How Lakefront Brewery Became a Success
Russ and Jim Klisch started their company when brewing was dying in Milwaukee, and somehow succeeded.
On December 2, 1987, Lakefront Brewery sold its first half barrel. The tiny micro-brewer was born from a passion for beer shared by brothers, Russ and Jim Klisch, and passed down from prior generations. Nearly three decades later, the Lakefront brand has become a local staple with an ever-growing number and volume of beers.
The story of Lakefront Brewery begins at Schlitz Brewery where Russ and Jim’s grandfather worked, and a corner tavern owned by their parents. The young Klisch boys quickly took an interest in brewing, eventually taking up the home brewing hobby. As time went on, the pair grew ambitious with their brewing and attempted to make clones of their favorite brews; for Jim, Anchor Steam, and for Russ, Pilsner Urquell. The fruits of their labor would be the groundwork for what would become two of Lakefront’s original, and now flagship offerings, Riverwest Stein and Klisch Pilsner.
Foregoing the traditional route of learning to brew through an apprenticeship or brewing school, the brothers taught themselves all they needed to know, eventually feeling confident enough in their abilities to open a brewery. But it was not necessarily an auspicious time to start such a business.
“Back in the 80’s there was kind of writing on the wall that breweries would be closing in Milwaukee. We saw an opportunity to open a new brewery,” says Russ Klisch, Founder/Owner/President of Lakefront.
Armed with a small investment, a pair of partners including his brother, a plethora of ideas, and a degree in chemistry, Russ and his partners invested in a former bakery on 818 E. Chamber St. This would be the home of Lakefront Brewery until 1998, when it was moved to its present location at 1872 North Commerce St. on the Milwaukee River.
Over time, the Klisch brothers have steadily increased their company’s lineup with more than 20 lagers and ales available throughout the year and more than 48,000 barrels of beer sold a year. While still heavily involved in their operation, they’re no longer running machines or brewing the beer at this point. Instead, they’re overseeing the operation from the main office.
“We’re the vision. When you make a company you’d like to do everything, but you can’t. And so, you have to pass off certain things. We’ve been blessed to find people who have a similar palate or can make the recipes. That’s one hallmark of being an owner, being able to pass the job off to someone new,” says Klisch. “We’re proud of our employees. Everyone has done well, the community has supported us, and we really feel fortunate for that.”
As time goes on any business is going to have to change with the times to stay relevant. Russ Klisch is always eyeing the latest trends: “One of the trends in beer right now are one offs. You walk into a bar and the first thing the bar owner ask is what’s new? If you don’t have new stuff you’re not going to be relevant anymore.” So Klisch helped develop a series of one-off beers called Myturn. The name comes from the fact that each beer is named for and developed by an employee of Lakefront Brewing Co.
“The divergence of styles we’ve had is amazing. There’s nothing that’s similar, and they’ve all won awards. It’s really great for morale around here,” says Klisch. And when it comes to the Myturn series, he says, everyone is excited about getting their beer.” The series has included a number of varying styles and hybrids including Imperial pilsner, dunkelweizen, barley wine style ale, and rauchsbier.
According to Klisch, the reception for the Myturn series has been overwhelming, allowing for some beers to stay in production far longer than expected. One particular fan of the series is Stubby’s Gastropub on North Humboldt. All of the Myturn brews have been proudly served on tap there.
With the explosion in craft brewing in America in recent years, many more are jumping into the hobby. Many wonder how to go about getting a job at a craft brewery and Russ Klisch has the answer:
“You can start your own. Start real small to the point where you can afford it, or at least get your cash flow going. That’s the biggest reason brewers go out of business. It’s not because their beer isn’t good, it’s they bought too much and have to pay too much (in costs). The other way is to get some schooling. UC-Davis is the best way to go. It’s very expensive, but you’re almost guaranteed a job. Then there’s Siebel, a lot of people who’ve worked here have gone to Siebel” — the technology institute in Chicago that teaches courses in brewing.
Getting a job with a brewery isn’t as easy as showing up with the right credentials and asking for a job. Breweries like Lakefront operate with small crews and turnover is generally quite small, so scoring that dream job at a brewery is a mixture of natural skill, professional training, determination and pure luck. Lakefront and many brewers often prefer a professionally trained brewer over a home brewer. Klisch recommends following your heart and honing your craft because the ideal brewer should offer both passion for and knowledge of the craft of brewing.