No town in America is as closely associated with beer as Milwaukee. Did beer make Milwaukee famous, or was it the other way around? Our brewing history extends to the mid-19th century, as does beer’s indelible effect on the city and its residents, culture, and image. Despite the vast and constant changes that have defined Milwaukee over that time, one thing remains consistent: Milwaukee makes beer! It’s no surprise, then, that the craft brewery explosion of the last three decades has breathed new life into that old tradition, and that Milwaukee now has a lot of breweries of all sizes. Touring one is a great way to engage with the essential Milwaukee as any other, and it’s a lot of fun to boot.
Now, you won’t learn all there is to know about brewing from a tour, or even much about it at all, so don’t go expecting a lot of technical detail (I’m a home-brewer, and I’m afraid I made that mistake). Instead, expect to be entertained while getting a little local history, a slice of Milwaukee culture, a few tasty samples, and a little knowledge about beer, anyway. Below I’ve provided a few links with many options and details, but I’ve selected a few options that are closer to CCCC and have weekday tours available. For those who prefer spirits, there’s also a local distillery tour listed below. Don’t drink but still interested? They all serve soft drinks as well. Most of these tours do not require reservations, but it’s a good idea, and most offer discounted group tours also.
Miller Brewery (Biggest Brewery)
Starting with the biggest, not the closest, there is of course Milwaukee’s most famous beer. Miller’s daily public tour (they offer a longer, more detailed one on Tuesdays) starts every 30 minutes and runs 80 minutes. This is an indoor/outdoor walking tour with 46 mandatory steps (and even more optional ones – this tour includes the cave seen above), so this isn’t the most accessible, but they do offer special needs tours if given 24 hours’ notice. The Tours run all week but take a weekday one to see the brewery in action.
Lakefront Brewery (Biggest Restaurant)
Though actually located on a riverbank, not a lakefront, this is one of my favorite local breweries, and the one tour on this list that I’ve attended. Lakefront is closer to CCCC, and they actually have many tour options available, so you’ll want to check out the site linked to above. Weekday tours are shorter than Friday-Saturday tours because they cannot go through some portions of the brewery during production. They even offer tours en Español! (If you’re around on Sunday and want those aforementioned technical details, they now offer that as well.)
Their tours are 45 minutes, and include 4 6-oz samples, a souvenir pint glass, and a rousing rendition of the Laverne and Shirley theme song. They also have a full-service restaurant that seats billions and a pretty good fish fry (the local staple food).
Milwaukee Brewing Co. (Closest to CCCC)
This brewery is even closer to CCCC and has a few great beers as well! MKE, as they are called locally, runs tours from Friday to Sunday. They’re pretty new, so while I can say they make some tasty beer, there’s not much history to relate. Tours last “about an hour” and include unspecified (one site said “unlimited”) beer samples, a souvenir pint glass, and a token for a free beer at a local participating tavern.
Pabst MKE (Quickest Tour)
While not the brewing powerhouse they once were, Pabst is still a big name in Milwaukee, so they should be included. They’re a little more remote and a shorter tour at 25 minutes, and starting at 4 pm on weekdays makes for a short diversion before hitting the tap room. They’re just down the road from a more historically-oriented tour, however, so you might combine them.
Best Place Beer History Tour (No Actual Brewery Tour)
Another Pabst option that could be coupled, if you like, with the previous one just down the street, this is the tour for those who want to learn about Milwaukee’s beer history in greater detail. By focusing on the founding and growth of the Pabst Brewery, this tour engages the most with the early history of Milwaukee and the importance of brewing to that history. Tours run throughout every day.
Great Lakes Distillery (Least Hoppy)
Maybe beer isn’t your thing, or you’ve already toured a brewery? Great Lakes Distillery produces vodka, gin, rum, absinthe, whiskey, brandy, and liqueurs! Their one-hour tour explains how they do that, and includes a flight of six samples. Reservations are recommended for this fully accessible tour.
More information and options are available at these links:
Visit Milwaukee – Brewery Tours
Milwaukee Brewery Tours
OnMilwaukee Tour Guide
Milwaukee Magazine – 9 Unique Tours
Joe Serio is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at UWM and presenter at CCCC. His work focuses on classroom play, community building, Technical Communication, and Media Studies. His dissertation involves analysis of emergent genres in tactical technical documentation created by members of online underground music collectors. He brewed his first beer – an Amber Ale – in 1990 and has been exploring beer styles and history while making his own beer, cider, and mead ever since.