The red brick building stood unassumingly on the corner of South First and East Beecher, in the Milwaukee neighborhood of Bay View. On a normal day, I would have passed right by, taking it for yet another aging structure left vacant from the changing economical state of the country. But not today.
Our bus stopped in front of Lincoln Warehouse, where we entered through a heavy steel door to find Dock 18 Cocktail Lab. The dimly lit room featured a tall bar lined with unlabeled liqueurs and mixtures. A bartender stirred up a pink-hued concoction, pouring a sample into small plastic cups for us to grab. It never occurred to me that a place like this would be found in what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse. And yet there are many places like this sprinkled throughout Milwaukee. Hidden boozy havens are around every corner, but can only be found if you take the time to look.
This is one of the lessons I learned on the Milwaukee Food & City Tour that I took when I visited Milwaukee last weekend for the Women in Travel Summit. I, along with some 20 other female travelers (and one gentleman), signed up for the Craft Breweries & Cocktails Bus Tour, because, well, there was beer involved. I imagined it would be like many of the other brewery tours I had taken, but I was happily proven wrong.
Why Choose Milwaukee Food & City Tours
Enthusiastic and Knowledgeable Tour Guides
When the bright green bus arrived at our hotel, our guide, Robert, happily greeted us as we took our seats. He was born in Milwaukee, loves his city, and he’s never leaving…ever. From the minute he introduced himself, I knew we were in for a good time. It’s always a coin toss with tour guides. I’ve had my fair share of dry, drab guides who contain a lot of knowledge, but not the right personality for the job. Robert was not one of those. Every fact that came out of his mouth was delivered in a way that was entertaining, engaging and fascinating. He gave us background on everything related to Milwaukee and beer, from the Prohibition days (in Milwaukee, bars became “pharmacies” where people could get prescriptions for alcohol) to the time of bucket boys delivering bottles of beer to offices in the middle of the day to the current state of the brewing industry. You wanted to keep listening, because he made you feel just as excited about his city and the alcohol culture as he was.
An Introduction to New Places, Food and Drinks
Milwaukee Food & City Tours makes it their mission to introduce guests to restaurants and bars that aren’t well known. The goal of this tour was to show us the distilleries and craft breweries of Milwaukee before they become famous. As someone who lived in Milwaukee for a few years during college, I expected to know most of the places we went, but I’d never heard of any of them. Admittedly, I lived here almost 10 years ago, and many locations weren’t open yet. However, when I told my friends where we went, they hadn’t heard of any of them, and they live in Milwaukee.
True Passion and Love for What They Do
Milwaukee Food & City Tours was founded by a husband and wife team who shared a love of Milwaukee and food. That passion is seen in every part of the tours, as well as the locations and businesses they select. We didn’t just hear about the brewing and distilling process, we learned about the actual people behind the scenes, the inventors and risk takers who dreamed up every liquid we gladly poured down our throats.
First Stop: Lincoln Warehouse
Okay, now that you have a little background, let’s go back to the warehouse. The five-story, 170,000-square-foot Lincoln Warehouse, constructed in 1928, served as the home of baking operations for the supermarket company A&P. When work stopped in the early 1960s, a number of other businesses and industries occupied the space through the years. In 2011, a new property manager took over the building, and decided to rent space out to multiple tenants rather than one or two. It has resulted in a creative space for business owners of all kinds, including the three we visited: Twisted Path Distillery, Bittercube and Enlightened Brewing Company.
The first stop, as I mentioned, was Dock 18 Cocktail Lab, where Bittercube’s mixologist, Brandon, stirred up a concoction of Twisted Path gin, green tea, pineapple juice, lime juice, hibiscus tea, and topped it with a Bittercube bitter called the Mahalo blend. I’m sure I missed one of the ingredients he mentioned, because it was a little hard to hear, but whatever he put in it was delicious (and I’m not a big rum drinker).
