Selling their first half barrel December 2nd, 1987, Lakefront Brewery was born from a passion for beer shared by brothers, Russ and Jim Klisch. 27 years later, the Lakefront brand has become a local legend.
The story of Lakefront Brewery begins at Schlitz Brewery where Russ and Jim’s grandfather worked. Soaking up their grandfather’s knowledge and passion for beer, the young Klisch boys quickly took an interest in brewing, eventually taking up home brewing. As time went on, the pair grew ambitious and attempted to make clones of their favorite brews; for Jim that was Anchor Steam, and Russ, Pilsner Urquell. The fruits of their labor would be the groundwork for what would become two of Lakefront’s original, and now flagship offerings, Riverwest Stein and Klisch Pilsner.
Whether or not their original attempts at brewing great beer were fruitful, the Klisch brothers kept at their craft. But foregoing the traditional route of learning to brew through an apprenticeship or brewing school, the brothers taught themselves all they needed to know, eventually feeling confident enough in their abilities to open a brewery. This dream would be realized in the 1980’s when brewing, even in the famed Brew City, had gone stagnant.
“Back in the 80’s there was kind of a writing on the wall that breweries would be closing in Milwaukee and we saw an opportunity,” says Russ Klisch, Founder/Owner/President.
Armed with a small investment, a couple of likeminded individuals including his brother, a plethora of ideas, and a degree in chemistry, Russ and his team invested in a former bakery on 818 E. Chamber St. This would be the home of Lakefront Brewery until 1998, when it was moved to its present location at 1872 North Commerce St. on the Milwaukee River.
Over their almost three decades in the brewing business, the Klisch brothers have steadily increased their company’s lineup with over still 20 lagers and ales available throughout the year with over 48,000 barrels of beer sold a year. And while still heavily involved in their operation, they’re no longer running machines or brewing the beer at this point. Instead, they’re overseeing the operation from the main office serving a vital position in any growing company.
“We’re the vision. When you make a company you’d like to do everything, but you can’t. And so, you have to pass off certain things. We’re been blessed to find people who have a similar palate or can make the recipes. That’s one hallmark of being an owner, being able to pass the job off to someone new,” says Klisch. “We’re proud of our employees. Everyone has done well, the community has supported us, and we really feel fortunate for that.”
As time goes on any business is going to have to change with the times to stay relevant. Lakefront is well aware of this fact, for under the watchful eye of the Klisch brothers, the company is always eyeing the latest trends.
“One of the trends in beer right now are one offs. You walk into a bar and the first thing the bar owner ask is what’s new? Everyone wants what’s new. If you don’t have new stuff you’re not going to be relevant anymore,” says Klisch, who helped develop a series of limited edition beers called Myturn. The name coming from the fact that each beer is named for and developed by an employee of Lakefront Brewing Co. But more than just a way of giving back to the employees for all of their hardwork, Myturn is how Lakefront keeps up with the latest trends while developing new beers for their seasonal and year-round lineup.
“The divergence of styles we’ve had is amazing. There’s nothing that’s similar, and they’ve all won awards. It’s really great for morale around here. Everyone is excited about getting their beer,” says Klisch, in reference to the Myturn series, which has included a number of varying styles and hybrids including Imperial pilsner, dunkelweizen, barley wine style ale, and rauchsbier.
According to Russ, reception of the Myturn series has been overwhelming, allowing for some Myturn beers to stay in production longer than expected. One particular fan of the series is Stubby’s Gastropub on North Humbold where all of the Myturn brews have been proudly served on tap and the tapper’s mounted on the wall to forever support the experimental spirit of craft brewing.
As is evident from the multitude of craft breweries like Lakefront opening its doors and delivering a variety of beers to the thirsty, beer loving public, there certainly has been an explosion in craft brewing in America in recent years. Many, this writer included, have taken up the hobby leading to an oft repeated question; how does one get a job at a brewery?
“You can start your own. Start real small to the point where you can afford it, or at least get your cash flow going. That’s the biggest reasons brewers go out of business. It’s not because their beer isn’t good, it’s they bought too much and have to pay too much off. The other way is to get some schooling. UC-Davis is the best way to go. It’s very expensive, but you’re almost guaranteed a job. Then there’s Siebel, a lot of people who’ve worked here have gone to Siebel,” says Klisch, later adding that school is not the only option, but the best one.
While schooling in brewing may be a turn off for many homebrewers who either lack the time, money, or dedication, many brewers such as Lakefront seek a professionally trained brewer over a home brewer because the education greatly displays the passion and dedication for the craft sorely needed to keep a company running smoothly. Regardless, getting a job with a brewery isn’t as easy as showing up with the right credentials and asking for a job. Breweries often operate with small crews and turnover is generally quite low, and so scoring that dream job at a brewery is a mixture of natural skill, professional training, determination and pure luck. In the meantime, Klisch recommends following your heart and honing your craft because one day there just might be an opportunity, regardless if you have a degree or professional training.