TL;DR: Heineken?! Fuck that shit!!
History: The Pabst Brewing Company’s Milwaukee roots date to 1842, when two of Jacob Best, Sr.’s sons, Charles and Phillip, immigrated from Germany and established a vinegar factory. Two years later, Charles Best returned to Germany to bring the rest of the family across the pond, returning to Milwaukee and helping establish his father’s brewery. In five years, Best was the first in Milwaukee brewing lager beer, and in 1859 Phillip Best was solely in charge of the brewery following multiple corporate restructurings, as family members broke away to launch their own beermaking ventures.
Five years later, Best partnered with Captain Frederick Pabst – who had been newlywed to Best’s daughter. Best was the nation’s largest brewer by 1874, and in 1889, with the Captain at the helm, became the Pabst Brewing Company. Beer sales exploded following the repeal of Prohibition (during which, Pabst produced dairy products, near-beers and soft drinks), and Pabst still ranked as America’s third-largest brewer, behind Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz, in 1961; moving over 15 and a half-million barrels annually when they peaked in 1974. Brewery tours – which ended with a free sample for those of legal drinking age – became one of Milwaukee’s most popular tourist attractions.
In 1985, after fending-off a hostile takeover attempt for much of the 80s, a weakened Pabst was acquired by a California investment firm. The brewer fell into a death spiral of obscurity (a fate that would, ironically, inspire its hipster renaissance in the new millennium) and by the end of 1996 the 250 remaining employees at the red-operating Milwaukee plant were simply told to go home, many leaving their personal belongings behind. Pabst shifted all production to the Stroh Brewing Company’s facility in LaCrosse, WI — the former home of G. Heileman — where some production had already moved some years prior in an earlier round of layoffs. To this day all of the Pabst Brewing Company’s brands are still brewed under contract by other beer makers – notably Miller.
Locked-down hard and left to decay, the massive Milwaukee complex remained in limbo, slipping through a rejected proposal to turn the area into an entertainment district until it was finally acquired by a developer in 2006. Several non-historic buildings were subsequently demolished, but in recent years the most-significant, surviving historic buildings have since returned to life. Over $300m has been invested, without government subsidies, in new construction and adaptive reuse projects ranging from posh hotels and restaurants to studios, apartments and student housing. The area is now thriving and the redevelopment is nearing completion.
Which brings us to this particular structure… technically two conjoined parts of the brewery, officially known as Building 24 and 25: respectively, the massive eight-story malt elevators (silos) on the west end, and the six and eight-story Malt House anchoring the corner of Juneau and 10th. It is in this pair of buildings where the beermaking process at Pabst began, and their initial construction dates to around 1882; built in the wake of a devastating 1879 fire that destroyed most of the original brewery. Modifications – to what extent remains unknown – were made to these structures in 1891, 1901, and throughout the 1990s. They are now in the process of being converted into the Brewery Lofts: 118 market-rate apartments with amenities.
Explore: This honestly started as a beer run after an unrelated shoot, which changed course after finding the desired bar (Pabst Milwaukee… yes, Pabst actually brews some of their heritage brands here, again – albeit on an immensely-smaller scale) closed as their website hadn’t updated their winter hours. This was then turning into a quick shoot of the P A B S T neon that bridges the Malt and Brewhouses before heading home, but as I parked the car I couldn’t help but notice a large section of construction fencing by Building 25 knocked down by this evening’s peculiarly gusty winds, and no security around whatsoever to separate me from the sidewalk and the gutted shell of this brewing behemoth.
Like it was meant to be…
My only prior knowledge of people exploring this place was that one time my friend tripped the alarm, so even with no guard around my own was up like no other. After finding the one intact stairwell I slowly made my way up, pausing on each floor – scanning for motion sensors, unknown security guard or whatever might result in a joyride to jail or the morgue. Nothing. It was too easy…
But goddamn… by the time I was on the roof, at that point didn’t care who followed me up. Milwaukee was mine and I had enough on my mind fighting the wind and minding the surprise 60-70ft. ledge before me…
So, you ask: where the hell is half the building? 20 years of abandonment had left the already-neglected roof in a severely deteriorated state, and the developers are building an atrium to serve the apartments. To do so, they’ve carved out said roof, floor, and all vertical support columns in this area – leaving and preserving the exterior facades – while constructing a modern steel and reinforced concrete structure within. Quite a marvel of engineering, really. Part of the restoration also involves removing the brick infill which has covered all of the exterior windows for decades, and replacing them with glass that matches the building’s original historic appearance. The neighboring brewhouse received the same treatment a few years ago.
Back toward the ground, at least one functional element of this place’s past has survived: one of the two massive malt drying kilns, now encapsuled by new, bare steel beams, to be repurposed as activity space for the apartment residents. Elsewhere, the walls of rooms where malt went through forced germination processes have been stripped of their ancient, yet precise air and temperature control systems, and grafted into this same new structure.
But even more impressive is an area that may not be seen by the public again, if it even survives the redevelopment: the base of the massive malt elevator, hidden by a series of dark passageways beyond the active construction site. It above where I stand that harvested barley – several-hundred tons of it, maybe more – was stored and allowed to rest before entering the malt house for controlled germination, drying, and cooling. The dried malt would then be piped across the street to the brewhouse for the final processes in making the finished beer.
The base of these silos form a funnel shape, flowing to a series of brick arches shrouded in complete darkness. Lighting this scene tastefully was only possible via long exposure, physically moving my light in the tunnelway behind the arches. Given the relatively open nature of the rest of this (truly, up-close) massive complex, this would be the only place I could safely light paint any scene.
With that in mind, I saw my way out before I pushed my luck too far. Another bucket list spot down at the last feasible moment. Another brick for the collection. Another victory brew when I got home.