“You people aren’t alcoholics,” comedian Lewis Black called out to his Summerfest audience, “you’re professionals!” The crowd laughed, they cheered, and they raised their foamy plastic cups to Black and his astute observation of life in Milwaukee. In the Guinness Book of World Records, Summerfest is listed as the world’s largest music festival, but what it means to most Milwaukeeans is leaving work early to drink beer outside. The entertainment often takes a backseat to the beer, the people-watching and the lakefront breeze. Most festival goers will make a point to get down to the grounds several hours before the show they want to see actually begins, and it’s not because they want to get good seats.
I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder in that tipsy crowd, laughing, cheering, and raising my Miller right along with them. Like everyone else there, I felt a kind of pride swell in me from Black’s remark. That summer, I was either too young or too drunk to understand the connection that Milwaukee’s residents have to their drinks. It goes well beyond mere inebriation. It has to do with a history that many of us, especially in my generation, even that of my parents, might not even know, but that we have internalized from the attitude of the city around us. One part of this history that I had not known before is the fact that the festival foreshadowing Summerfest had been an annual Mid-Summer festival to celebrate the end of Prohibition. While in effect, Prohibition had a negative impact on Milwaukee’s economy and character. Carrie Nation, a leader of the temperance movement once said, “If there is any place that is hell on earth, it is Milwaukee.” And even though the economy of Milwaukee has been based more around manufacturing than on the brewing of beer, breweries have held a significant place in the city’s history as well as that of the state, not to mention its residents’ hearts. Our identification with beer goes back to our German ancestors, and even the temperance movement could not sever that connection, which inspires those of us from Milwaukee (German ancestry or not) to raise our glasses in praise of the brew.
I left Milwaukee at nineteen to pursue my higher education and expand my creativity by expanding my view of the world because I was afraid that there was little more to be found in that city than happy hours and Brewer games. By leaving, I learned more about the city than I probably ever could have had I not put distance between myself and the place I was from. I found that even though Milwaukee might seem like a blue collar, afternoon beer kind of place with not much of a past and not much of a future to distinguish itself, every place has something. My place has beer. But here and now, beer stands in for history, for a large piece of culture brought to the Midwest from Germany, which links Milwaukee all the way back to Caesar’s armies of 55BC, when the brewing process first arose in Europe.
But now that the major breweries that defined our city for so long have gone out of business, been absorbed by Miller, or relocated to other states, can the city of Milwaukee still wear its “Brew City” nickname as proudly as ever? For awhile, its residents made it a point to disown the very beers that had abandoned their city. Now, though, all beers are welcome. According to the Journal Sentinel and OnMilwaukee.com, Milwaukee is currently making the attempt to become just like every other major metropolitan area. With the new addition to the art museum commissioned from Santiago Calatrava attracting more tourists and wedding photographers every day, the promotion of the city’s thriving music, theatre and arts communities, and the renovations that will turn all of the long-vacant brewery and factory properties downtown into luxury lofts and condominiums, Milwaukee is looking more and more like it hopes to attract the young professional, scholarly types you might find in Boston or Chicago, and perhaps even to bring back some of the individuals who left Milwaukee in favor of those other bigger and more cultured locales. The clubs are getting classier, downtown nightlife is actually beginning to exist in certain neighborhoods beyond 8:00pm, and restaurants are providing customers with more vegetarian and health conscious fare. Now, with Miller as the sole surviving commercial brewer, Milwaukee’s many restaurants and bars are turning to the art of the microbrew. Ultimately, what all of this means for Milwaukee’s residents is the end of cheap beer.
With its average of four bars per square mile, I wonder if Milwaukee will ever completely throw off its brewing image in favor of this veneer of modern urbanity. With Laverne and Shirley now available to become a permanent part of the DVD collection in countless homes, the city ties to brew culture will surely be sticking around for as long as people continue to watch television. I know that each time I return to Milwaukee, something is not the same as it was when I left it behind. And even though growth and change are good for any city, history gives us a connection to the place, and as long as our ballpark is called Miller, our team the Brewers and our theatre the Pabst, our history will stay with us. Even if future Milwaukeeans are more professional than alcoholic, when they reach for a cold lager, perhaps the pride we felt in raising our plastic cups to Lewis Black that summer will still resonante with all who call Milwaukee home each time they raise their own sleek pilsner glasses to their lips.