Milwaukee, Wisconsin

24-25 July 2010

Milwaukee is a city that doesn't command a lot of attention in the national news. To some extent it is always doomed to be overshadowed by its neighboring rival Chicago, the much larger city that shares the same western shore of Lake Michigan and serves as the economic and cultural capital of the American Midwest. This sort of dynamic is very familiar to me, as I grew up in Baltimore which often gets overlooked in favor of the nearby national capital in Washington DC. Milwaukee is a proud city in its own right however, known particularly for its tradition as a hub of the domestic beer industry and for attracting large numbers of German and Polish immigrants. The lakeshore and riverfront areas of Milwaukee have been undergoing a rapid construction boom in recent years, with the same sort of urban renewal that has been taking place across the country. Lots of young people want to enjoy the amenities offered by living in cities, and Milwaukee is a pretty good place to make one's home. This was a short weekend trip that I took with my family as part of a larger visit to see my brother in Chicago. We made the 90 minute drive north to Milwaukee and stayed overnight in a hotel before returning back to Chicago once again the next day.

The first place that we visited in Milwaukee was the Miller Brewery. Milwaukee became synonymous with German-produced beer beginning in the 1840s, and many different breweries were situated in the city during the 19th and 20th centuries. The Miller Brewery is the only major brewery that remains in the city today, although there are dozens of smaller independent labels that have taken up the craft brewing tradition. The historic Milwaukee Brewery in "Miller Valley" is also the oldest functioning major brewery in the United States. It was a beautiful Saturday in terms of weather when we visited, and we had a chance to walk around outside at the entrance to the brewery tour, where there was a patio area set up. This was the home of the Plank-Road Brewery that Miller still features in some of their advertising, initially established in 1855 by the founder of the company, German immigrant Frederick Miller.

The entrance to the factory tour had a list of all the different beer brands owned under the same corporate group. This is something that there's little public awareness of in the United States: yes, Miller and Coors are both part of the same ownership group (unoriginally named MillerCoors). If you watch their advertising closely, both of them go after the Budweiser family of beers but never attack one another. There are a whole bunch of other brands that are also owned by MillerCoors: Molson, Blue Moon, Icehouse, Foster's, Killian's, Mickey's, and half a dozen other logos pictured above. Like many other economic sectors, there's been a great deal of consolidation in the beverage industry in recent decades, although they at least face competition from microbrewers and the like. Miller was originally the lead partner in the merger when it first took place in 2007, but since then Coors has gained sole ownership in 2016. Ironically, the Miller corporate entity no longer owns the rights to the Miller brands of beer, which are instead owned by Coors. At least, as of the time of writing this in 2019; who knows what will happen next. The world of corporate finance is a strange place sometimes.

The factory tour itself was fairly standard as far as those things go, showcasing a small portion of the brewing process through a series of glass windows that looked out at the factory. I had the impression that this was a bit of a dog and pony show for the tourists, and did not reflect what typically takes place in the factory. For better or worse there wasn't that much to see, as we were only taken through a small portion of the building and most of the brewing process has been automated. (The factory tour at the Ford automobile plant in Detroit was much more interesting and highly recommended.) I found the warehouse at the end of the factory tour to be more interesting, as it provided a sense of scope for the enormous quantities of beer that are produced here daily. Seeing thousands and thousands of cases of beer stacked atop one another in a warehouse felt like more of the authentic factory experience.

After finishing up with the Miller Factory Tour and enjoying the free drink at its conclusion, we drove to downtown Milwaukee with the intention of exploring the area for a bit. The first location that we came across was the striking building picture above, the Milwaukee Art Museum. This is one of the largest art museums in the United States and houses the city's collection of nearly 25,000 works of art housed on four floors, with works ranging from antiquity to the present. The structure that we were looking at is known as the Quadracci Pavilion, constructed in 2001 with a wing-like structure that opens during the day and can be folded at night or during poor weather conditions. It's a beautiful and iconic design that has become part of the city of Milwaukee's civic identity. We did not end up going inside the museum to see the artwork (a recurring theme for my trips), instead continuing onwards in our tour of the city.

We headed west from the lakeshore and walked over to the Milwaukee Riverwalk where the above pictures were taken. First developed in the 1990s as part of an urban renewal project, the Milwaukee Riverwalk is a pedestrian byway that follows the banks of the Milwaukee River as its runs past the historic Third Ward. This was a blighted district in earlier decades but today has become one of the most desired places to live in the city, dotted with shops and outdoor restaurants in a walkable urban environment. We could see lots of new apartment complexes located along the riverwalk, and additional new construction taking place to add even more housing. There's also a uniquely Milwaukee element to this riverwalk not present in other cities: "The Bronze Fonz", a bronze statue of the character Fonzie from Happy Days, in which the characters supposedly lived in Milwaukee. Although that television reference is a little before my time, I still thought that this was a cute little touch.

