Josh Barto, our ginger-bearded wisecracking tour guide, doesn’t hold back in making fun of us or himself while giving a tour of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. “Why have a six-pack when you can have the whole keg?” he says, holding his belly, raising his glass and encouraging everyone to take another swig of our beer.
Amid lessons on brewing beer, a walk through the brewery and nonstop one-liners, Barto has everyone loosened up enough to join in on the tour finale: a singalong to “Making Our Dreams Come True,” the theme song from the 1976-83 sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.”
Everyone launches into “Schlemiel, Schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” while remembering two of the city’s most beloved fictional characters. The 2018 death of Penny Marshall, who played Laverne, makes it all the more poignant to raise a foamy glass to the comedy queen, as well as real-life brewery workers.
Milwaukee, the Brew City, has always been tied to its German heritage and beer. While the pre-Prohibition glory days are long gone, fresh chapters in the city’s legacy are being written with at least a dozen craft breweries. Miller, the last remaining big brewer, also has tours of its high-speed production. There’s even a hotel, the Brewhouse Inn, built around behemoth copper fermenting vats that were left in place at the historic Pabst Brewery campus.
The city boasts many must-do leisure activities — seeing the evolution of American motorcycles at the Harley-Davidson Museum, learning about Les Paul’s invention of the electric guitar at Discovery World, and marveling at Milwaukee Art Museum’s architecturally magnificent wings — but on this trip, I targeted one place devoted to hard work.
The Grohmann Museum on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering focuses on its “Man at Work” collection: 1,400 paintings and sculptures portraying the people who did the farming, brewing, shipping, quarrying and factory work as science, technology and economies evolved from the 1500s through the 2000s.
A lobby mosaic with a wool spinner and a fieldworker, and rooftop statues of a railroad builder and glassblower, hint at what’s spread throughout three floors. Dr. Eckhart Grohmann, who owned a foundry, spent 40 years collecting art in the rough categories of “iron and steel,” “agriculture and construction” and “craftsmen and intellectual trades.” It’s now considered one of the top art collections dedicated to industry.
“Did you see the one with the mining accident?” a friend whispered. In an emotion-tugging painting, a dog in mourning watches grave diggers at work. Other pieces have a softer touch. A gently lit librarian looks through antique books. Women with baskets collect seaweed on a moody beach. Workers pour molten metal at a gritty factory, and a 1600s physician checks a patient’s pulse.
The work theme keeps the museum from feeling overwhelming while offering a polished homage to the many ways to make a living and feed a family (1-414-277-2300; msoe.edu/grohmann-museum).
If feels fitting to head to the come-as-you-are Lakefront Brewery afterward (1-414-372-8800; lakefrontbrewery.com). A waiter arrives with a delicious nod to Wisconsin heritage: beer-battered fish, coleslaw, pils-battered cheese curds and Eastside Dark frozen custard with beer caramel and candied pecans. The only thing better would have been to visit for its Friday fish fry, when diners pack in at community tables, folks do the Chicken Dance and a polka band is in full swing. “It’s like a Polish wedding,” said brewery owner Russ Klisch. “It’s about as Milwaukee as you can get.”
At its peak, Pabst beer’s iconic corner-bar signs were a familiar sight. Geek out on Pabst, Schlitz, Hamm’s and other Midwest beer memorabilia and gifts at the Best Place Milwaukee on the Pabst Brewing campus. Minnesotans can revel in Hamm’s animated bear commercials and laugh at the reappearance of 1970s crocheted beer-can hats. Grab a brew, join a Pabst tour and pose with the statue of King Gambrinus, a patron saint of beer (1-414-223-4709; bestplacemilwaukee.com).
If you want inside brewery info and a designated driver, Milwaukee has several options for beer and food tours, including Untapped Tours (untappedtours.com) and Milwaukee Food & City Tours (milwaukeefoodtours.com).
Watch for some of the country’s largest cultural events: German Fest in July, along with Irish Fest, the African-American Bronzeville Week and Mexican Fiesta in August. Hunting Moon Pow Wow celebrates Indian culture Oct. 18-20 (huntingmoonpowwow.com).
Stop by Old World Third Street, anchored by the venerable Mader’s German restaurant (madersrestaurant.com). Within a block, you’ll find squeaky-fresh cheese curds and award-winning Marieke Gouda at Wisconsin Cheese Mart (wisconsincheesemart.com); delicious pistachio-studded mordatella and summer sausage at Usinger’s (usinger.com); and fragrant seasonings from the Spice House (thespicehouse.com).
Where to eat
Onesto in the historic Third Ward brings out bright salads, jars of savory or fruity cheese spreads, and homemade pastas such as wild mushroom ragu over gnocchi, asparagus fusilli and a Bolognese sauce with brisket (1-414-308-1600; onestomke.com).
Where to sleep
Even if you’re not staying at the Pfister Hotel, it’s worth admiring the lobby’s 125-year-old opulence with ceiling murals, elegant chandeliers and Victorian paintings. Check out the more modern works by the hotel’s rotating artists in residence. The hotel is a 10-minute walk from the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Grohmann and the bronze statue of Fonzie from “Happy Days” along the Milwaukee River (1-414-273-8222; thepfisterhotel.com).
The Iron Horse Hotel, another one-of-kind destination, draws Harley-Davidson fans in particular. You also can dine here, enjoying balmy evenings in the Yard with its view of Thursday evening Bike Nights (1-414-374-4766; theironhorsehotel.com).
The Brewhouse Inn & Suites includes 90 rooms in the former Pabst brewery (1-414-810-3350; brewhousesuites.com).
Getting there and around
The Hop, a new streetcar line, makes it easier to get around downtown and reach attractions (thehopmke.com).
Visit Milwaukee: 1-414-273-3950, visitmilwaukee.org.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path” and contributes to the Star Tribune, Midwest Living and USA Today.