Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Finds Success With Beer Gardens

Over past decade, county revived history of beer gardens in Milwaukee. And it paid off.

By - Oct 8th, 2022 10:12 am
Sprecher Traveling Beer Garden. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Sprecher Traveling Beer Garden. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

For much of its history, Milwaukee has been a beer town.

In the 19th century legions of German immigrants arrived and brought with them a beer culture that survives to this day, even despite the 13 years of prohibition. But one casualty prohibition was the uniquely German cultural institution known as the beer garden.

By some historical assessments, Milwaukee used to be “the undisputed leader in the number (and extravagance) of beer gardens,” a writer of beer history, Carl H. Miller, put it. And nearly a century after prohibition made beer gardens illegal, Milwaukee once again finds itself at the vanguard of this tradition.

A decade ago, Milwaukee County Parks opened its first beer garden in Estabrook Park. What followed was a success even parks department officials didn’t anticipate, and which caught the attention of the national media and cities across the world. Over the past 10 years the beer gardens have had a great impact on the county parks system that can be measured in dollars, parks awareness and, above all, the sense of community that is the purpose of a public parks system.

After all, the beer gardens in Milwaukee have historically been about more than drinking beer. Miller writes, “Lager beer was, perhaps more than anything else, a social icon. It represented family, friends, and German camaraderie. And nowhere was this more true than at the local beer garden.”

In 2011, Hans Weissgerber, owner of Old German Beer Hall, 1009 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., approached the parks department with an idea to do a beer garden, said Joe Mrozinski, parks assistant director of business services. “And we said, ‘Sure, we’ll try selling beer in a park.’”

It began with a one-week trial run. “We tried it, and it was very successful and people liked it,” Mrozinski said. “And we said, ‘Ok, we got something here.’” Parks went on to partner with Weissgerber on the parks system’s first permanent beer garden in Estabrook Park, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary this past spring.

“And the reality is, I believe, we knew we would be successful with opening a beer garden,” said Parks Executive Director Guy Smith, “I don’t think we knew that we were going to have the demand that it created.”

In 2014, the department launched the widely-popular traveling beer garden. Partnering with Sprecher Brewing Co., a vintage fire truck was outfitted as a mobile beer bar. The first stop was Whitnall Park. “And we didn’t know what to expect,” Mrozinski said, who made sure his wife and kids attended, “so at least we had somebody there.” Hundreds of people showed up, he said, and not just for the first night; the entire stop “we had a line 100 people deep.”

The department hoped to generate $100,000 in revenue over the initial run, with six stops running for two weeks each. It ended up raking in $250,000.

Over the past decade, the county’s beer garden program has gone from generating $82,000 in profit, to $2.6 million in 2021 alone. And the gardens are on track to break that record again in 2022, having generated $2.4 million already, with plenty of time left in the season – which now extends into the winter thanks to the chalets at South Shore Terrace.

It’s not only revenue the beer gardens have brought to the parks system, Smith explained. The partnerships with companies like Sprecher and Molson Coors have brought in hundreds of thousands in donations that have paid for things like an ADA-accessible bathroom pavilion, a bike fixing station along the Oak Leaf Trail, tree plantings and more. Molson Coors donated $500,000 to clean up South Shore Beach.

The parks system, like the county at large, has suffered from years of underfunding. State aid to the county has been frozen for more than a decade while the cost to maintain the government simply as-is increases every year with inflation.

“At this point, we’re like 55% cost recovery, which your average park system was like 25%,” Smith said of the revenue structure. “So we’re in the situation where we’re constantly needing to be innovative, and creative to bring in those dollars.”

Smith doesn’t have to think hard about what would have happened over the past decade if the parks system didn’t have the millions in revenue generated by the beer gardens. “It would be a reduction in services,” he said.

Others have noticed the success of Milwaukee’s beer gardens. Mrozinski has fielded calls from all over the U.S. and even cities in Canada, asking how the model works.

The beer gardens have also proven to be a valuable way to reintroduce county residents to the parks’ amenities that already exist. Mrozinski said the department recently hired a company called to help it measure attendance in parks with beer gardens.

What they found was that attendance in a park rises anywhere between 30% and 50% while a traveling beer garden is there. And in the weeks after the beer garden leaves, attendance doesn’t go back down to pre-beer garden levels. “It’s like people were reintroduced to that park,” he said.

While unanticipated, the success of the beer garden program is not exactly shocking, Smith said. Milwaukeeans love their parks and they love their beer. Having a beer, and maybe some food too, in a family-friendly setting, along the lake or one of Milwaukee’s rivers; what’s not to like?

Smith and Mrozinski both explained that the parks department has worked hard to ensure that the beer gardens don’t simply turn into taverns in the parks: last call for beer is at 9 p.m. The beer gardens don’t change the mission of the parks department which is to offer amenities that everyone can enjoy.

This is where Mrozinski, who has worked on the beer garden program since the beginning, sees the success of the gardens veer into territory that can’t be measured in revenue, and attendance numbers.

In the early years of the program, he received calls from county residents raving about the new beer gardens. Two in particular stick out in his mind. One was a woman who called him asking if he had anything to do with them. When he said yes she started crying. “And I’m like, What’s going on here? What, where is this going?.” She explained that her family reunion had been declining in attendance for years. Then she decided to hold it in one of the beer gardens, and she saw cousins and family she hadn’t seen in years and she attributed it to the beer garden.

Another call was from a man who told Mrzoinski that he had been in a “head-nod relationship with his neighbor.” One day the man saw his neighbor at the beer garden and they sat and talked for hours, finding out they actually had a lot in common. “He goes, ‘and I never would have learned that about this neighbor, that I now call a friend.’ And he goes ‘now we don’t do head nods. Now we stop and have a conversation.’”

“In the history of beer gardens in Milwaukee, that’s what it was,” Mrozinski said. “It was people getting together and socializing and conversing about the week’s activities.”

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One thought on “MKE County: County Finds Success With Beer Gardens”

  1. gerrybroderick says:

    Credit Sue Black for establishing these beer gardens. The absence of her imaginative leadership has left a huge gap in Parks Administration.

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