The six copper brew kettles that once were the heart of America's largest brewery went silent 17 years ago in Milwaukee. The Pabst Brewhouse, known as building #20, a towering monolith on the city's skyline for over a century, was left to decay.
Today, however, there's life in the place that made Pabst Blue Ribbon a household name. In late April, the Brewhouse Inn and Suites opened in the historic building.
I had to be one of the first to stay there. So I booked a room just after it opened. "It's as much of a museum as a hotel," says general manager Pete Northard.
The hotel is on the western edge of downtown, with views of downtown Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. Inside, the huge copper brew kettles and stacks are at the center of a five-story sky-lighted atrium, surrounded by 90 guest rooms.
The main entrance is a floor below what was the main brewery floor. As you register, you're actually standing under one of the kettles. When I signed in, I glanced upward into the polished insides.
The brewhouse was constructed of Cream City brick in 1882 by some of Milwaukee's finest masons and ironworkers. At the time, Milwaukee had limited electricity, so the more than 300 windows were needed for light during the brewing process. Today they give nearly every guestroom a view of the city.
At the west end of the Kettle Atrium, a large stained glass window filters in colored light. The window depicts King Grambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of brewers. Rather miraculously, it avoided serious damage while the building sat vacant from 1996 to 2011. (It had been boarded over to protect it from weather and vandalism.)
The massive renovation project lasted nearly two years and cost $20 million. The brewhouse is also on the National Registry of Historic Places, so the developer, Gorman & Company, had to take extra steps to maintain the original integrity of the building while transforming it into a hotel. Gorman was able to take advantage of historic preservation tax credits while working closely with the Wisconsin Historical Society to maintain many original fixtures. The in-room tables and headboards were repurposed from wood salvaged during renovations. The wood is from timber harvested from the Sheboygan area in the 1880s.
The Brewhouse Inn is composed mostly of one- and two-bedroom suites. The sixth, and top, floor includes the Baron suites, each with private terraces and incredible views of the city. Accommodations go for $189-$399 per night.
Each room has a fully equipped kitchenette, including microwave, refrigerator, stove and dishwasher. The decor is based on steampunk, an elaborate take on Victorian technology. A daily continental breakfast is offered in the Blue Room, the brewery's former break room, where workers once relaxed and enjoyed a beverage directly from beer taps. (Its name comes from the habit of Milwaukee police officers coming by for a beer after their shifts while still in uniform.)
Attached to the hotel is Jackson's Blue Ribbon Pub, in what was building #21, the former milling house where the grains were ground before being added to the brew kettles. It has 30-foot-high ceilings and a replica of the original tin ceiling. The restaurant, with its attached beer garden, features a full menu and a modest selection of micro- to big-brewery beers -- including, of course, PBR. On Brewers game days, the pub offers a shuttle to and from Miller Park.
Reservations have exceeded initial projections, and include many beer-oriented tourists. Interest from those who enjoy traveling to breweries and searching for local beer has surprised Northard, who says the project was designed more with the extended-stay corporate guest in mind.
"We definitely underestimated that when a brewery festival or beer event is going on, they all want to say with us," he says. "I didn't know that such a subculture existed, and there are a lot more of those guests out there than you would believe."
I wondered what founder Capt. Frederick Pabst might say about the changes to the brewery he built. As a teenager, Pabst landed one of his first jobs as a busboy in a Chicago hotel, so he might feel at home. Northard thinks the Captain is probably smiling about it all: "If it couldn't be a brewery any longer, I think he would find a hotel a fitting tribute."
Staying at the Brewhouse Inn is a great way make a brewery history weekend in Milwaukee. Visit the Best Place, once part of the brewery offices, on the opposite corner. Grab a beer in the bar there and take a tour with current building owner Jim Haertel. You'll walk through much of the building that is yet to be renovated, so it appears as it did in the days leading to Pabst's closure in 1996. You'll even get to see the original roll-top desk that Pabst used when he ran the brewery.
The Pabst Mansion was the home of Capt. Pabst. It's located about a mile up Wisconsin Avenue, west of the Brewhouse Inn. It was built in 1892 and has been meticulously restored. A guided tour is a great way to learn about Pabst's life. And don't forget today's modern craft brewery, Lakefront, which isn't far from the Inn.
Brewhouse Inn and Suites
1215 North 10th St., Milwaukee, 414-810-3350; brewhousesuites.com