We walked back to the lakeshore and found ourselves stumbling into a GermanFest celebration taking place on the waterfront. We had no idea that this was going to be taking place but figured "why not?" and ended up attending the GermanFest. I mentioned before how the city of Milwaukee was known for having a tradition of significant German immigration, and that was reflected in this continuing festival. There were dozens of people in traditional German attire, including the man pictured above who was surprisingly grumpy for someone with three women on his arms. There were performers singing and dancing traditional German songs, along with cuckoo clocks and old musical instruments for sale. We ended up eating dinner here and spent more time than we'd been expecting at the festival, long enough that it was growing dark by the time that we were ready to leave. It was one of those unplanned events that can make traveling such a delight to experience.

For the next day, we had tickets to see the Milwaukee Brewers play a Sunday afternoon baseball game. Visiting the ballpark of different Major League Baseball teams has long been one of my family's favorite things to do on trips, and over the years I've seen a baseball game at the home venue of about 75% of the individual teams. We had come to see the Brewers on a giveaway day where all of the fans were receiving Robin Yount bobbleheads (many years after his retirement), a player that my dad was still grumbling about for his role in keeping the Orioles out of the 1982 playoffs. We were surprised to note that there was a great deal of tailgating outside the Brewers game in the parking lot, a fan behavior typically associated with football, not baseball. There were hundreds of people grilling food and drinking beer long before the game was set to begin. I'm not sure if that was due to the strong tailgating tradition in Wisconsin or the fact that this was a Sunday afternoon game on a giveaway day, but I'd never seen that before in Baltimore.

Miller Park (which will change to the much less cool name of American Family Insurance Park starting in 2021) opened during the 2001 season as a replacement for the old cookie-cutter Milwaukee County Stadium where the Brewers had originally played their home games. Miller Park's most noteworthy feature is a retractable roof that looks a bit like a fan from above, designed to compensate for Wisconsin's cool climate in the spring and fall seasons. This was a bright and sunny day, with the roof wide open above our heads. The stadium itself was simply enormous, and it felt larger than a traditional open stadium design due to the high walls that support the roof when closed. It was a little weird to be sitting in the upper deck with the roof extending upwards another hundred feet over our heads. Miller Park played host to the 2002 All Star Game shortly after it opened, a game that ignominiously ended in a tie and led to a decade of pure idiocy whereby the league that won the All Star Game was awarded home field advantage in the World Series. I also vividly recall that game taking place at the height of the steroid era, watching Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa hitting 500 foot homeruns that actually hit the glass windows at the rear of the stadium on the fly. Entertaining stuff even if it wasn't entirely legitimate.

The Brewers turned out to be playing the Washington Nationals on this particular day, neither team being especially good in the 2010 season. The game turned out to be an easy crowd pleaser for the home team, with the Brewers jumping out to leads of 2-0 in the first inning and later 5-0 in the fourth inning on a homerun by Rickie Weeks, before holding on for a comfortable 8-3 victory. The homerun by the Brewers allowed us to see the team mascot, Bennie Brewer, slide down the slide in left field into the "splash zone" in celebration. The other famous thing about Miller Park is the Sausage Race, held at every home game during the 6th inning. This is a thoroughly silly event whereby five people dressed up as different types of cartoon sausages race around the outside of the playing field. It's proven to be so popular that almost every other baseball team has adopted some variation of the same thing, with the Nationals doing a race of former presidents for example. But the Sausage Race was the original that everyone else imitated, the touchstone that provided the model for fans across the rest of the league. The Brewers actually keep stats on which sausage has won the most times, which is particularly crazy for a race that's completely staged ahead of time. Anyway, the Brewers won easily and we enjoyed this meaningless game between two bad teams. The Brewers have great fans and the stadium was packed on the day that we attended. Here's the Baseball Reference link for the curious.

That was the end of this brief jaunt to Milwaukee, with our family driving back down to Chicago and then everyone other than my brother heading back to Maryland afterwards. Milwaukee struck me as having a similar Midwestern feel as Chicago, but on a smaller and more local scale, less in the way of big international companies and famous celebrities. We thoroughly enjoyed our two days in the city, visiting the Miller Brewery and the Riverwalk, and even stumbling into the GermanFest along the lakeshore. Although Milwaukee is unlikely ever to be a major tourist attraction, it has plenty of its own charms to display for visitors.