Just under two years ago, Public Craft Brewing moved from its 1917 red brick building on 58th Street in downtown Kenosha a few doors east to a much more spacious 1910 red brick building.
There are so many beautiful vintage buildings in the heart of Kenosha that the brewer could move to a new one every couple years and not run out of options for a long time.
But I think this time, it’s planning to stay a while.
“We are excited to have this opportunity to work with the city to restore such a beautiful old building,” Mike Wimmer, chief executive officer of Witico told the Kenosha News after he purchased the building, 628 58th St., from the city for $1 in January 2019.
“It’s a win-win situation for us and the city. We’ll be able to put our expertise at developing retail and commercial spaces to work in our hometown, and the city will be able to put a major, downtown building back on the tax rolls.”
Wimmer partnered with Public Craft’s Matt Geary to install the brewery in the new building’s main floor, where there’s a taproom and kitchen, and lower level, where the production side is located, along with a second taproom space that’s open for events and overflow.
Witico spent more than $5 million restoring the building, which was erected as a home for the Barden Store.
Hugh Barden opened the store as Barden & McArdle on Sixth Avenue in 1891 with his brother-in-law M.H. McArdle. Five years later, the dry goods store moved to a larger space, and in 1906, Barden bought out McArdle, renamed the store and bought the site on the corner of 58th Street and Seventh Avenue where he built a large new two-story home.
Three years later, he put on an addition at the back, and his business remained in the nearly 22,000-square-foot complex until 1985, when it moved to the lovely Art Deco Alford Building across Seventh Avenue.
Omega Candle opened in the old building (as did a pizzeria for a time), remaining there until 2006. After a long vacancy, the City of Kenosha bought the building in 2017 for $200,000.
Now, the old Barden Store has an event space called Upper East on the second floor, and the brewery below.
As you approach you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s still a department store in the building because Public Craft has created seating areas in the old elevated display windows with groupings of furniture that look almost like showroom displays in different styles.
In the foyer there’s still a display case and inside tin ceilings and ornate moldings survive, too.
There’s a beautiful bar in the center of the space, with seating arrayed around the room, plus foosball and a shuffleboard table, along with a cooler full of canned beer to go.
In the back, on the right, there are big windows down into the production area with its gleaming tanks, and on the left, a dedicated performance space, which hosts live music and comedians multiple nights a week.
Just behind that, there’s a green room for performers that is one of the nicest I’ve seen.
Downstairs, there’s a canning line in a low-ceilinged space next to the brewhouse and a dark, almost speakeasy bar area where ex-whiskey barrels hold beers that are finishing.
Connecting these spaces are a corridor where part of the floor preserves an old cobblestone floor with rail track embedded.
Showing me around is Quinn Ryan, who tells me about how Geary got started in brewing.
“Matt started it as a home brewer,” he says. “He started home brewing pretty early on in the whole home brew craze, and he had been working in the graphic design world and said, ‘You know what?’
“He loved doing the beer thing. He'd done enough of the professional career stuff and then thought, ‘maybe we could give it a go.’ And when you looked at the distribution of craft here, even regionally, it was like Kenosha was this gaping hole in the map.”
Coincidentally, unbeknownst to one another, Greg York was also eying opening a Kenosha brewery and his Rustic Road opened a block away within a week of Public Craft’s debut.
“We've been buddies ever since that, because it was like, ‘we're the only two’,” says Ryan.
Now, others are in the game, too, including R’Noggin and Kenosha Brewing Company, plus two more in nearby Racine.
“It really is starting to become destination driven,” says Ryan. “You’ve got more than four or five breweries and now it's like, you got to spend a whole weekend here to visit them. So it's becoming much more of a location for people who are beer people to say, you could spend a whole weekend here, no problem, and hit a bunch of stuff.”
Geary opened in the old place nine years ago with a four-barrel system and after a few months added distribution to retail via kegs and, later, a mobile canning line. Soon after, Public Craft bought its own canning line.
“But then the decision was made that we needed to either grow or dial back and just become a three-man show,” says Ryan. “Because as distribution ramped up, we got more brand recognition.”
And, with impeccable timing, Geary connected with Wimmer.
“Then along came Mike, and we went from four barrels to 15.”
Far from being a three-man show, Pubic Craft now employs about twoSo, you’ dozen people, including restaurant and taproom staff.
That includes Chef Nesto DeArmas, who is turning out some top-notch taproom food, including great tacos and some of the best curds around.
As for the beer, Ryan says Public Craft is devoted to moderation, tinkering at the fringes but always staying rooted in tradition.
“I think people love dabbling in the extreme of things, but we all default back to the things that are genuinely accessible to most people, because we live within a threshold anyway, and pushing the extremes on either end is a lot of fun,” he says.
“But we mostly live in a middle ground. As much as I enjoy opening some of the really heavily fruited beers right now, like super fruit stuff, I enjoy the technical expertise that goes behind making something like that. But it doesn't, to me, beat an English pale ale or an Oktoberfest.”
So, while you’re find a grapefruit radler and a mango kolsch, those flavors are tasteful, never overbearing and they sit on a tap list that includes some flagships in classic styles.
There’s Bits and Pieces brewed with mosaic hops; Bone Dry Stout, which is a tribute to Guinness; Perception Porter; Amber Sunrise ale; and K-Town Brown Ale.
Ryan says that customers supported Public Craft during the pandemic but the move to the larger building was also a boon.
“In the old space, we would have fit like 15 people,” he says. “Here at least, it was manageable. Obviously, not as robust as anybody wants them to be. But we were hiring. We didn't lose a single person. We're begging to hire people, we’ve got growth coming. So it's amazing.”
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.