After we grabbed our taster glass, we entered Twisted Path Distillery. Founder/distiller Brian Sammons gave us a rundown of what his life has been about the last three years. He opened the distillery back in 2014, and he makes all the spirits from scratch (mash, ferment, distill, bottle) all in the warehouse (and it’s all organic). Brian pretty much built and designed everything in the distillery, making it unique to his personality and work tendencies.
Through his hurried spiel (we only had about 15 minutes before we had to move on), he managed to give us the distilling basics, explain different techniques for creating the spirits, rattle off some jokes, and display the knowledge and passion he has for this work. A true display of his curious and adventurous palate is his flavor library. He infuses botanicals and spices into rum or vodka and then re-distills and bottles those to achieve new flavor profiles in the final product.
After a quick tasting of some rum and vodkas, we headed upstairs to Bittercube. Founded by Nick Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz back in 2009, Bittercube specializes in, you guessed it, bitters. Or as they like to call them, liquid spice. Bitters are a great way to add a little extra flavor to a cocktail, they can tie flavors together, or you can use them when cooking or baking. For someone who has zero to no experience with bitters, this was an inspiring description.
A quick overview of the process: take raw, dry ingredients and extract the flavors using high-proof alcohol. Obviously, there’s way more involved, but we won’t get into that. What I loved hearing about was how hands on they are at Bittercube. For example, for their orange bitters, they peel some 25 cases of oranges by hand for one batch. That’s dedication. I appreciate that kind of time and care to develop a product that they can proudly stamp their name on.
In the tasting room, we tried a drop or two of a few of their varieties. For those who haven’t done a bitters tasting, it’s a lot different from distillery and beer tastings. Since these are technically spices, you don’t want to drink a whole bottle, or even a sip. It’s literally a drop on your hand that you lick off to experience the flavors. Some of the bitters that really punched on the flavor we just smelled, so as not to overwhelm our palates.
Before the tour, I knew nothing about bitters, but now if you asked me…I still probably wouldn’t be able to tell you all that much. However, I will say I appreciate this ingredient more than I ever did before, and I encourage everyone to have some in your pantry to add some kick to your cocktails (or salads or cakes).
Downstairs, we made our way to Enlightened Brewing’s tasting room. Finally, time for some beer. Enlightened began in 2013, and over the years has expanded from a half-barrel operation to a 3.5-barrel system and tap room over the last four years. The tap room is small and intimate, and you get a view of the brewing operation taking place right behind the bar. The beer names are inspired by philosophical terms and phrases, a hint that every brew deserves a good discussion. We all received tasters in small beakers, and sipped as we admired the decor. I tried the Kettle Logic, their first attempt at an amber ale. From what I could tell, they did a good job. (And if you’re curious, Kettle Logic describes a set of arguments that are valid on their own but inconsistent for an argument as a whole.)
Second Stop: Good City Brewing
The second stop on the tour took us to Good City Brewing, up on Milwaukee’s East Side. The name was very intentional, with some deeper meaning behind it. It’s partially a reference to the Milwaukee Algonquin name ‘the good land,’ but the city part also plays an important role, as they are set on being an urban production brewery and taproom. The business is built around the taproom, and they hope to have created an atmosphere where people can truly interact with their brand and product.
Ten months into their operation, Good City is pleased with where they are. In fact, they just won a national championship in the double IPA category, competing against nearly 90 other breweries. The response they have received from the neighborhood has been phenomenal, so much so that they’re taking over another 4,000 square feet next door. That expansion will soon include a new event space, concert venue and a rooftop patio – a perfect summer hangout.
Their tagline: Seek the Good. On a very basic level, they hope when people are hungry or thirst, they will seek out Good City. On a deeper level, they are a value-driven brewery. Seek the Good as a business has three core values: Excellence, People, and Place. These influence everything they do at the brewery.
