In early June, Shorewood native Mike Brenner signed the lease on the parking garage located at 706 South 5th St. in Walker’s Point. Although the approximately 48-x-140-foot space is pretty perfect for parking cars, the wide-open space is also pretty hard to beat for a brewery, which is exactly what Brenner has in mind.
But, Brenner Brewing Company won’t be just any brewery. In fact, according to Brenner, it will be a brewery whose purpose is to support Milwaukee area artists.
Brenner is no stranger to the arts.
"I’ve been around art all my life," he explains. "I grew up in Shorewood, was always involved in music, art and creativity. My aunt was an artist and when other kids were coloring with markers, I was working on oil paintings in her studio."
But, Brenner admits that he wasn’t typical of the artists of the time.
"It was always more about the projects and ideas than it was about the art for me," he explains. "I made a blue satin wizard gown for prom. I made my date a fairy costume. It’s always been about giving people new experiences and a new understanding.
"I think contemporary artists think about art more as process than a final product. For me, it was more about process. I never finished anything."
After dropping out of UWM, Brenner joined a band and moved to New Orleans. He sang back-up. He played guitar. He even picked up the accordion. But, he wasn’t fulfilled.
"Four years went by," Brenner recollects. "I was in and out of school, in and out of the band, and I was like ‘I have no idea what I want to do with my life.’ I wanted to be an artist, but all my artist friends were working at the makeup counter at Grand Avenue. And they hated what they were doing."
So, Brenner went to MIAD, where he earned a degree in design.
"I actually got passionate about design. It was cerebral, manipulative," he remembers. "I took interior architecture and design. I took 2D to 3D. I thought I’d go into architecture.
"When I graduated all my friends moved away. They thought there was no reason to stay in Milwaukee. I had the same mindset, but I stayed here."
Brenner took a job with a marketing firm – a role he found unfulfilling. So, rather than take the career path any further, he got involved with the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN).
"I felt like I had the opportunity to change the city in a way that I could convince my friends to move back," Brenner explains. "I finally felt like I understood what I was meant to do – that evolution from 2D to 3D to creating events and brands made sense when it came to thinking about changing peoples’ perceptions about art and Milwaukee."
MARN was also, Brenner recalls, the first project he actually saw through. While working with MARN, Brenner started his own gallery, Hotcakes, which was meant to bring affordable art to the younger generation.
"All the art was under $200," he tells me. "I thought that if I could get young people to start being interested in buying art, we could bring them along for the long haul."
Unfortunately, Brenner found the art climate in Milwaukee frustrating; he also became increasingly disgruntled that he couldn’t make a living doing what he loved. After an attempt to assist MARN in creating an art center in Milwaukee fell flat due to a lack of funding support, Brenner knew he had to take a new approach.
"I had been home-brewing on and off since the mid-nineties. When the MARN report came back and I realized I was never going to turn a real salary working with them, I came to the conclusion that it was time to rethink the model of how we support non-profits and doing good."
Brenner’s philosophy stemmed from the fact that finding people to drink beer was likely easier than trying to get people to buy art. So, he headed back to UWM to earn his MBA.
In the meantime, he wove in classes from one of the top brewing schools in the nation, the Siebel Institute of Technology out of Chicago. He finished his MBA and completed the master brewer program, which allowed him to study in Chicago and Germany.
Then it was on to tying his passion for brewing to his passion for art.
While beer will be at the forefront of the business, art will play a part in the entire process. For instance, each style of beer will feature a different local artist on its label. QR codes on the bottles will take consumers back to web sites where they can view the artist’s works, get more information about the artist, and even purchase art.
Currently, Brenner has a contract with one artist, Sue Lawton of Bay View. He purchased an original piece of Lawton’s art, which he thought appropriate for one of his beer labels, and also purchased the rights to use it for marketing.
"The idea is really just to promote Milwaukee artists around the state and country," Brenner says. "Instead of me having a gallery, representing them, and taking a percentage, it puts the power back in the artists’ hands."
In addition to featuring artists on each bottle of beer, Brenner plans to fill the brewery with art created by local artists, as well as hosting a variety of art events at the brewery. There is also potential for an artist incubator space to be created near the brewery.
"It’s nowhere near finalized, but I’m working with MIAD professors to create a gallery and studio spaces for 12-18 Milwaukee artists," Brenner explains. "People who are very serious about their careers and are showing nationally and internationally."
As far as the beer goes, Brenner says he has a list of seven or eight beers that he’s created that he’s happy with. His plan is to produce an IPA, another more accessible beer like an amber or pale ale, as well as his "Bacon Bomb," a beer brewed with smoke and black pepper that won accolades at the 2012 Firkin Fest.
He also plans to let his artistic passion drive what he makes.
"In my mind, what I like with beer is the same thing I like with art -- things that freak me out and are weird. I’m trying to balance the weird with stuff that actually sells," he explains. "I plan to make really high quality beer that will sell, but then other stuff that only beer geeks will be into. That artistic passion will drive what I make."
Brenner says that, in great part, what he creates will be driven by the market, but experimentation will always be key.
"I have funds available to do more experimental beers," he says. "I have 50 barrels to age beer, and I’ve ordered two 30-barrel aging vessels of French oak. So, I can do Belgian style beers that will sit for 18-24 months."
Brenner also looks forward to customizing brews to use for pairings.
"The food end of it really interests me too," he says, "… finding beers that go with certain foods, trying to find ways to really work with local chefs to create custom beers for dishes they make."
And then there’s the question at the cusp of many minds: will Brenner brew a gluten-free beer?
"Yes, I will. I don’t know if it will be right away," he says. "But, there are some new technologies around gluten free beer, so I’ve been investing in those."
Brenner has been told his permits will come through in three to four months, so he anticipates a six-month timeline for the brewery to be open for tours and growlers to be available for sale.
"I’m realizing that what people really need is jobs," Brenner says. "So, in the long term, creating a company that’s great to work for, that supports the local community, is the goal."
Follow Brenner Brewing Company on Facebook for photos and news. And stay tuned to OnMilwaukee.com for more details as the brewery approaches its opening date.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.