Anyone who likes to laugh, drink beer and learn about Milwaukee history will love the Best Place Beer History Tour. Jim Haertel, co-owner of the former Pabst Brewery site since 2001, gives the majority of the 10 tours offered every week.
Tours are available on Thursdays at 4 p.m. and Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 12, 1 and 2 p.m. Haertel gives all of the tours except the Friday and Saturday 1 p.m. tour. The cost is $8 and includes one Pabst or Schlitz beer.
Subsequent beers during the tour are $3-$4, or free for anyone who answers one of Haertel's trivia questions during the tour. At one point he asked the straight-up history question: which company bought Miller in the early '70s – the answer is Philip Morris – but then later a more abstract question asking which Shakespeare quote could become beer-related with the addition of the letters "e" and "r." The answer, known by my tour companion, is "To beer or not to beer."
Tour reservations are not necessary and guests can pay for admission in the gift shop, 901 W. Juneau Ave.
The gift shop is filled with new and vintage beer clothing, glassware and other memorabilia. The selection of Pabst wear is incredible and don't miss the beer cozy for a 40-ouncer.
Although the tour is not of a production facility – Pabst stopped brewing on site in 1996 – the hour-plus event is twice as long as most brewery tours.
The tour starts in the stunning, restored Blue Ribbon Hall with a beer.
"We don't make you wait to the end for a beer," says Haertel.
The entire tour has a very casual, friendly feel. The first half hour is spent listening and interacting with Haertel who shares information about the Pabst family and their brewing endeavors. He does a great job relaying the big picture of the brewing industry from when the Best Brewery was founded in 1844 through Prohibition to the present day.
Haertel also shows vintage beer commercials on a large screen, including a mid-century Pabst commercial that was filmed in Blue Ribbon Hall – exactly where tour guests are sitting at the time – as well as the famous animated Hamm's bear commercials and a '70s Pabst commercial featuring a heartbreakingly young Patrick Swayze.
Haertel also throws the modern Will Ferrel Old Milwaukee commercials and footage from when he and Best Place were on the National Geographic Channel reality show "Abandoned" into the video mix.
Haertel, who has given talks and tours for 10 years, is the perfect fit for the tour guide. He is likable, funny, extremely knowledgeable and the epitome of a Milwaukee guy with a laid-back demeanor and a beer in hand.
He says he obtained most of his information through voracious reading about Brew City, both as a beer town and beyond.
"I read everything I can get my hands on," says Haertel.
Haertel provides solid chunks of history, including the revelation that Milwaukee's brewing success had much to do with all of Chicago's breweries burning down in the 1800s along with fun factoids like how Pabst never really won a blue ribbon of any kind. (The brewery did, however, win gold medals.)
He also instigated a group booing session when he projected a photo of Carrie Nation, a founder of the U.S. temperance movement, on the screen.
Haertel sees the tour process as a work in progress, much like the buildings themselves.
"Many people and former employees who have attended our tours often have an insight, a new bit of information or correct something that they say I got wrong," he says. "Our tour constantly evolves, which is good because many people come back and compliment improvements since the last tour they attended."
The tour journeys to the upper level in one of the three buildings comprising Best Place, which are in the process of being renovated to accommodate more wedding ceremonies and receptions; the Blue Ribbon Hall is rented for these purposes now. It also features the former office of Captain Pabst and the current office of Haertel.
Haertel also has plans for a "beer bed and breakfast" at some point, where each room would be decorated based on a different beer / brewery theme, from The Pabst Room to The Lakefront Room, and feature its own tapper.
The date of completion for these renovations remains uncertain.
"We have no timeframe other than we know everyone wants us to get going 'ASAP' to which I then chide everyone to have another beer," says Haertel. "I put the responsibility back squarely on our patrons and guests, when they ask the same question, by stating if we have not yet opened the BB&B, it's really their fault because they have not drank enough beers yet."
Other future plans might include a working brewing facility and a regular fish fry. Originally, a restaurant was planned for the building, but Haertel and a restaurant group in Cincinnati could not reach an agreement.
Most important to Haertel is to renovate the buildings carefully and with respect to preservation and history.
"Our goal is to continue to slowly and carefully develop more and more of our buildings, focusing on preserving the history of the buildings until, one day, there is nothing more to do," says Haertel. "What we do and when we do it is dictated, mainly, by two things: reinvesting profits organically from our existing businesses as our Board of Directors agrees and allows us to do so."
From 1985 to 96, Haertel owned Barrel Riders, a Riverwest, Hobbit-themed bar that is now called The Gig, 1132 E. Wright St. Barrel Riders was a neighborhood favorite, known as a place to play pool or darts and for the annual block party that was a benefit for Children's Hospital.
"I would describe those years by borrowing the first chapter title in 'The Hobbit,' where our name came from, as 'An Unexpected Party!'," says Haertel.
After the 20-acre Pabst plant closed in 1996, Haertel, both a beer and historic building enthusiast with an MBA from Marquette, tried to buy one of the buildings in the complex. Haertel was told he could not buy one building, only the entire complex. So, with his wife's blessing, he cashed in his 401K and put a down payment on the property.
"We are avid historic preservationists that support historic preservation throughout Milwaukee," says Haertel.
Haertel signed off on the deal on Sept. 11, 2001, right after finding out that the Twin Tours had fallen. Aware that America's future was uncertain, he decided to move forward anyway.
Living your dream and taking risks are themes that Haertel brings into the tour. He reminds tour goers that people on their death beds regret not following their passions. After the tour, he spoke casually about how the people and city of Milwaukee have been instrumental in his ability to live his own dream.
"I can't imagine living anywhere else," he says. "We really, sincerely appreciate each and every guest because their dollars keep the dream alive and growing. Without them, we would be history."
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.