Third Stop: Third Space Brewing
Over in the Menomonee Valley, just west of the Historic Third Ward, sits Third Space Brewing. Founded by Kevin Wright and Andy Gehl, Third Space opened in September 2016, a pretty new addition to the Milwaukee craft beer scene. Kevin has been a professional brewer for the last eight years, and before that he went to brewing school (yes, that’s a thing!). He’s a scientist by education, receiving a degree in biomedical engineering, but rather than go on to medical school, he decided to go a different route. It was the right call, because when he took the brewing diploma exam, he received the top score in the world. When he decided to open a brewery, he called Andy, who was an attorney at the time, and asked him to join in the journey. And they opened Third Space.
Once again, the name has a special meaning behind it. Everyone has their home and their work, but you need a third space. That place you go to get away from it all. No matter what that place is, it’s where you go to reconnect with old friends, meet new friends, have good conversation and have a good time. Andy and Kevin wanted to create a brewery that gave off that kind of vibe, a fun welcoming space where people could hang out in and drink in. They also wanted to create a brand around that concept so that when people take their beer to their third space, it fits. They want to be the beer of your third space.
The brewery is young, but growing fast. Soon, they’ll be building their own canning line in the warehouse, and they’re experimenting with barrel-aged beers to expand their menu. (FYI Milwaukee friends, the port wine barrel will be released on Black Friday!). Throughout it all, their goal has been the same: creating quality beer and consistent beer. They test everything, and it doesn’t get off the brew floor until it’s the flavor they want it to be. On top of that, the beer will taste the same no matter when you drink it, and that consistency is rare to find in small craft breweries.
Fourth Stop: Urban Harvest Brewing Company
Our fourth and final stop was Urban Harvest Brewing over in Walker’s Point. Another relative newbie to the beer scene, Urban Harvest just celebrated their one-year anniversary. The founder, Steve, had been home brewing for about 15 years before a series of events led him to open his own brewery. Throughout his years brewing, his goal was not to brew hundreds of different beers. He wanted to brew one beer multiple times and get the consistency down (seems like a common theme among these breweries). He also knew that he could brew the beers he liked, but he wanted to create a selection of ales that were accessible to a wider audience.
After a successful day showcasing some of his beers at a Home Brew Club event, he realized people enjoyed what he was creating and wanted to purchase it. Then Steve heard another brewer say he always had a dream of opening a brewery and he has this day job, and every day he goes to that job is another day that dream gets further away. This set some wheels turning for Steve, and he decided to go after his dream.
After some mishaps with the brewery name, they came up with Urban Harvest. The next step was finding the right spot. The space they found used to be a fully operational performance theater, and our tasting took place in the stage. Steve, and his associate Mark, served us tastings of four different beers: Black Puppy Pale Ale, Ach Ya Der Hey-Fe Weizen (try to pronounce that one), Old Towne Amber, and Cork Screw IPA (what Steve refers to as a gateway IPA). When I do a beer tasting, more often than not, I find one of the group that is my least favorite. In this tasting, I couldn’t find any I disliked. I think Steve’s goal of creating high quality, approachable beers has been achieved.
A Different Experience Every Time
What makes this tour unique is that guests visit different locations each time. The concept behind it is to introduce folks to new, up-and-coming breweries and distilleries. And with new craft breweries opening all the time in Milwaukee, there will be plenty of wonderful places to discover and inspiring stories to hear.
Want to Take This Tour?
The Craft Brewery & Cocktail Bus Tour is available twice a month on Saturdays. It’s a four hour tour that stops at 4-5 locations. All guests must be 21 or older. The cost is $70/person, and $40/person for those who are not drinking. Transportation to all locations is provided, so there’s no need to worry about driving (they want to keep it as safe an experience as possible).
Milwaukee Food & City Tours also has a number of other walking and bus tours you can book, including Tacos & Tequila, Historic Third Ward Tour, Milwaukee Pizza Bus Tour, and many more.
If you’re visiting Milwaukee, these tours are a fun way to explore the city and find some hidden gems you may not have discovered otherwise. And for those who already live in Milwaukee, I highly recommend trying a Milwaukee Food Tour. You could learn something new about your hometown, find a new after-work hangout, or add another restaurant to your list of favorites.