It’s Heaven for Home Brewers
Since 1969, The Purple Foot has been supplying metro area home beer or wine makers.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing as a hobby that didn’t require the payment of an excise tax. Since then, thousands of Americans have taken on the hobby. Though the hobby is growing every year, many commercial shops that supply home brewers have closed their doors. Yet one Milwaukee shop has stood the test of time.
Opened in 1969 by Ken and Clara Geist, The Purple Foot (3167 S. 92nd St.) is one of Milwaukee’s last-remaining, family-owned home beer and wine making shops. Though the Geists sold the company in 1983 to longtime colleagues and German immigrants, Jerry and Mary Uthemann, the shop has been in the Uthemann family ever since with their daughter, Karen Lau, now in charge of the family business.
Though she credits her parents with building the store up to its current state, Karen’s leadership has been instrumental in keeping the business afloat during the tough economic times of the Great Recession. Her secret to success is a mix of smart business and hobby experience.
“I try to make sure my pricing is fair and reasonable, but enough to keep the doors open. I provide the expertise that many places didn’t or don’t have. My staff is very qualified. They are all avid home brewers, home wine makers…cider, mead, wine, you name it, we’re fermenting it,” says Lau.
Another secret to the success of Purple Foot is that the shop offers exactly what the customers want. Given the ever-changing trends in craft brewing, this means an extensive inventory is in order. It’s a far cry from the days when most home brewers were simply working with the primary four ingredients – hops, malt, water, and yeast.
In more recent years, Lau notes, “people began getting out there on the boundaries, adding fruit, citrus, herbs, and all kinds of things that were nontraditional. That was a little odd for me being that my dad taught me how to brew under the old German brewing laws,” says Lau, referring to the long standing German Beer Purity Law, which originated in the Holy Roman Empire and restricted the ingredients of beer to just water, hops, and malt. Fortunately for modern German brewers, the law was changed to allow for wheat, cane sugar, and yeast to be used legally – yeast was not known to be an essential ingredient in older times as beer was often brewed in open vats allowing for airborne yeast to inoculate the beer.
Responding to this and other changes in the brewing world, the Purple Foot began carrying beer kits that came in a variety of styles. Yet, as with anything new, there were some kinks to work out.
“Many years ago kits were very tinny, very light, and very weak,” Lau notes. And “they weren’t very creative.” But that’s changed. “Over the last few years there’s been a lot of competition in the brewing industry. What starts to happen is the manufacturers get creative and make a better product to compete with each other. When that happens, the home brewers win.”
Indeed. Take a walk down the beer ingredients aisle at the shop and a curious home brewer will find dozens of kits, each with the ingredients for a different style, whether it be a scotch ale, India pale ale, smoked porter, Russian imperial stout or gluten-free ale. You’ll find all kinds of fruit flavorings, from apple to blackberry, banana and watermelon, and a huge selection of whole grains (about 50 different varieties) for all-grain brewing, though that’s a method best saved for the more advanced brewers. Of course, everyone had to start somewhere, even the local beer champions like Sprecher and Lakefront.
“There probably isn’t anybody out there that starts a craft brewery that hasn’t started in their basement, attic, closet, or wherever they have space,” Lau notes. “The craft-brew industry wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the home-brew industry. There’s a little give and take. ”
It’s well known that Randy Sprecher and Lakefront’s Klisch brothers both started out in the basement replicating their favorite foreign styles. In fact, Sprecher is a well-known customer of Purple Foot and a family friend. The story goes that a conversation between Sprecher and Lau’s father regarding Randy’s early experiment with root beer syrup led to his company’s hard root beer product.
Ever dedicated to the brewing industry as a whole, it’s not uncommon for the Purple Foot team to be found at many of the beer-related events around town including the recent World of Beer Festival. Lau and her team often bring samples of their home brewed beer and wine to such events for prospective customers and fellow beer lovers to enjoy. Recently her staff has been brewing pineapple ale, blood orange hefeweizen, and a blended red wine. (The store’s staff has a combined 75 years of experience.)
Unfortunately, due to local laws, the shop cannot sell what the staff produces, so for a chance to try one of these delightfully strange brews, be sure to attend one of many upcoming beer festivals. In the meantime, stop by The Purple Foot some time and see what all this talk of home brewing is about. You just might walk out with your first beer kit, but fear not, you’ll be on your way to making great beer the old fashioned way.
The Purple Foot
3167 S. 92nd Street, Milwaukee
Hours: Monday-Friday 9:30-6:00; Saturday 9:30-4:00; Closed Sunday