By Stephen Coss
Milwaukee’s culture has become synonymous with the city’s many breweries. As the birthplace of popular names like Miller and Pabst, the brewery experience has shaped Milwaukee’s local culture for residents across the city and beyond. As a Milwaukeean himself, Russ Klisch decided to take his love for beer one step further and try his luck at the brewing experience.
Thirty years later, Lakefront Brewery has captured the spirit of Milwaukee in a way Klisch could’ve never imagined.
Famous for its award-winning fish fry and expansive brewery tour, the brewery has become more than just the small hobby that Jim and Russ Klisch picked up. Lakefront Brewery, which opened its doors in 1987, remains a benchmark of Milwaukee’s local culture 30 years later. To the restaurant patrons and local beer aficionados, Lakefront means a lot to their love of Milwaukee.
“I just think this is the number one Milwaukee experience in town,” says Russ Klisch, Lakefront’s founder.
Klisch’s interest in brewing dates back to 1987. After receiving a degree in chemistry from UW-Eau Claire, Russ moved in with his brother Jim. To repay his brother for the hospitality, Russ bought Jim a home brewing book for his birthday.
“And he actually read it, which surprised me,” Klisch jokes.
Although the first beer looked messy, Russ admits it wasn’t half bad. With his knowledge of chemistry, Russ began practicing his own brewing and soon partnered with his brother. Together, the Klisch brothers and their partner Carson Praefke entered local and statewide contests. When their beer started earning awards, they sought recognition at a national level, where they continued to win awards.
“By that time we had confidence we could probably start a brewery,” Klisch says.
After failing to acquire loans to open a brewery of their own, the trio finally settled on a small former bakery in the Riverwest neighborhood. On December 2, 1987, they sold a 55-gallon barrel to local Riverwest bar Nessun Dorma, and soon began selling barrels to other bars around the Riverwest area.
Around 1992, Russ bought Praefke’s share, leaving the two brothers in charge until Jim was injured on duty as a police officer, breaking an arm while chasing a suspect. Confined to a desk job, Jim applied for duty disability and sold his share of the brewery to Russ shortly after it moved to its current location in 1998. Although no longer an owner, Jim still teaches “Beer school” brewing classes and sells beer.
After moving to the new location, Klisch saw the opportunity to make Lakefront Brewery a bigger staple in the Milwaukee community. Nineteen years later, Lakefront’s current location has become a hot spot for the people of Milwaukee.
Approaching the entrance to Lakefront Brewery feels like an experience in itself. On the popular Fish Fridays, the first challenge entails finding a parking spot. After 5 PM, chances are Lakefront’s parking lot and the surrounding streets are already lined with the cars of patrons. Upon swinging open the massive wooden doors, patrons enter the large, cavernous room known as the “beer hall.” The entrance then splits into two lines: on the left, the dinner seating, and on the right, the brewery tours. Considering the draw of the fish fry to Milwaukee residents, visitors can expect at least a 30-minute wait for a seat. On an average Friday night, Lakefront serves 600 dinners during a bustling dinner rush.
Regardless of the wait time, Lakefront’s atmosphere feels anything but banal. The bar, advertising 28 beers on tap, is often the first destination for many patrons and, reminiscent of the tone of the restaurant altogether, the area around the bar feels fast-paced and chaotic. At any given moment, at least six employees rush to help high-spirited customers ready to welcome the weekend.
Throughout the crowded standing space, it sometimes feels like there’s no good place to stand. As employees sneak narrowly through the space between patrons, more patrons pile into a crowd of at least 50. While the chaos and bustle of dinner at Lakefront Brewery may be overwhelming in many situations, the atmosphere seems to remain friendly and enthusiastic all around. This is certainly in part due to the Brewhaus Polka Kings, the resident Lakefront polka trio that plays crowd favorites throughout the dinner period. It isn’t uncommon to find kids and adults alike dancing along front and center with the Polka Kings on Lakefront’s own dance floor.
“There are few restaurants where you see the grandparents, their kids and their grandkids at the same table, and they’re all having fun,” Klisch says.
Moreover, it’s the intimacy between patrons and the lack of space that creates a sense of community. Once seated, patrons take their place on long wooden tables occupied by anywhere from five to 20 other people. Being seated with strangers and meeting new people adds to the community atmosphere in Lakefront—and it’s also Greta Johansen’s favorite part of the brewery experience.
“I love the people that come into Lakefront,” says Johansen, an employee of the brewery’s gift shop for the last five years. “There’s beer and food, and everyone gets along for the most part. Sitting next to another family adds to the community feel.”
The Lakefront Brewery gift shop is filled with souvenirs and apparel featuring the venue’s logo—shot glasses, shirts, coats, kids’ toys—all catering to every age and size. The logo can be found throughout Lakefront: on four triangular flags celebrating 30 years of the brewery hanging from the ceiling, as well as on a ceramic beer mug statue that becomes a popular site for visitor photo ops
In Klisch’s opinion, beer and the tours are the two factors that define Lakefront as a Milwaukee landmark. But the brewery tours continue to be a significant draw for Milwaukee locals and out-of-towners alike. Russ credits Jim for making the tours the entertaining and colorful experience they are today.
“I always joke that when we started giving the tours, I gave them like I was a science teacher, while Jim told jokes and gave out beer first,” Klisch says. “Everybody took his tour and nobody took mine.”
Each tour allows up to 60 visitors, providing background information on the Klisch brothers, the history of the building, and the brewing process itself. Last year alone, the tours brought in 120,000 visitors. Next to the Harley-Davidson Museum, Lakefront is the second biggest private corporation tourist attraction. Of Lakefront’s 123 employees (63 full-time, 60 part-time), only about 15-20 are tour guides. The tour guides remain confident their jokes and pop culture references will bring visitors back for future tours.
“We kind of have an outline but we throw in our own flare,” Weston Navarro says. A Lakefront tour guide for the last nine months, Navarro took the tour regularly before finally joining the staff. “I was a tour-goer for about 12 years. I took this tour almost 200 times,” Navarro says. “It’s my happy place.”
Navarro isn’t the only one. With both the tour and the fish fry, Lakefront Brewery continues to draw in large crowds and attract visitors—both new and familiar.
“In a way this is what you hope for when you start,” Klisch says of Lakefront’s legacy 30 years in. “The path coming here was different than I thought.” He recalls trying times over Lakefront’s 30-year history, including competition with another brewery owned by former employees in 1995. His most difficult moment was when Lakefront almost went bankrupt in 2009—a problem that Klisch said simply vanished overnight. Although Lakefront has recovered since then, the future of brewing in Milwaukee will surely see more competition.
“Up until this point everyone’s been buddies in the industry, but there’s only so much craft beer to be sold,” Klisch says. “So if you’re going to grow, you have to cannibalize.”
Lakefront Brewery’s innovative brewing keeps it ahead of local competitors. Branded as both the first organic and gluten-free brewery in the US, Lakefront continues to experiment with new craft beers, including the Wisconsinite, made with only local ingredients. After 30 years, the brewery still remains a staple of the Milwaukee community.
“Our theme is Milwaukee,” Klisch says. “When they come here, you what them to think, ‘this is Milwaukee.’”