Everything is coming together at the new Central Waters Brewery and Taproom at the former Captain Pabst Pilot House, 1037 W. Juneau Ave., in the Brewery District.
Just today, the protective coating was stripped off the new bar top, the tables are more or less in place, changes to the kitchen and brewhouse are complete, a gorgeous new mural is painted inside. (The beer garden will get its overhaul later.)
Built in 1873 as home to the First German Methodist congregation, the roughly 3,000-square foot first floor became the Forst Keller Restaurant when Pabst bought the building in 1892. The brewery used the slightly smaller upper floor as a training area.
Pabst Brewing bought back the building in 2016 and renovated it into a brewery and taproom, but that business closed at the end of last year.
On Friday, workers were still inside putting finishing touches on some aspects, but it looks like the much anticipated second taproom and brewery of the Amherst-based craft brewery will be ready for its public opening on Saturday, Oct. 16.
“Just in like the last two hours, it finally felt like it had really come together,” says Anello Mollica, who owns Central Waters with Paul Graham, who was also on site on Friday morning.
General Manager Eric Gutbrod was talking with staff members and Head Brewer Brendan Williamson was in the brewhouse, where he’s been brewing twice a week since Sept. 21 to get beer ready for the opening.
While Pabst had 12 taps on its bar, Central Waters will have 24 and there will likely be two from the lower level brewery there on opening day, with more added as time goes on.
The brewhouse previously had a 7,000 barrel annual capacity, but has been slimmed down with the removal of five fermentation tanks.
“That was just way more than we needed,” says Mollica. “If we brew 1,000 a year that’ll be something.”
The Amherst location brews between 12,000 and 15,000 barrels annually, according to Mollica.
"That's the first thing we did," says Mollica. "There was a lot of fermentation space in here; it was really packed in there.
"So we removed the fermentors on the west wall against the windows and replaced them with a canning line (pictured below).
"We'll be doing four-pack, 16-ounce cans out of here; we'll do releases of whatever beer is getting brewed out of this location."
Mollica says that the breweries in Amherst and Milwaukee will make different beers.
"Whatever's getting brewed down here, we're not making at Amherst."
The canned beers will be available at both locations, but not at retail outside the breweries.
"The fun part with these cans," says Gutbrod, "is that we've been talking to some of our friends who are local artists and we're going to do completely different branding down here.
"We'll still incorporate some of the Central Waters stuff, but it'll have the Milwaukee logo, not the Amherst logo."
The three copper tanks behind the bar, which were never used by Pabst, are fully functional and may be used as bright tanks if the need arises, says Williamson, though not initially.
Upstairs, it's definitely changed and you can't help but immediately notice the boost in warmth. Previously, nearly every surface was painted stark white.
Mollica – who did much of the work himself – spent three weeks painting, adding color to the east and west walls, to the wainscoting throughout the public spaces, to the steps up to the balcony and in the two nooks up there.
There are also new window treatments.
Plus, they added colorful art on the walls – some of the art camouflages sound-dampening panels (pictured below) – and a gorgeous mural by Madison artist Amy Zaremba literally takes center stage.
The mural is a six-panel bottle wall made from beer bottles that are illuminated.
"That bottle wall was here," says Mollica. "When Pabst first opened they had it up and then the two panels on the left and two panels on the right stopped working, so they had covered it up with a curtain.
"We uncovered it, and we racked our brains trying to figure out what exactly we're going to do with that."
Enter Zaremba, who had been on site painting the exterior mural of the Central Waters logo.
"She came up here and was looking at it and I was telling her, 'I don't know what we're going to do here.' She sent over that sketch and I'm like, 'it's perfect'."
There's a central sun flanked by an image of the Northwoods on the left and the Milwaukee skyline on the right.
"I just recently learned about a 'Grammable (Instagrammable) space," says Gutbrod. "So that's probably our 'Grammable space.' We scooted the tables over to the side so people can go up and take their selfies."
Another of the decorations is a large reproduction of a 1999 photo of Mollica and Graham in lab coats.
“We wanted to have a nod to the historic Pabst photos that used to be in here,” says Mollica.
Perhaps the most striking change has come to the bar, where the copper top was removed and replaced with sleek stainless steel. The bar front has been paneled in oak.
The 12-tap fixture was removed from atop the bar and replaced with 24 handles that sit behind and below the bar.
"It's going to be a mix of Amherst beers and beers brewed out of this plant," Mollica says. "Some of the ones here will get canned here for the four-packs. But not all of them. We're still figuring some of those things out."
In the kitchen there were only a few equipment changes, like replacing a flame grill with a flat top to accommodate Dairyland’s needs.
Customers will order food on their phones and pick up at a window, and the restaurant’s operation will be entirely separate from the taproom’s.
Dairyland, says Mollica, will be up and running on opening day.
“We don’t do food in Amherst,” says Mollica. “We’re not known for food, so to have a Central Waters Restaurant didn’t make sense.”
One potential restaurant operator that was interested but unable to make it work suggested Dairyland and when Mollica reached out to a knowledgeable friend, she, too, nominated Dairyland.
“So that was two people (suggesting it) and that’s when I realized I really needed to talk to them,” he says.
Here is a much deeper look at the restaurant operation.
There is currently no plan to continue hosting live music, as Pabst had done.
The taproom and brewery is opening with an all-star cast, populated by experienced brewers, bartenders and managers that have worked at a variety of Milwaukee venues, like Good City and Draft and Vessel, as well as two folks who relocated from Seattle.
“Everyone here and everyone behind the bar will be a rock star,” says Gutbrod, who previously worked at Draft and Vessel in Shorewood and Wauwatosa.
"I'm ecstatic. This has been a great process so far, and once we get the doors open, it's going to be a lot of fun."
"Honestly," adds Mollica, "we couldn't have asked for a better brewer and couldn't have asked for a better GM. We got exceptionally lucky."
With multiple breweries, plus bars and restaurants and hotels and offices and apartments in the Brewery District – plus a new beer-themed bar and restaurant, On Tap, preparing to open across the street, and 115 apartments about to start leasing directly next door – Mollica is bullish on the neighborhood.
“There’s so much going on,” he says. “I feel like this is really an up and coming area.”
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.