A few weeks ago there was a story that received brief mention in the national business press, but which ran front and center on Milwaukee’s radar screen. Miller Brewing Company and Coors plan to merge their US-based beer making operations, in order to reduce administrative overhead to better compete with the 800 pound gorilla of American macro-brewers, Anheuser-Busch.
This is a big deal in Milwaukee because Miller Brewing Company was born here and is still based here. It’s the only remaining industrial-sized macro-brewer still based in Milwaukee. The other three, Schlitz, Blatz and Pabst, have long since faded away, their brand names bought by other beer makers, who brew the original recipes “on contract.” These beers are still out there, but exist under the radar, waiting to be discovered by the hipster set.
Of course, beer-making has never been Milwaukee’s biggest industry, but it always has been its most famous. Back in the 19th Century, a perfect storm of factors came together to make Milwaukee the undisputed capital of American brewing. Plentiful, fresh water, fertile soils nearby for raising barely and hops, bluffs suitable for digging caves — a must-have in the days before refrigeration. Milwaukee’s ambitious early brewers took advantage of these features to produce beer on a scale never before seen.
At some point a big chunk of the drinking public started to develop a taste for pricier craft beers. One by one, the industrial mega-brewers of Milwaukee hit the wall. Schlitz closed up, and its mighty brewery north of Downtown is now an office complex. Blatz closed and now its former brewhouse is a condo building. Pabst closed shop and its brewery is currently being gutted for redevelopment as apartments and offices. Exactly which companies will fill these offices, no one knows. These days, of course, companies tend to locate production to where the labor is cheapest, and professional services locate near major corporate headquarters. Corporate headquarters can be located anywhere. Where that leaves Milwaukee, our vast underemployed workforce, and office space in our reborn downtown and revamped old breweries and warehouses, no one knows.
If Miller merges its corporate headquarters with Coors and moves to Denver, it would be a huge milestone in Milwaukee’s transformation. The trouble is, in a town where the baseball team is called the Brewers, where the huge factories that once employed many thousands of us are no more, where well over half the population is not equipped with the training or education (PDF) to take a “cool” job among the “creative class,” we have a hard time knowing exactly what our city will look like when Old Milwaukee is finally gone for good.