A History of Wisconsin Breweries

Wisconsin is known nationwide for its dairy industry. Travel throughout the countryside and you’ll see plenty of dairy cows in pastures along highways.

But the state also was built in large part on its commercial brewing industry. Today’s beer landscape in the state looks much different than it did, say, 200 years ago, but there is no doubt the brewers who founded their companies along the state’s lakes and riverfronts played a major role in building up the culture of beer in the state.

Wisconsin’s baseball team is even called the Milwaukee Brewers, a nod to the city’s brewing heritage—it’s no wonder this is one of the best places to grab a craft beer these days!

Let’s take a look back at the history of breweries in Wisconsin and the influence they’ve had on the state’s growth and culture.

A long tradition

The early brewers in Wisconsin were primarily German immigrants who wanted to brew lagers. With pure, fresh water being a crucial ingredient in high-quality beer, these immigrants settled near springs, rivers and lakes that would provide reliable qualities and quantities of water.

The earliest breweries in the state are recorded in the 1830s, before Wisconsin even achieved statehood. The aforementioned German immigrants came from a nation that already had developed advanced brewing techniques with high standards of quality. Coming to a new country, German-style beer was a distinct part of their cultural identity, and something they wanted to carry with them to the new world.

The number of breweries grew rapidly throughout the 19th century. By the Civil War there were 160 breweries operating in the state, and more than 300 by the end of the century. By the end of the 19th century, there were many breweries using municipal water systems, particularly in Milwaukee. While this created a reliable water flow, it also resulted in increased costs for breweries, where even small rate increases could mean much bigger expenditure.

When prohibition arrived in the early 20th century, this changed the brewing industry in a big way, and it took a long time for the industry to recover. Many breweries permanently went out of business, while others had to change their operations to survive.

Which breweries in Wisconsin are the oldest?

That said, when prohibition ended, there was plenty of demand for beer in Wisconsin, and there were many companies ready to take advantage. There were some old standbys, such as Miller Brewing Company (founded by Frederick J. Miller in 1855), Pabst Brewing Company (founded by Jacob Best in 1844 as the Philip Best Brewing Company), the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company (founded in 1849 and eventually dubbed “The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous”), the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company (founded 1851) and the A. Gettelman Brewing Company (founded 1856 as the George Schweickhardt Menomonee Brewery).

Milwaukee became known as a national leader for beer by the end of the 19th century, and continued that reputation all through the first half of the 20th century, with four of the largest breweries in the world (Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz) all within its city limits.

What’s the best place to grab a craft beer?

The brewing industry changed significantly after prohibition and throughout the 20th century as brands merged and moved around. But the expansion of the craft brewing industry has once again boosted Wisconsin’s reputation as a state with great beer. The state has a number of small breweries with national reputations, including Lakefront Brewery, Central Waters Brewery, New Glarus Brewing Company, Eagle Park Brewing Company, 1840 Brewing Company and many more.

Come on down to Hotel Seymour Supperclub to try a great Wisconsin beer for yourself. Whether it’s a classic Miller High Life, a tasty Spotted Cow or a more adventurous ale from any number of small breweries, you’re sure to find something you like!

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