Riverwest Stein Beer Label

RIVERWEST has found another excuse to raise a glass of its self-titled beverage. This year is the 20th anniversary of the beer that made a neighborhood famous: Riverwest Stein. Towards the end of 1987, commercial production began at the Lakefront Brewery, an operation that Ann Pogorelc of Tony’s Tavern in Walker’s point still refers to as “the Klisch boys from Riverwest.” The Klisch boys are the brothers Jim and Russ, a cop and a chemist, both born and raised in Brown Deer, who found themselves as young adults sharing a house at 2951 Bremen Street in the early 80s.  “We were living together and all,” explains Russ to one of the daily tours at Lakefront’s current Commerce Street headquarters, “and I was eating his cooking, which wasn’t that good, so how good could his beer be?”

The Beer that made Riverwest Famous

Turned out to be not that bad, which convinced Russ to do some yeastly experiments of his own. Pretty soon Carson Praefke, who’d grown up next door to the Klisches in Brown Deer, was drinking and brewing along ith them. “It was the brewery that brought me to Riverwest,” recalled Praefke on a recent rainy afternoon over coffee at the Riverwest Co-op. “Jim kinda proved that you could home brew and have it taste good. I’d had home brew before, but nothing drinkable.” Riverwest Stein, a recipe based on some of Jim’s early tinkering, was first sold at the Gordon Park Pub, at the current site of Nessum Dorma. “One day Jim came in,” recalled Steve Johnson, who opened the Gordon Park Pub back in ’82, “and said that Russ had been winning prizes for his beer recipes at the State Fair, and they wanted to go commercial.” According to Praefke, that desire was directly inspired by the larger economic forces all around them: “At the time Schlitz was closing, and Pabst was going through merger talks. We were losing local ownership of breweries. If somebody started a brewery owned by Milwaukee people, it would sell a lot of beer.” “They were right on the cutting edge of the microbreweries,” reasoned Jim Linneman, owner of Linneman’s, still one of the biggest sellers of Lakefront products, “and the tail end of the big breweries.” “We kinda kicked it around over a few beers a few times,” remembered Praefke, “and once we heard about the microbreweries starting up on the west coast… In Seattle they were using old dairy equipment, and that’s when the light bulb went off for us – because Wisconsin is full of old dairy equipment – that we could really do this.” {mospagebreak title=Chambers Street Between Dino’s and Suds}

Chambers Street Between Dino’s and Suds

The Three Stooges beer tanks, shown here during a recent tour of the Commerce Street facility, were decorated by local artists back in the old days, when the Chambers Street brewery was also a stop on the RIverwest Art Walk. Mo was originally painted by Glenda Puhek, Curly by TIm Ladwig, and Larry by Carol Scholemer. Contrary to rumor, they were not paid only in beer. Photo by Vince Bushell. The original plan was to brew the beer – in 55-gallon stainless steel tubs that used to be full of milk – right in the Bremen Street house. “We drew up plans,” explained Jim, “canvassed the neighborhood, talked to [alderwoman] Sandy Hoeh, who thought it was a great idea, and got a variance from the Board of Zoning and Appeals. But then it got shot down by the health department.” The three partners – all with day jobs – then began looking all around the city for a separate “hobby brewery” location. “So I was pulling out of the alley one day,” said Jim, “and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign in the old Pete’s Bakery right around the corner.” The old brick building was owned by Leo Dinon, proprietor of Dino’s bar and restaurant next door. It had apartments upstairs and storage downstairs, where Leo kept jukeboxes and cigarette machines. It took awhile to rehab the ground floor, but soon enough Lakefront Brewery was keeping the taps flowing at Dino’s next door, at Sud’s across the street, and at Tracks and the Gordon Park Pub a few blocks south. From personal experience, however, the Klisches knew they were barely putting a dent in the Riverwest bar business. “I used to drive home on the weekend,” said Russ, “and never leave the neighborhood. Wouldn’t even have to move your car. When we started the brewery, we counted – and I’m not joking here – there were literally 50 bars just in Riverwest.” “Since then,” added Jim, “the old saloons have been decimated. They used to be a part of the fabric of the community. Families would go to church on Sunday, then head to the corner bar for ham and rolls.” “I’ll give you a statistic,” offered Johnson, who now owns the Uptowner on Humboldt and Center. “I used to live on Holton and Wright, and I could look from there down to Dousman Street and see 14 bars just on Wright Street.” {mospagebreak title=Ghost Saloons}

Ghost Saloons

While drinking an East Side Dark over at Dino’s, Jim explains how you can tell where the bars used to be. “Look for a house with a corner door,” he says, “so that you can lean out and look down either sidewalk.” Now there’s just two bars left along Wright – The Gig on Dousman and The Pub on Fratney. But at every street in between, there are corner doors – sometimes as many as three to an intersection. Walking that street now – and knowing the history those doors represent – is like going through a museum. The bars didn’t disappear alone, of course. Their decline was step for step with the loss of Riverwest’s – and Milwaukee’s – industrial working class. “We used to have American Motors,” recalled Jim, “Johnson Controls, the tanneries, and all the manufacturing on the north end of Holton. Now the neighborhood has lost its middle class.” It wasn’t just Riverwest that was going through such changes, of course. Tony’s Tavern – on 2nd and Florida – was the first bar outside Riverwest to start serving Lakefront beer. Tony Pogorelc and his wife Ann have been living upstairs and running the place since 1960. “In the early days,” he reminisced, while pouring a Stein, “our customers were blue-collar. Those businesses are gone now,” he said, motioning in the general direction of the Allen Bradley clock. “Now people come from wherever. Those who remember us, put it that way.” Back in the late 80s, Tony and Ann had heard about the “Klisch boys” through word of mouth, and paid a visit to the Chambers Street location, which was fast becoming famous for its good beer and great tours. “At that time,” said Ann, “they didn’t have enough beer for us. But we just said, ‘Remember us when you get a little bigger.’” {mospagebreak title=Roll Out the Barrel…Kick It Down Bremen or Weil}

