Among all the benefits of Illinois’ fast growing craft beer scene is the proliferation of brewery tours.
Tours have the potential to be big business for small brewers. They draw customers and build brand identification. For inspiration, Illinois-based brewers would do well to look north, to Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Lakefront is Milwaukee’s largest craft brewer. Its beers are available in Chicago, but many people make the trek to take its brewery tour, one of the most popular stops on the American craft beer circuit.
On a recent Friday afternoon, I toured the facility with my colleagues and Strange Brews co-hosts Tim Akimoff, Andrew Gill and WBEZ producer Joe Deceault. We were among a group of about twenty, many of them repeat customers. One Chicago woman has taken the tour five times. When I asked why she kept coming back she had a simple answer - because you can drink.
Lakefront is proud of the fact that unlike those other tours, they start you off with a beer in hand. There’s a stop for beer midway through the tour –and a cold one waiting at the end.
Russ and Jim Klisch started Lakefront in 1987, after experimenting with home brewing.The brothers’ beer roots are deep - their grandfather delivered beer for Schlitz. It was the big four - Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz and of course Miller - that once made Milwaukee the beer capital of the world. Now only MillerCoors is still brewing in Milwaukee. So small independents like Lakefront are starting to fill the gap.
Last year, Lakefront topped 40,000 barrels. It's the second largest craft brewery in Wisconsin. And tours have helped drive their business. Russ Klisch says the idea came early on.
“I gave a real technical tour,” remembered Klisch. “I have a chemistry degree and I thought everybody who took the tour wanted to learn about how to make beer. My brother really didn’t know anything about that. He just started telling jokes on the tour and gave away beer free. And everybody took his tour and nobody took mine.”
Our guide was Evan Koepnick, Lakefront’s tour supervisor, improv comedy performer and self-proclaimed class clown. He called himself our “brewery dungeon master.”
There is something dungeonesque to Lakefront. The brewery’s housed in an old coal-fired power plant. A winding flight of stairs led us into a room crowded with big steel tanks, vats and barrels. There Evan gave us a speed history of beer.
He got people to yell out ‘reinheitsgebot!’, the term for the ancient German beer purity laws. He demonstrated the role of yeast in fermentation by aggressively cuddling one of the guys on the tour.
The big finish involved an old bottling line once featured in the television show Laverne and Shirley. There was karaoke, a reenactment of some of the show’s opening credits and a group selfie.
There are a few other historic markers at Lakefront. The large tasting room has some stunning light fixtures from a long-gone beer garden, plus the chalet that the Milwaukee Brewers mascot Bernie used to slide out of when the team scored a home run.
That history drew Leanne and Dean Anderson from Antioch Illinois. They’ve toured Miller and the Pabst mansions. They think Lakefront follows in that tradition.
“I like Miller but it’s too international now,” said Leanne. “I like the hometown craft breweries.”
History and tour hijinks aside, these events are important to Lakefront’s future. Evan Koepnick said they’ve helped pay for new equipment and brewing experiments. Last year Lakefront extended the number and hours of the tours, including Sunday. And Koepnick said they’re always busy, even during football season.
And that has Lakefront rising—to the top of craft beers in the Midwest.