MILWAUKEE — It took only a couple of hours to hear the inevitable.
"What do you have that tastes like Miller Lite?"
In a city made famous by pale and mostly bland beer, I was surprised it took so long.
The question arrived early on a Saturday evening at Good City Brewing, which opened less than a year ago near Milwaukee's handsome, weathered downtown. During a wave of brewery openings in a city most familiar with the classic brands made there — Miller, Schlitz and Pabst — Good City has been particularly popular. But the sudden diversity of beer choice can leave some drinkers befuddled.
The bartender was surprisingly thrown by the question. He briefly wore a pained expression while calculating the options. Ten beers were on tap, five of which were bitter-meets-fruity pale ales, IPAs and double IPA. Those wouldn't work. The most obvious choice, a Pilsner, was probably too robust, he said.
The woman said she wanted something "light" and "smooth."
Finally, the bartender handed her a 1-ounce taste of En Fleur, described by Good City as a "session saison." It was a light, yet heavily herbal Belgian-style beer clocking in at just 3.8 percent alcohol — even less than a Miller Lite. The woman smiled.
"I like that," she said. "I'll have one."
Milwaukee's history is as beer-drenched as any city's in the nation — its baseball team is the Brewers for heaven's sake — but it has been curiously late to the national rise of small and local breweries. During the last decade, the number of breweries in the U.S. has climbed from 1,500 to more than 5,300. Craft beer's share of sales rose from less than 4 percent of the industry to more than 12 percent.
Yet Milwaukee's craft beer scene had remained largely static, highlighted by Lakefront Brewery, which opened in 1988 and began leading lively, beer-swilling tours long before such things were common.
But during the last 14 months, a better-late-than-never renaissance has arrived. At least a dozen new breweries have opened in and around Milwaukee, including Good City, which seems to have been assembled from the modern build-a-brewery playbook: concrete floor, exposed brick wall, Edison bulbs glowing above a blond wood bar and fermentation tanks churning out waves of hoppy beer.
Good City had grown quickly since its June opening last year. It began distributing kegs to local bars a month later and followed by packaging its beer in bottles and cans in December. An eager audience has led Good City to already expand once, putting it on pace to produce a healthy 5,000 barrels of beer by 2018.
The city made famous by Miller, Schlitz and Pabst has rediscovered what else beer can be.
"We had enough of seeing the good things going on in other places," Good City co-founder Dan Katt said. "We felt driven to do something here, especially a taproom similar to what we've seen in Western Michigan, or what Revolution has going on in Chicago, or what's happening in Asheville or Portland."
Other newcomers include Third Space Brewing, which launched a taproom and production brewery along an industrial strip beside the Menomonee River; City Lights Brewing, which opened a few months later less than a mile from Third Space; Black Husky Brewing, which started in 2010 in the tiny town of Pembine but moved to Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood in August; MobCraft Beer, the "world's first crowd-sourced brewery," which launched a taproom and brewery last June after four years in Madison; Urban Harvest Brewing, a tiny spot started by a longtime home brewer; Enlightened Brewing, which moved into an expanded production space and opened a new taproom last summer; Broken Bat Brewing, which opened in April; good old Pabst, which is trying to redefine itself under new ownership as a quasi-craft brewery; and, specializing in some of the most elegant sour and funky beers imaginable, Like Minds Brewing, which opened in October.
For 18 months, Like Minds was a Chicago brewery. Brewer and co-founder John Lavelle commuted from his home in Milwaukee to launch Like Minds in Chicago but sold his Near West Side brewery in recent months. The pub in his hometown, initially a secondary outpost, is now his base of operation.
In Chicago, Like Minds was a familiar example of boundary pushing; Lavelle's beers echoed the type of barrel aging that Goose Island began doing more than 10 years ago. In Milwaukee, Lavelle spends far more time explaining his beer. But audiences are increasingly receptive to the menu, which on a recent Saturday included one of the best beers I've had in ages: Marron Peche, a sour brown ale aged eight months in bourbon barrels, infused with fresh peaches, then aged eight more months in wine barrels.
When he launched Like Minds in summer 2015, much of Milwaukee probably wasn't ready for his beer. But the wave of new openings has helped carve a place for Like Minds.
"The beer nerds have already been ready, but the overall beer market is maturing," Lavelle said. "These new breweries are pushing boundaries and the edges. In Milwaukee, where everyone — myself included — is bred on Miller, it's been unusual but good to see."
New breweries in many cities are playgrounds for the cool — the bearded, the flanneled and the trucker-hatted. Not so in Milwaukee. In true Midwestern style, the taprooms I visited attracted robust, varied and down-to-earth crowds. Until dinnertime, families with kids were more likely to be present than not. Each taproom had at least a few gray-haired folks.
At Black Husky, appropriately enough, an occasionally barking dog sat at the bar. And by 8:15 on a Saturday night, in the cavernous Third Space taproom, a broad cross section of people cradled beer: people wearing trendy clothing labels, a family gathered for a reunion, and even a dozen women at a bachelorette party with the future bride wearing white lace in her hair. Patrons seemed to revel in discovering their new world of beer options.
Six locals in their 40s and 50s joined my eight-top table and spent the next 30 minutes passing around their glasses to figure out what they liked. Among the beers was It Was All a Dream, aptly described on the menu as a "juicy IPA," Acres Edge, a "toasted oatmeal stout," and That's Gold, an approachable German-style kolsch ale.
After that group of drinkers left, five bar-hopping buddies took their place. Nate Voelz, who works in furniture repair, is a lifelong Milwaukee resident who is cautiously optimistic about the beer renaissance in his hometown.
"What's going on is huge," Voelz said. "But I don't know if all these new breweries can survive."
Good City's Katt believes there's enough variation among the new breweries that any operation with a solid business plan will be just fine.
"There's an 'old school versus new school' mentality going on, depending on who you're talking to," Katt said. "The old school would say there's too many new breweries and they can't pay attention to all this."
And the new school?
"The people who have been waiting for it," he said. "Especially considering our great beer history, we owe this to ourselves."