For decades Pabst was one of the major flavors of Milwaukee life. Not just in a bottle, either. Hundreds were employed at the company, thousands took the brewery tour and the Pabst Brewery’s siting on high ground, looming over Downtown meant that it was hard to imagine Milwaukee without Pabst.
But nearly two decades on from its closure, the Pabst Brewery remains part of the fabric of the Downtown area. Slowly, its buildings are finding new life as apartments, taverns, offices, classrooms and hotels.
Photographer Paul Bialas has been working to document the Pabst Brewery buildings in recent years and his pictures - collected in a hardcover book, "Pabst: An Excavation of Art" - show the buildings in their state of limbo, between past activity as a brewery their sparkly new sheen they’re getting as they get dressed up for the future.
"I drove by the Pabst brewery and found the buildings amazing, then hearing that they were abandoned I had to get inside. With permission, of course," says Bialas. "From there, passion and hard work took over."
Bialas says many things drew him to the Pabst site.
"Milwaukee history, the lure of prominent buildings that have been abandoned for decades and the fact that my grandfather and father used to always leave empty Pabst cans around," he says.
"Too me all these things created something extremely exciting ... so exciting that I question ever feeling this way about a future project. If others could be half as excited as I am about these things, then the pictures had to be shared in some form."
So, he began taking photographs. Lots of photographs. Bialas estimates he took about 10,000 images of the Pabst buildings. Deciding what to include, he says, required some assistance.
"The photographs are kind of like children, I couldn't choose what to eliminate," he recalls, "So I had a few people I trusted help me eliminate a few to keep it reasonably sized."
Many of the most engaging photographs in the book – especially in the "Pabst Malt House, Building #25" section – depict signs that warn brewery employees of dangers or remind them of procedures.
The haunting monochrome images and the colorful photographs of peeling paint taken in the brew house are the most evocative, showing the giant vats, gorgeous iron staircases and secret-looking nooks and crannies.
Despite the sheer quantity of photographs he made of these magnificent, often crenelated cream city brick structures – inside and out – he doesn’t hesitate much when asked to name a favorite.
"It is the picture of the employee break room. It is one of the rooms in the book where the room is just as the employees left it decades ago. There is an empty pack of smokes on the table, a Harnischfeger ice cube tray, a boot and an empty bottle of Pabst on the table, out of view is a calendar that reads ‘1985.’ Truly amazing."
Bialas lets the photographs speak for themselves. Other than section titles, which are purely descriptive, there are very few words in his book, which is now in its second self-published edition.
"This is the No. 1 criticism of the book, also the No. 1 compliment," he says. "I think the pictures best tell the story. I did my best to shoot in a way that told the amazing story of the workers and the buildings."
In the back is a list of interesting facts about the brewery and the buildings featured in the book.
"While I researched the brewery I found some really amazing facts and a few stories that I found astounding. I decided to include these facts and stories in the book. The history of the Pabst is gigantic, and I don't scratch the surface in this book, like I said, the pictures best tell the story."
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.