Roll Out the Barrel… Kick It Down Bremen or Weil

Every year, they got a little bigger. Those early tours on Chambers Street are remembered by Bill Harlow for their “bread, cheese, pretzels, mustard, herring, and getting to tap your own beer. That’s classic.” For the last 12 years, Harlow has been touring Lakefront Brewery – first on Chambers and now on Commerce – a lot. ccording to Jim, Harlow easily has the record for most tours taken. “I was here twice last week,” counted Harlow, who now bartends at the Art Bar, “and every Tuesday this summer. I try to make it at least once a week, sometimes more.” With dedicated fans like Harlow, soon there were more thirsty palettes to quench than the Chambers Street building could brew. About ten years ago, they began their move to the old power plant on Commerce Street. Now they’re surrounded by brandnew condos, but at the time they were one of the first to re-invest in the old industrial riverfront corridor. The new brewery, in the shadow of the Holton Street viaduct, is at the intersection of the Riverwest, Harambee, and Beerline neighborhoods. They’re able to produce 8,900 barrels of beer a year there – which is a lot more than the 10 they managed in 1987, but still less beer produced all year than Miller spills in one day. (That’s one of the facts you’ll get if you spend $5 and join Bill on a tour.) That’s enough beer now that they hire a distribution company. In the old days, however, back on Chambers Street, delivery was a strictly in-house affair. “I had a Cutlass,” said Russ, “which was a good little beerwagon, and Jim had a Jeep Cherokee.” There wasn’t always a vehicle involved, however. Dino’s could just about tap the kegs right from the brewery. This worked out well for the family-owned Italian restaurant on tour days. “The bar would always fill up after the tour,” said Rita Dinon, Leo’s widow. “I remember my husband meeting a lot of people that way. It really kept the neighborhood jumping.” When Linneman opened up his bar three blocks away on Locust and Weil in 1992, there were some nights he had to run over to the brewery – which tended to be open late (and even if it wasn’t, Jim and Carson had apartments upstairs). “We’d pack this little bar for shows,” remembered Linneman, “and sometimes in the morning I’d need a new keg. Sometimes even that night. I’d tell the girl behind the bar to wait a second and then I’d run over to the brewery and kick the new keg down the street. College kids would be yelling for me to bring it in their house, cars would stop.” {mospagebreak title=A Neighborhood Base}

A Neighborhood Base

“When we first started having Lakefront,” said Linneman, “only people in Riverwest knew about it. People from the outside came in and tried it out, because that was the only beer we had, and they liked it.” Wine distributor Nate Norfolk recently bought a house on Fratney Steet, around the corner from the old brewery. He was already familiar with the good taste of Lakefront beers from his days at Downer Avenue Liquor on the East Side. Norfolk’s more of a wine drinker, but he makes an exception for Riverwest Stein. He’s bought three kegs of it just this summer. “All of their beers are subtle and balanced,” he said at a block party while one of those half barrels was being consumed. “Drinking a Stein is like smelling a woman who’s only a woman vs. one who just put on some cheap perfume. They know how to be distinctive without being overwhleming.” Jim and Russ made the rounds of the bars – sometimes for business, sometimes for pleasure, usually for both – and got to know most of the bar owners. “The guys who owned the bars,” explained Russ, “owned other nearby properties, too, so they wanted local industry to succeed, All these guys pushed my beer, and the people who came from other neighborhoods started drinking it.” During the early years of the brewery, Russ kept his day job as a battery engineer at Johnson Controls, and some of the marketing guys there gave him advice. “They told me, ‘You gotta take your beer downtown and get it into a cool night club. That’s the only way to make it.’” Indeed, Russ tried that at first, but the hip spots turned him down. “The neighborhood,” he said, “was the only place that served it and wanted it. And that turned out to be the best place to put it. We wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise. We couldn’t have done it without Riverwest.” Riverwest is still the home of their most loyal customers, and the original flavors – Riverwest Stein, Klisch Ale, and East Side Dark – are still their most popular. But some of their newer beers have gained national exposure. They produced the first bottled organic beer in the country – E.S.B. – and the first gluten-free beer – New Grist – which is now available in more than 20 states. When Jim was designing a label for the neighborhood’s signature brew, he chose the streetscape along the northern edge of Clarke Street between Fratney and Bremen – a row of trees and houses leading up to the grand steeple of St. Casimir’s. “I thought it was the most prototypical Riverwest street,” he explained. The view is from the corner which now holds the Polish Falcon and the Riverwest Co-op, which used to be a Schlitz tied house. It was a block where when you left the bars, you saw the church, and when you left the church, you saw the bars. “Back in the 70s,” recalled Jim, “I was living downtown near Marquette and didn’t have any direction really. I was living by myself and kinda lonely, then three guys needed a fourth for a flat on Auer. For the first time in my life, I felt a neighborhood, you know, a community.” Even though there’s fewer bars than there used to be, and the role of many of today’s bars is more recreational than before, the old days haven’t completely gone. “In Riverwest,” says Jim, who still lives nearby, you can still walk down to a corner bar.” And once you get there, of course, there’ll be Lakefront on tap.

Lakefront Brewery 1872 N. Commerce St. 414.372.8800 www.lakefrontbrewery.com