Sibling Rivalry Brews Success
by Jim Loew
One part sibling rivalry. Two parts brothers. One part beer. Could be a recipe for disaster.
But instead, they’re ingredients that would evolve into Milwaukee’s beloved Lakefront Brewery.
During the days of hair bands, MTV, and Ronald Reagan, the 1980s also found brothers Russ and Jim Klisch battling each other to see who could brew the best batch of beer in their Riverwest duplex. According to Russ, the whole beer-brewing idea started when he bought Jim a book on the subject for his birthday. To Russ’ surprise, Jim not only read the book, he made some beer. Some pretty good beer, at that.
Though certainly impressed, Russ felt he could do better. “It began as sibling rivalry,” said Dan Aleksandrowicz, Lakefront Brewery’s warehouse manager, who has been with the organization for 15 years. “From there, the two entered contests, won awards, and the rest is history.” With friends and family urging the brothers on to make this hobby of theirs into a legitimate business, they decided to go for it.
Throughout all of their brewing experiments, Russ, by day, was a process engineer in Johnson Control’s battery division, and Jim was a city of Milwaukee police detective. Their original intentions were simply to use their duplex as their brewery, but they couldn’t get the necessary permits. So they needed a building. Nearby, at 818 E. Chambers St., there was the old Pete’s Bakery that had gone out of business years ago and had later been used as a rooming house, which now sat vacant. The brothers wanted to start small, and this place was within walking distance from their home. So in 1987, this building officially became Lakefront Brewery.
The brothers sold their first barrel of beer to the Gordon Park Pub, on Hadley and Weil, which later became The Stork Club, and is now home to Nessun Dorma. “They went around to bars hand delivering the barrels themselves,” said Aleksandrowicz. Lakefront Brewery was catching on, and by 1988, they sold 72 barrels. The next year, 125 barrels. And after that, sales began to double. As of 2008, they reached 11,000 barrels.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Russ and Jim, and their brewmaster for the past seven years, Luther Paul, are innovators. “Luther’s dad has Celiac Disease,” explained Aleksandrowicz, referring to a digestive disorder related to the consumption of gluten. When people who have this disease eat a food product with gluten, it causes damage to the small intestine and does not allow food to be absorbed properly.
Beer contains malted barley, which, unfortunately for those with Celiac Disease, contains gluten. Paul, therefore, wanted to create a beer so that people like his dad could drink it.
One problem, however, was that prior to 2006, the United States government’s policy definition of beer stated that all beer had to contain 25 percent malted barley. So that year, Russ and Jim approached the government and were successful in getting the definition changed. With help from their brewmaster, New Grist was born – a beer brewed with sorghum, a gluten-free grain; along with hops, water, rice, and a gluten-free yeast grown on molasses.
In keeping with its innovative ideals, Lakefront Brewery is the first brewery in Wisconsin, as well as the first business in Milwaukee, to receive the Travel Green Wisconsin certification, which recognizes tourism-related businesses that are reducing their environmental impact through operational and other enhancements.
Milwaukee, however, is not just about beer – it’s also about the Friday fish fry. And in 1999, a year after moving into their current, larger facility at 1872 N. Commerce St., a large banquet hall in their building went unused. So Russ Davis, restaurateur (Café Vecchio Mondo) and Riverwest businessman (Bella Luna Pasta) approached the Klisch brothers with an idea. This idea manifested itself into the Lakefront Palm Garden. Not only does the Palm Garden feature one of Milwaukee’s consistently top-ranked fish fries, it also features another local staple, live polka music. If you haven’t been to the Palm Garden on Friday night, it’s worth the experience.
Today, Russ Klisch continues as president of Lakefront Brewery and is very hands on, according to Aleksandrowicz, while Jim has retired and is now one of a number of the entertaining tour guides that Lakefront features. And for those who are always happy to hear about a new Lakefront beer coming out, Russ and his crew are happy to announce a new arrival. Aleksandrowicz says to keep your eyes open for something called Local Acre Lager. This is to be the first beer with 100% Wisconsin-grown ingredients since Prohibition. Besides being available in local pubs, this pilsner, with a 7 percent alcohol content, will be available in 22-ounce bottles.
So, for what started out as sibling rivalry between two brothers with a passion for beer, things turned out all right. And Milwaukee’s rich beer-brewing heritage lives on.