That’s right. You won’t find many local fish fry lovers who aren’t indulging in a brewski or two, simply because it’s what we do here. And to detest a great beer is sacrilegious if you live in Milwaukee; we are Brew City, people. Thus, it’s no wonder why the Lakefront Brewery tour and fish fry is such a popular event as it attracts droves of locals and visitors to its home along the Milwaukee River every Friday night.
Seriously, Lakefront Brewery fills up very fast for such an occasion. It’s probably because it boasts the best fish fry in southeastern Wisconsin hands down – the only thing that could possibly make it better would be if it was all-you-can-eat!
The Lakefront Brewery is a Milwaukee landmark, just like Miller and Sprecher. Even with only 20 years under their belt, Lakefront already has a rich history involving local taverns, city preservations, unique tours, family style dining and most importantly, award winning brews.
Lakefront Brewery makes some of my favorite beers – Cattail, ESB, Eastside and Pumpkin Spice – and has an exceptional tour, which is why I chose it as the place to host my birthday celebration this year.
I’m not big on birthdays. In fact, I dislike celebrating mine, but my parents insisted they take me out. I kept the night pretty hush hush by only sending out invitations to my family – brother, sister, mom and dad – plus Eric of course.
Knowing the tour and restaurant gets busy I called ahead to make reservations. Unfortunately, they only make them for parties of eight or more, so since the tour and fish fry are on a first come first served basis, we tried to get there as soon as possible.
At 5:45 p.m. we gathered outside the brewery. Once we were all accounted for we entered through the heavy front doors and saw the place was already packed with hundreds of people milling about. We had already missed the first tour at 5:30, so we quickly showed our IDs and paid for our admission. Our $10 fee included the tour plus two 6-ounce cups of beer, a souvenir pint glass filled to the brim and a $5 voucher for the fish fry.
It didn’t take long before a young man wearing a Lakefront T-shirt announced that the 6:00 tour was about to start. He called himself “Nitro” and claimed he was a retired American Gladiator – I didn’t know if I should’ve believed that or not. Regardless, many people on staff give the tours and never use a specific script (or real name I guess). In fact, they are encouraged to add their own personality and jokes to entertain guests. Each time I’ve gone I’ve witnessed a different tour; however, it has always been equally as entertaining. In this case, Nitro was highly energetic, knowledgeable, hilarious, and best of all, fairly drunk. He definitely made the tour the most excellent part of the night (well, besides polkaing later), and he was my favorite guide so far.
Nitro led us down some stairs and into the shipping room where we conjugated around three taps of beer. Taps were set up throughout the tour so everyone’s cup stayed full. Ladies were served first and had the option of Cattail, Cherry or Eastside Dark. I opted for the Cattail, but had a taste of the Cherry. It was a little bitter because it’s toward the end of its season and even though it wasn’t my favorite – I haven’t acquired a taste for fruit beers yet – if you like Door County cherries, you’d love it.
People were encouraged to drink throughout the tour and there were taps midway for us to refill. Of course, several people were carrying around their own growlers of beer to fill up constantly.
There definitely is a direct correlation between attention span on brewery tours and drinking beer. This was noticeable as the young crowd quickly downed their beer and visibly became more and more impatient as they had to wait for their next taste. Several times Nitro had to shout, “Eyes on the prize!” (the “prize” referring to himself) to regain everyone's attention. But it’s okay because Lakefront Brewery knows about this connection. And the company believes that people want to go on brewery tours for three main reasons: to obviously drink beer, to be entertained and to see where the magic happens. So to fulfill their philosophy, Lakefront Brewery provides beer at the beginning, middle and end of the tour while guides show off the place and share jokes along the way.
I always thought it was weird to wait until after the brewery tour to drink a beer also. It’s better to taste the brews while your guide explains how they're made with the barley, hops and such.
