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In Bars & Clubs

One of Milwaukee's craft beer pioneers, Jim McCabe.

Milwaukee Talks: Milwaukee Brewing Co.'s Jim McCabe

The Milwaukee Brewing Company started 17 years ago as a small craft brewing operation inside the Milwaukee Ale House, 223 N. Water St.

According to co-owner Jim McCabe, packaging beer at an off-site facility was always part of the vision, but one that took a bit longer to achieve than originally planned.

Six years ago, McCabe – who now owns the business with Jim Hughes – finally opened a craft brewery, Milwaukee Brewing Co., at 613 S. 2nd St.

"We always wanted to open a brewery in Milwaukee and do what the Klisch brothers (from Lakefront Brewery) were doing or the Sprecher stuff back in the '80s," says McCabe.

The brewery was founded on principles of crafting and creating beers using local ingredients and suppliers in a sustainable, creative and innovative environment.

Today, the brewery offers 19 different beers and produces about 12,000 barrels annually.

Recently, sat down with McCabe and talked Milwaukee, family, big decisions and, of course, beer. You were working for a decade as an engineer before you went into the brewing business. How did this major career change evolve?

Jim McCabe: Yes, I was an environmental engineer for 10 years for CH2M Hill and I often traveled for business and for fun to Oregon, the state of Washington and Denver. I saw what was happening with craft beer in those places and as an engineer and a lover of the products, I couldn't believe Milwaukee – such a great beer town – was falling behind.

I wanted to take the West Coast beers and give them a Midwest slant. But in the '90s, it was tough. It was clear that if you wanted to just package craft beer, you would have to keep your day job. And I didn't want to do that, so we opened the brew pub. Then, it was really the only way to do it.

The brew pub was an excellent way to introduce people to full-flavor beer and to get our toe in the water and establish ourselves.

OMC: Why was it so tough to sell craft beer in the '90s? Did consumers' tastes change that much over the years?

JM: I don't think the consumers changed. They were trending in the right direction at a fairly steady pace. The problem was retail stores had no where to put craft beer – or they weren't willing to make space for it. So there was little access and distributors didn't care much about it.

The other issue was there were a lot of breweries making bad beer, which turned people off so they went back to their yellow, fizzy stuff.

But slowly, people's tastes kept evolving and their interest in better beer continued to be there.

In the early 2000s, imports helped the craft movement with effective marketing and, in some cases, really good beer.

During this time, craft beer got better, had a chance to get its thing together, and people became used to spending a little more on beer because they were buying more imports.

Finally, the distributors started handling it and the consumer demand went up and the age demographic expanded. People of all ages were interested in drinking better beer.

But it was a long haul. When we opened the Ale House, we would try to serve a Louie's Demise – roughly a 39-degree ale – and people wanted it in a frosted mug. They thought it was too warm. It was brutal in those days. But now, it's totally different. Consumers are so much more knowledgeable. They pay more attention to beer.

It's really exciting. It's no longer a fad or a trend – it's a complete change in people's attitudes and understanding of craft beer.

OMC: So do you still own the Milwaukee Ale House?

JM: I do. I do not own the Grafton location anymore, however. We sold the business and the rights to the name.

OMC: Where did you grow up?

JM: Buffalo, N.Y. It was a great place to grow up. It has a similar climate to Milwaukee – it has a little more terrain – and a lot of square-block neighborhoods like Bay View or Riverwest or the East Side.

My dad was an engineer for Morton Salt and he was transferred to the Midwest, so we moved to the suburbs of Chicago. That's where I went to high school.

I moved to Milwaukee when I started at Marquette University. I loved the urban campus. I loved being in the middle of the city.

When I attended, Marquette was more of a commuter college than it is now, so most of the people I became fast friends with were from Milwaukee and they took me on a "back door" tour of the city. I got to know Milwaukee in a very visceral, hometown sort of way. And I fell in love with the city and decided to make a career here.

I always thought I would move to the mountains. I really love Denver and the Seattle area. Then I had the chance to move there – I was offered what I thought was my dream job and the chance to transfer to Denver.

I thought about it. I had no kids at the time. All I had was myself. I knew that it was time to either move to Denver or to do something else, something completely different.

Few people (in the engineering world) understood my decision at the time. But now they get it. They see I'm working my ass off, but I'm having a lot of fun.

OMC: What were some of the reasons why you decided to stay and open a brew pub instead of move to Denver and take your dream job?

JM: I loved the idea of waking up in the mountains, but there just isn't the same vibe as there is here. And there's a permanence here that I really like. It seemed like there was a lot of transience in these other cities. Most of Seattle was made up of Californians and Denver was filled with people from all over.

And I kept thinking that Milwaukee had such a strong beer history, but very little exposure to craft beer at the time. I wanted to help introduce Milwaukee to the types of products I was falling in love with.

So, I decided to stay here and I figured I could always go back if this thing doesn't work out. People thought we were nuts, but I quit my day job in early summer and opened the Ale House in October.

OMC: Why did you pick Walker's Point for the location of the brewery?

JM: I really love this area. And at the time, there was so much happening on Kinnickinnic – in Bay View – and Walker's Point became this connector between KK and Downtown.
With everything happening at the time, it just really made sense, even though it was years before the neighborhood became the foodie neighborhood it is today.

OMC: Where do you live with your family?

JM: We live in Mequon. We moved when my wife was pregnant with our oldest daughter. We now have three girls, ages 13, 11 and 10.

OMC: So you're the only dude in the house?

JM: Yep. Dad's got the ultimate garage brewery and a house full of women. Even the dog's a female. It's five women and me.

The girls are at the perfect ages. I really can't spend enough time with them.

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