Blue Ribbon memories

Although the area is undergoing rapid development, some of the original Pabst buildings remain. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

Although the former Pabst brewery complex in Milwaukee is being converted into a mixed-use development, some of the original buildings remain. Photo illustration by Carl Swanson

When I moved to Milwaukee 25 years ago I did what everyone does. I toured the Pabst Brewery. Because, free beer.

Of course, Pabst Blue Ribbon is not in the same class as Riverwest Stein, but what is?

I arrived five minutes after the day’s last tour had departed, which is pretty much the story of my life. However, the people at the visitor’s center were very nice. A group from Germany had arranged for a private tour but they probably wouldn’t mind me tagging along.

The tour was led by a young woman who was good at her job but rather hampered by the German group’s overbearing leader. The Pabst guide would say one or two sentences then we all stood around for 10 minutes or so to let Mr. Bossy-Britches harangue his merry band of Krauts.

In due time the Pabst guide directed our attention to a diagram of the brewing process. She explained it takes a lot of water, so, long ago, the brewery had installed a private pipeline to draw water directly from Lake Michigan. She then moved on to describe the first step in making beer, oblivious to a sudden outbreak of foot-shuffling, worried glances darting back and forth, and muttering from the audience.

The German tour leader finally cleared his throat. “Miss? Does the brewery filter the lake water?”

“Oh!” she said, “Yes. In fact we have state-of-the-art water purification. I should have mentioned that!”

Gee, Ya think?

The Pabst Brewery complex, as it appeared around 1890. Detroit Publishing Company image, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-D4-12569

The Pabst Brewery complex, as it appeared around 1890. Detroit Publishing Company image, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress LC-D4-12569

The tour went off the rails at the brew house with its immense multi-story copper kettles, The guide talked for about five minutes. Then our trans-Atlantic friend started in. And. Did. Not. Stop. A half-hour later and he was still going strong. Worse, I was getting the feeling he was making sarcastic comments about Pabst, American brewing in general, and the superiority of the Old Country’s way of doing things. I heard one word I recognized, “Reinheitsgebot,” the German beer purity law, dating all the way back to the 1500s and placing strict limits on what can go into beer. He said it while making a grand wave at the brew kettles and the members of his group chuckled. In fact he was getting plenty of laughs and I noticed our company guide looking increasingly thin-lipped and irritated. It not nice for visitors to make fun of their hosts.

Vindication arrived when we reached the bottling line. It had been down for maintenance but started up just as we got there. A wave of aluminum Pabst cans 12 feet wide surged down a chute and past us in a blur. And the cans just kept coming. The Germans were absolutely silent, enthralled by the incredible volume of production.

I wanted to nudge the German tour leader and say, “See? This is the point. Cheap, consistent, and always plenty more of it. Welcome to Milwaukee.”

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