrammable.
Ironically, if you want a super-fresh, brewed-on-site Pabst Blue Ribbon…well, you’re not going to get it. Miller has the contract to brew it, and only they get to make the stuff. So no in-house PBR will be available. I think you’ll probably survive.
See if I’m wrong.