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In January 2016, Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World 3rd St., brewed up a smash success of an exhibition with "Brew City MKE: Craft, Culture, Community," which looked at Milwaukee’s enduring legacy – and ongoing status – as a beer town.
Now, MCHS is taking the show on the road, sort of, by opening a mini-museum just down the street in the former Applebee’s near the main entrance of The Shops of Grand Avenue. Brew City MKE opens on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 2 p.m.
A scaled-down version of the "Brew City MKE" exhibition – which has long since closed at the MCHS – will live in the former restaurant and will, in fact, share the roughly 3,000 square feet of space with a working tavern.
With no disrespect to Applebee’s – this one closed in June 2016 – the new Brew City MKE is exactly the kind of thing the mall and Downtown Milwaukee ought to have in a high-profile space like the one at 275 W. Wisconsin Ave.
It’s a one-of-a-kind Downtown destination that celebrates the city’s history and persona as the beer capital of America, much in the way that spots in downtown Louisville celebrate that city’s connection to bourbon.
"With broad interest in beer across the nation, and with Milwaukee’s reputation as Brew City, it seems only natural that this city would become home to a Beer and Brewing Heritage Destination that explores Milwaukee’s deep beer and brewing roots," said Ben Barbera, curator at the Milwaukee County Historical Society.
Like the exhibition at the Milwaukee County Historical Society museum up the street, Brew City MKE will tell the story of brewing in Milwaukee via a range of images, artifacts, text panels, audio visual elements and hands-on features.
And to really evoke the sights, smells and tastes of Milwaukee beer, guests (21 and up, of course) can enjoy a free beer with museum admission during their visit. Much like a brewery tour, the Brew City MKE on-site tavern will be situated at the end of the experience.
The tavern – which will stock a rotating mix of hometown brews – will be open for non-museum guests, too. There will be a retail component and event space to host programs like "Meet the Brewer" events and tap takeovers, said Barbera.
The bar has eight tap lines and another 15-20 beers in bottles and cans. Only beers brewed in Milwaukee are available. The tavern also offers Sprecher sodas.
Among the options on tap for opening week are classics like High Life and PBR, alongside veterans like Lakefront Riverwest Stein and Sprecher Black Bavarian, as well as relative newcomers like Enlightened Cream City Brix, Good City Pils, Black Husky Jodlerkonig and Third Space That's Gold!.
Brew City MKE will be managed by Dana Hansen, a former MCHS intern who, thanks to her work at Sugar Maple, is also extremely knowledgeable about Milwaukee beer.
"Brew City MKE is a unique destination in that it merges the past and the present into one experience," said Mame McCully, executive director of the Milwaukee County Historical Society. "Ben (Barbera) likes to say that the exhibit area is Milwaukee's brewing past and the bar is Milwaukee's brewing present and future."
The space looks really nice, with the exhibitions along the windows facing Wisconsin Avenue and the bar toward the interior. There are elements remaining from the Applebee's but you'd be unlikely to recognize them.
The bathroom has images from Milwaukee brewing history dotting the tilework and there are some eye-catching new decorative elements fashioned from the bottoms of beer bottles, including a stunning backlit one above the bar.
The retail area will offer souvenir items like mugs, T-shirts, koozies and the like.
At the moment, Brew City MKE – which has been supported by The Shops of Grand Avenue and Quorum Architects, as well as breweries like Sprecher, Pabst and Miller – is a one-year pilot project. If all goes well, Barbera said, the venue can endure and, potentially, even expand to include more exhibits.
Surely, this is the kind of thing that ought to be in the heart of Downtown and could help spur other interesting and engaging projects in the mall.
"We are delighted to have Brew City MKE and know it will be a valued part of the redevelopment of Wisconsin Avenue and The Shops of Grand Avenue," said Tony Janowiec, co-owner of The Shops of Grand Avenue, in a statement.
"We believe it will bring positive traffic and attention to this area of town and fits perfectly into the redevelopment plans for the The Shops of Grand Avenue and West Wisconsin Avenue."
Brew City Milwaukee opens Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 2 p.m. and after that will be open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.; Fridays, 10-8; and Saturdays, from 10 until 10. The opening hours may expand if there is demand.
Admission to the exhibition is $10 and includes one free beer or soda (as well as same-day entry into the Milwaukee County Historical Society museum). For $5 more visitors get a mug to keep and $1 off refills. Admission for visitors ages 13 to 20 is $7 and includes one free soda. Children 12 and under are admitted free.
There is no charge to enter the tavern on its own.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.