It is about 10:45 in the morning on a Saturday, and I walk through the front door of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee. There is already a crowd, both inside at the bar and tables, and outside, drinking beer along the jogging path that goes by the riverside. Beer is flowing, tour groups are forming, and everyone seems to be having a great time. Russ Klisch, President of Lakefront Brewery, comes out to meet me. First impression? He is tall. Very tall. He is smiling, like everyone here in his brewery. He walks me to a quiet table overlooking the brewery floor, and we talk about beer, Lakefront, and Milwaukee.
The Royal Tour: Russ, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. My first question for you is: what made you decide to start brewing beer?
Russ Klisch: I guess the story goes like this. In 1981, I graduated from college and didn’t have a job. So I called my brother up and asked if I could live with him. He said sure, and he lived about a mile north of here in the River West neighborhood. I moved on in, and his birthday was coming up. Since he was nice enough to let me live there, I thought to get him something, and he was talking about making beer. So I bought him a book on how to make beer. He went and made a batch, which looked like hell. I remember the floor was about as sticky as possible, and every kitchen utensil was used, a big mess. I’m thinking this is going to taste like you know what. He bottled it up, and you know, it wasn’t the worst beer I ever had. So I figured if he could do something that good, I could do better. So I made a batch, and he made a batch, and we started entering into local competitions, and won some awards. So we made more homebrew, entered state contests, won state awards, then national contests and won national awards. At that time, our friends started telling us that we should open up a brewery. And when you are 20-something years old, you believe them.
TRT: It’s a good thing you did!
RK: Yeah! We tried to raise a bunch of money. We had this one hand-written business plan on a sheet of paper basically saying, “We’re good guys. Give us $250,000.” Bankers didn’t bite on that. It was probably good they didn’t, because we would have been bankrupt. So we decided that instead of starting a big brewery, we would start one as small as possible to lose the least amount of money. And we found an old bakery building down the street from us and we built a 55 gallon stainless steel drum brewery in it. You know, I did eventually get a job in Milwaukee working as an engineer, so I had some decent income. My brother was an officer in the Milwaukee Police Department, so he had some decent income. So we just took some of our money and kept on investing in it.
TRT: Is that this property?
RK: No. This old building used to be 60 feet by 60 feet, and when we started, we were only a quarter of it, and eventually we took over the whole bottom floor. I lived upstairs in that building, and that paid the mortgage. As we became more successful, we discovered to use dairy equipment. This is all food grade equipment that wasn’t made for beer, but we could use it. So we started to bring this equipment in. I remember one day a food writer came in and said what we had was a “Frankenstein operation” because every piece of equipment had lived and died a previous life. So I made this whole living creature of junk basically, but we won a lot of awards using it.
TRT: And were you making just one kind of beer at the time?
RK: We started out with two different styles. We had a Pilsner style, which was my favorite beer at the time, and my brother made a River West Stein that he modeled after Anchor Steam, his favorite. We still sell both of those today. Those were our original, and we just kept adding beers along the way, and now we have 20 or 30. I don’t know exactly what the count is.
TRT: That’s amazing! Are there any trends in beer that currently have you concerned or excited? For instance, beer pairing being a thing now, or younger people choosing to drink more wine than beer.
RK: From what I can see, the trend in craft beer is still up. Millennials are kind of a fickle group. They don’t have brand loyalty. Whether it’s beer or coffee or whatever, they buy what they think is good at the time. So you always have to earn their respect. In the old days, you got a beer drinker, and he was set for life with you. He wouldn’t switch at all. So the concern is that we always have to be on our toes coming up with new stuff.
Inaudible yelling from the other room signaled the start of a tour, and the group marched past our table, beers in hand, smiling.
RK: But I think overall the trend in craft beer is positive. It’s not as up as it was before. There are certain numbers I look at with beer. Half of beer consumed is between ages 21 and 29. And every day, 12,000 people in the United States turn 21. This essentially means that since beer is flat in sales, that every day 12,000 people age out of our prime population. So that is a large amount of turnover. So you always have to be on your toes to create something new.
TRT: Is there anything that really works with the 30s and older crowd?
RK: I like to use the music analogy at that point. Everyone loves music and about age 30, they have a family and don’t have as much time to explore new stuff. So they listen to the stuff they always liked, their old favorites. Beer is the same way. They should still drink their favorites.
TRT: That makes sense. So of all the things Lakefront has accomplished, what are you most proud of?
