Milwaukee Brewery Tour History

The origin of Milwaukee’s favorite pastime, as told by a brewery tour guide…

What was your most unusual job? For me, it was being a brewery tour guide for Sprecher Brewing Co. As a born-and-bred Midwesterner, I didn’t think the job was unusual–the brewery tour has a long history in Milwaukee. However, my job title always shocked some folks from out of state. It turns out that brewery tours aren’t really “a thing” in most other parts of the country.

This is both a problem and a curiosity. A problem, because so many good people in this country are being deprived of a singularly joyful experience. A curiosity, because you have to wonder why the idea hasn’t caught on most places. This is worth meditating on. So, let’s dive into the cheerful and strange world of brewery touring and see what comes up.

The Joy of Brewery Touring

The joy of a brewery tour is undeniable. There is something for everybody, from the beer aficionado to the casual drinker to the absolute teetotaler. Indeed, all three of those people (and sometimes their kids) have been on my tours. Down to a one, they’ve followed me flush-faced and smiling through the brewery while I wax poetic about craft brewing and soda making. I’m not always sure they’re listening to me, but they’re always interested in something.

Some people like to gaze at the larger-than-life machinery or the gleaming rows of stainless steel fermentation tanks. Others like to learn about the process–it’s interesting and even empowering to learn where ordinary things come from. And what could be more ordinary–yet more sublime–than the humble bottle of beer or soda? Indeed, craft beer and soda are what the vast majority of people come on the brewery tour to enjoy. It’s a few drinks and a show, with an emphasis on the drinks.

Still, there is something to the show as well. Everybody enjoys a good yarn. Especially a yarn steeped in local Milwaukee history. Lots of ears perk up when I tell the story of Sprecher’s founding in 1985 and growth as Milwaukee’s first post-prohibition brewery, full of larger-than-life characters and the quirky places they breathed new life into.

Wouldn’t you listen to the Sprecher origin story of a Vietnam veteran who fought the war from the arcane taverns and beer gardens of Augsburg, Germany, only to return stateside and establish Milwaukee’s Original Craft Brewery in a crumbling tannery on the banks of the Menominee River? At eight bucks a pop with four beer samples priced in, the Sprecher brewery tour is the best deal in town.

Randy Sprecher in Milwaukee's Original Craft Brewery
Founder Randy Sprecher posing in front of the famous Brew Kettle he built by hand for Milwaukee’s Original Craft Brewery.

Besides the allure of drinks and a show, people come to ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Dedicated homebrewers will ask questions so technical I invite them to sit down and chat with our Brewmaster. Kids will ask me how we make our award-winning root beer so good–and I say as much as I can without giving away trade secrets. Adults often ask me how they can get paid to drink beer like I do. All in good fun, although I have offered to get some of them in for an interview!

The Origins of Brewery Touring

So why is it so hard to find a brewery tour outside of Milwaukee? Well, Milwaukee is a special place with a unique culture. Wisconsin’s history led in a winding way to the institution that is the Milwaukee brewery tour. Wisconsin has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the union with 2.7 times more bars than grocery stores, according to a 2014 article in the Washington post. Nearly every other state has more grocery stores, full stop. How Wisconsin got this way is a long story involving lots of Germans.

Yes, lots of Germans settled in Wisconsin. An essay on German Dialects in Wisconsin published on the UW-Madison website notes that large regions of the state have been over one-third German since the Mid-1800s, and those numbers have only grown in the intervening years. Those Germans brought with them a long history of brewing, and they didn’t hesitate to convert their share of amber waves of grain into beer.

Beer Gardens, like the Sprecher Indoor Beer Garden pictured above, have deep roots in Milwaukee’s German history.

Caught up in the industrial spirit of the 1850s, Milwaukee beer barons opened the massive Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller breweries. These breweries sold literal tons of beer to the local German population, but their brews also rode the rails all over the expanding United States. These giant brewing facilities were loud, constantly active, and often dangerous. No place for a tour.

In the 1920s, prohibition hit, and breweries big and small were on the ropes. Large breweries had the resources to hold out or repurpose their facilities, but small breweries disappeared. Though prohibition thankfully ended in 1932, strict laws around brewing remained. As a result, large brewers ran the scene for decades without much resistance, and they generally kept their doors shut to the public.

In the 1970s, prohibition era laws began to fall away, and small breweries returned in force. To compete with the large brewers, they served a different market–beer geeks. People who wanted craft beer that tasted different from the simple and cheap stuff the barons were brewing.

Beer historians like to claim this all started on the West Coast, but Milwaukee was equally fertile ground. With its long history of brewing and deep German roots, Milwaukee was uniquely amenable to craft brewers. For Sprecher, the proof of this is in the pudding. Sprecher’s namesake and founder, Randy Sprecher, left California in a VW van to start his brewery in Milwaukee, since the State of California didn’t understand his idea.

Once Sprecher took off in 1985, giving tours was a no-brainer. What better way to attract beer geeks than showing them around the brewery while giving them a beer to sip on? As more craft breweries sprang up in the city, they followed in Sprecher’s footsteps,. This cemented what has become a time-honored Milwaukee tradition and pastime.

The Original Sprecher Brewery
The Original Sprecher Brewery on the banks of the Menominee River. The first tours were held here, and they were all-you-can-drink!

Sprecher’s tour remains a pillar of the operation. Experienced guides like myself share Sprecher history, show off the brewing process in the brewhouse, explain the finer points of the bottling line, and pour lots of beers and sodas into tour-goer’s cups.

Why not join in the fun?

Whether you are a local who hasn’t toured Milwaukee’s Original Craft Brewery yet, or an out-of-towner who has been deprived of brewery tours altogether, there’s no good reason not to join us here for a tour! Come participate in Milwaukee history, learn a thing or two, and have a couple of beers or sodas brewed by local craftspeople using quality ingredients.

Better yet, join me and apply to be a guide. You can be a hero in Milwaukee, and spread the gospel to the rest of the world.

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Jared Corbett

Digital Marketer & Tour Guide