Brian Whitney

Brenner’s next move

By - Sep 12th, 2010 04:00 am
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All photos by Ivy Baucom

Anyone even mildly involved in the Milwaukee art scene is probably familiar with the name Mike Brenner, and for good reason; he was the executive director of the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN) and the owner of the Hotcakes Gallery.

What’s perhaps more memorable is the way his tenure at both of these ventures ended. Namely, he left both posts as a reaction to the efforts to erect a bronze statue of Happy Days’ Arthur Fonzarelli, calling the city “intellectually bankrupt” and going so far as to say that “all my friends were right to leave this city the minute we graduated from high school.”

Harsh words, and the kind of inflammatory statement that usually leads to polarizing opinions. Regardless of how you feel about this city which we call home, it’s ultimately the actions that define our character, and Mike Brenner’s next move might be the one that truly defines his legacy.

But before there was a Hotcakes Gallery, or a MARN, there was a home brewing kit. Back in 1995, Brenner was gifted such a kit, and along with a couple of friends decided to try and make a batch. The results were less than satisfactory.

“I think there were some sanitation issues with how we made it,” he recalls, “and I’m pretty sure nobody drank any of it.”

It was an auspicious debut to be sure, but Brenner never lost interest in the idea of brewing. Over the years, he made several more kit brews, attempting to recreate the taste of New Belgium’s Fat Tire Ale, which he had become accustomed to while attending college in Colorado, but at the time was not available in Milwaukee. After successfully replicating the brew, he began experimenting with his own recipes and specialty ingredients.

After the closing of Hotcakes and his departure from MARN, Brenner got serious. With his student loan money, he purchased a high end home-brewing system and started producing 10 gallons a week. Through trial and error, Brenner discovered his own recipe for a California common beer (what used to be referred to as steam beer, before that term was trademarked by the Anchor Brewing Company for its “Anchor Steam” brew) that was gustatorily pleasing.

At some point, Brenner realized that his interest and aptitude in brewing was opening a new door for his future; he also realized how alcohol — specifically beer — held a controlling interest in the economy, and subsequently, the culture of Milwaukee.

Hi next step was to enroll in the Siebel Institute, a Chicago-based school whose full title (The ‘Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy’) summarizes its mission quite well. This week, Brenner will begin the Master Brewer Program, which contains two parts that will take him approximately one year to complete. Included in this education are extended trips to Munich as well as to several of Europe’s brewing capitals, to give students hands-on experience in the world of professional brewing both in this country and abroad.

Yes, Brenner is attempting to go pro.

Despite the city’s rich brewing tradition, very few beers are made here today — many of the breweries that represent the state are based outside of the city proper. One of the eight Miller breweries is still located here, as well as the Lakefront and Horny Goat breweries. Suffice to say, the so-called glory days of Miller, Pabst and Schlitz are a part of Milwaukee’s past at this point.

Brenner’s goal, after completing his course of study with Siebel, is to start a new brewery here, but more than just that. He never really left the art world, and wants to make the brewery a home for art practitioners as well,  ideally including gallery space in the same facility.

He also intends to put much of the profits from the brewery back into the Milwaukee art scene. The goal is to be able to create capital himself, rather than relying on a world of grants and endowments in the hopes of receiving funding. Brenner learned the hard way with the Bronze Fonz —  the people willing to spend on the arts in this city didn’t have the same goals as he did.

What Brenner wants is to make Milwaukee more than just a jumping off point for artists who are born here, and to challenge the artists that do stay here beyond complacency.

In brewing we see a proud hometown tradition which is only carried on by a scant few, and in the art world a market that a scant few have tried to promote to the public at large. Mike Brenner intends to bridge the gap between these two worlds with a plan that, by his own admission, is wildly ambitious.

Perhaps his wild ambition is the kind of thing Milwaukee truly needs more than anything else, the kind of ambition that causes those friends to leave the city after high school, attempting to find a bigger dream in a bigger city.

Maybe, just maybe, that ambition can make Milwaukee bigger and better than anyone thought possible.

Categories: Life & Leisure

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