RK: I’m proud of our innovations. We have had several I think of as significant. For instance, we were the first brewery in the United States to brew and be certified organic. That was in 1995. In 2005, we were the first brewery to receive label approval from the US government for gluten free. I actually got the government to change its policy – to even HAVE a policy – on gluten free beer. So that to me was one of the biggest contributions I have made to the brewing world, working with ATF at the time on that one. We brewed the first 100% indigenous beer, with all ingredients from here in Wisconsin. We have been innovative in other ways, too. We had the second pumpkin beer in the United States, way back when. We did one of the first fruit beers with our cherry beer back in 1989. Recently, we coined a term SHOP. I don’t know if you have ever heard of SMASH?
TRT: No, I haven’t.
RK: SMASH stands for single malt and single hop. So it’s interesting, you get to taste what the malt tastes like, and the hop. We thought limiting it with one malt was kind of restrictive, so we came up with single hop beer, SHOP, with multiple malts. We also have something here called the “My Turn” series, where we give all of our employees a turn to brew their own style of beer. (Editor’s note: on the shelf above us were at least a dozen six-pack cases (sans beer, obviously) of My Turn beers with employee names on them.) We are at number 20-something now. Lots of breweries have limited one-off series of beer, but they seem to have the same personality because one person was designing them. So I thought, how do you more variety, and this was our answer. So every quarter, based on seniority, we give one of our full time employees the chance to make his or her own beer, and we have a release party for it and everything.
TRT: If it’s really popular, do you keep it permanently?
RK: No. There has been talk if we get our act together to do a variety 12-pack of these, but we aren’t there right now.
TRT: This is such a cool thing for your employees!
RK: It really is. I thought it would die out, but everyone knows when “their” quarter is to brew their beer, and they all look forward to it.
TRT: Do you find that there is a lot of pressure brewing beer in a city that is really known for being a beer town?
RK: There is a little extra pressure, for sure. I mean, the baseball team is named the Brewers. You feel that you should be representing the industry really well. That’s one of the reasons we started the brewery, because this city was founded on beer, and back in the 80s, it looked like the breweries might even close. Schlitz had closed, Pabst was on its last legs, and there was even talk of Miller moving out of town. But luckily they stayed. I tell our tourism board, we are probably the only city in the United States that has heritage breweries like Miller and Pabst, the original innovative craft breweries, and also the new cutting edge craft breweries. So you have these three “tiers” of breweries that you can come to this city to find. There are lots of other great beer cities like Portland or San Diego, but we are the only one with all three.
TRT: Most people probably don’t think of Milwaukee as a worthwhile tourist destination. Why are those people wrong?
RK: To me, I have had so many people come here, and you know, the culinary scene is great, shopping is good. Of course the beer is great! There is also really great entertainment: sports and theatre, concerts, our Summer Fest is the biggest music festival in the world! We have great ethnic festivals here. I think right now is Mexican Fest. I also tell people, “Paris has their cafes. London has their pubs. But Milwaukee has the corner bar.” We have almost 1,200 corner bars in this town.
TRT: Are they all on corners?
RK: Actually, they are almost all on corners, too. You walk into them and they kind of steal your heart, and you sit there and end up drinking a lot. It’s like walking into someone’s living room. They did not have an interior decorator come in like many of the big chains do. So each one really has its own personality. The people just shine right through.
TRT: What are your favorite spots to take a visitor to see?
RK: Definitely the Art Museum here. The building won like the best architectural building in the United States one year. I would always take someone to one of the corner bars. Each person has his own little place. We would for sure see a brewery, whether mine or another. We have a Friday night fish fry tradition I would take them to experience.
TRT: What’s that?
RK: Milwaukee is an old Catholic town, and back then they didn’t eat meat on Fridays. So fish fries started becoming popular. You have some sort of potatoes or potato pancakes with that. It is a working class meal, like $10-14 around town. I still remember going to the VFW post with my parents on Fridays for the fish fry when I was a kid. We have one here at the brewery now. I would also try to take them to entertainment, if the Bucks or Brewers are in town maybe, or theatre. Our parks are fabulous. There is so much here!
TRT: Any other tips you can give our readers about planning a trip to Milwaukee?
RK: You know, I always tell people to plan on staying downtown. The city is very walkable, with great little districts, like the Third Ward, with antique shops and eateries to trendy shops. The Public Market is down there and is great to visit. We have the River Walk downtown, that is even right out behind our back porch, and you can walk 2 miles to downtown. That is still being built and evolving. But this is a town of great sights and amazing warm people that everyone should want to see.
TRT: Russ, thank you so much for sitting down with me. I am excited to see the brewery!
If you enjoyed this interview, please check out our past Royal Tour features in Memphis and Austin!