A little more than a year after we reported that Neenah’s Lion’s Tail Brewing was seeking to build a brewery and taproom in the former Wisconsin Garden and Pet Supply, 8520 W. North Ave., in Wauwatosa, the taproom, at least, is now set to open.
Wisconsin Garden & Pet Supply operated for 68 years in Wauwatosa until it closed at the end of July 2021.
Once the brewery had drawings from Tosa-based Galbraith Carnahan Architects and received approvals from the City of Wauwatosa in mid-September, construction began to convert the two buildings and create a connector corridor that also includes restrooms.
Construction inside sped along but for passersby it might’ve seemed like an October opening was out of the question.
“It's been a crazy couple of weeks,” says Lion's Tail Vice President of Operations and Marketing Nick Leak, who is supervising the project from his home nearby. “We quite literally did a month or two of construction in two weeks; kicked it into high gear.
“People driving past would've said, ‘There's no way they're opening in mid-October’ to all the sudden it looks like this.”
By the time I visited on Tuesday morning, there had been two private soft opening events, including one for friends and family on Saturday and another on Sunday for brewing industry folks.
“Our plan is to turn on the lights on Friday,” says Leak, who says there are still a few construction punch list items that need tending to.
“Lots of little fixes,” he says, “but the place is ready to go and ready to run. The only people who will notice (those things) are those of us who have been here 12 hours a day every day for the past year.”
One obvious thing missing is the brew system, but the plan has always been to add that later. Leak expects the system to be installed and fired up next year.
“We'll start brewing down here next fall or winter,” he says. “We just expanded our brewery up in Neenah, so that's going get us through until we need to brew down here. We have a bunch of extra capacity up in Neenah now.”
Leak says that there was extra brewing capacity already but that tanks were upgraded to create more fermentation and storage capacity.
“We were on pace this year to produce about 1,700 or 1,800 barrels,” he says, “but we could essentially do double that if we needed to. So we got rid of any 10 barrel tanks and we had both fermentors and brites and upgraded those to 15 barrels or 20-barrel brites.
“We also took over a former photo studio in our building, so we expanded our production space. We moved our packaging line so now we can brew and package beer on the same day, whereas we never could before. We always had to literally switch out the brewery (to package), so now we can do both.”
As you may have read here back in July when we checked in for a progress report, the former garden center building is now a taproom with seating arrayed around a central bar with 24 taps. There are also tables along a couple of the walls and a garage door that opens to the patio.
On the west wall is a cooler with packaged beer to go.
Through the corridor is the former pet supply building which is home to the future brewhouse and more taproom table seating.
Here’s there’s a small bar with a couple taps that can be used when the taproom is busy or when this side of the facility is rented for private parties and events.
A railed-off opening looks down into the lower level space where the brew system will be installed.
In this side, there’s an Instagram-ready mural painted by Spencer Nolan Young, whose work can be seen on the fences around Lambeau Field and at Lion's Tail's Neenah brewery.
Young also painted an exterior mural on the 86th Street side of the building.
On the two-story wall along the brewhouse space there’s a giant logo mural and on the floor below, two Tosa East students will paint a temporary mural before the system is installed.
“They've started painting it,” says Leak as we look down at the taped shapes of a beer mug and glasses. “We're trying to bring in the neighborhood and connect to the community. We’re going to have them sign it so that you can see who they are.”
Leak says that the neighborhood has embraced the project and even some who were skeptical have now become friends.
“I sit here working at at the bar and, it's not a joke, every five minutes a neighbor walks up and is like looking in the window or trying to pull on the door,” he says. “So, we've had a lot of neighbors excited about the place and I think once we turn on the lights officially, people are going to be in here and really pumped.
“I think the biggest, my happiest moment was on Saturday we had the Gerlachs back – the former owners of garden and pet center,” Leak says.
“We had their whole family here, all the former owners, a bunch of their kids, and got to walk them through and show them how we'd respected parts of the space that they had and tried to update those and then how we made some changes, too.
“It was great to see them walking through and get to experience the space with them for the first time. They were excited, there were tears, and I think a lot of them were happy tears to see that it had become something exciting. But it was overwhelming: it's a huge change from the former pet center. And if for 67 years you've had it one way and it looks like this now ... .”
The patio space is likely to be extremely popular, with its roof and long heaters hanging from the ceiling. It will likely be something close to a year-round space.
In season, there will be a food truck on site whenever possible and there’s a dedicated space for it outside, between the two buildings.
There are also QR codes on all the tables at Lion’s Tail that will allow patrons to order hot food that will be delivered from Sendik’s across the street, seven days a week.
The transformation of the space is pretty phenomenal and the spaces are beautiful.
“The way we've kind of described it to people is the traditional taproom side or the former garden side is very much what Lion's Tail has been,” explains Leak. “You see a lot of our brand, you see a lot of our history, there's a lot of connections to the Neenah Taproom: the look, the feel is the history of Lion's Tail.
“Then you walk over to this brewhouse side, the former pet side of the location, and this is, ‘where do we want to go?’ So this is the urban feel of Lion’s Tail, kind of the street art, which ties in a lot of the colors and the graphics that we have on our labels.
"It's a shift to the new Lion’s Tail and who we want to become. So we're tying together the history and the future of what we are in this design.”
The taproom will be open 3-10 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays; noon-11 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; and noon-7 on Sundays.
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.