Next, we moved into the actual brewery where vats and fermentation tanks looked like a small city skyline. It was a lot smaller and more compact than I had expected, but after learning that they only produce about 9,000 barrels of beer per year, it made complete sense. I mean 9,000 barrels a year, that’s probably about how much beer Anheuser-Busch spills in just one day!
Besides the copper vats, we saw Bernie Brewer’s Chalet – the old house from County Stadium – and the old slide and mug that he slid into after every Brewers home run. When the Brewers’ built Miller Park, the Chalet needed a new home and Lakefront put in the most generous bid. I think it’s a great part of the tour as it offers folks a piece of hometown history. Additionally, there was a trio of big fermenters painted like the Three Stooges – Larry, Moe and Curly. See, I told you this was a unique tour! I bet Coors doesn’t have anything like that!
Our second beer stop was right underneath Bernie’s old club house where three more taps waited to fill our plastic cups. This time I went for the ESB (Extra Special Bitter), which was the first organic beer labeled in the U.S. in 1996 and is 100% organic and 120% delicious!
After learning about how the beer itself is made, Nitro explained the finer points of how the beer gets into bottles and kegs. We learned that after the barrel of beer is washed with Milwaukee River water (Just kidding. They actually use a caustic solution and then an iodine based solution) a barrel of beer is filled through a hole and corked with a wooden bung. A heavy rubber mallet is used to put the bung into the hole. In honor of my birthday, Nitro gave me one of the wooden bungs and made me the honorary “Bung Queen” for the night. That was one of my proudest moments.
Our third and final stop was in front of a small conveyor belt. They had a radio near the bottling line and a tape of the Laverne and Shirley theme song. And as if being named the “Bung Queen” wasn’t embarrassing enough, I was asked to give one last nod to Laverne and Shirley by putting a glove over the bottles on the belt like I guess they did on TV.
We ended up spending well over an hour on the tour. At the end, we exchanged our plastic cups for a glass pint brimming with Pumpkin Spice Lager, and we made our way back upstairs. To our surprise the crowd had tripled just within the hour! People flooded the Lakefront Palm Garden while others waited in the lobby, and many caused a serious traffic jam as they came and went from the tours. It was chaotic!
We were sardined in a corner just past the stairwell for nearly 20 minutes until we finally made it to the hostess and put our name in for a table. Then, we pushed through the beer guzzling mob towards the bar where the six of us split a couple pitchers of Cattail and goofed around. We waited for nearly an hour and a half, but were eventually seated at a table right next to the dance floor.
The Palm Garden is a family style restaurant that not only hosts the Friday fish fries, but also private events like wedding receptions. I went to a beautiful reception held there a couple summers ago. They even had the “booze cruise” boats out for moonlit rides along the Milwaukee River.
The restaurant was grand with antique lights hanging from the high ceiling. Below were round tables covered with white tablecloths that were scattered across the floor. The entire hall swelled with oompahs coming from the polka band, The Brew House Polka Kings, and we almost had to shout over the chatter echoing off the dining room walls.
Meanwhile, we looked over the menu. There was a pretty large selection of fish – beer battered cod, breaded perch, blue gill and shrimp, and baked tilapia – plus a menu for those opting out of the fish fry that offered hamburgers, grilled cheese and tortellini to name a few. Oh, and of course everything is served with a side of either potato pancakes or French fries and even more beer.
Being Polish, my dad was enjoying himself as he requested a series of polkas – he even surprised me by requesting “Happy Birthday” and the entire room sang in unison, well, sort of. After great cod and lots of photos, my mom, sister, Eric and I took the dance floor with a dozen others and polkaed for the remainder of the night. Even though we were a bit tipsy, it seemed that the polka lessons Eric and I took at Art’s Concertina Bar last winter actually paid off.
The entire night was a blast! From the tour to the beer, to the fish and polka the Lakefront Brewery tour was one of the best nights I’ve spent celebrating my birthday. By the time we left at 10 p.m., we were tipsy, full and tired, so we decided to call it a night and just headed home where we almost immediately fell asleep.