We Took the Free Riverwest Brewery Shuttle Bus. Here’s How it Went.
Shuttle is a welcome amenity, encourages locals and tourists alike to explore beyond Downtown.
One of the more common forms of mass transit in Milwaukee is the party bus, which comes in many iterations ranging from the yellow box you rode to grade school to the extravagant coaches rock stars use for concert tours. Some of Milwaukee’s larger taverns (and even some neighborhood ones) operate their own fleets, ferrying their customers to a sports game or music festival, betting that the regulars will return to home base after the festivities to down another couple quick ones. We’ve got pedal taverns, where you can drink and bike your way to bars, and even a paddle tavern, where you can do the same by boat traveling to shoreline saloons.
The Riverwest Brewery Syndicate offers a free Saturday bus shuttle service to the five breweries now operating in the neighborhood.
According to a release announcing the new amenity:
Beginning October 22nd, and continuing each Saturday (except for holiday weekends), the FIVE-THREE-BREW-ONE-TWO shuttle will run in a continuous 35 minute loop between ALL FIVE Riverwest brewery taprooms from 2-7 pm. Patrons can hop on and hop off at any of the 5 breweries throughout the 5-hour period as many times as they would like. There is no cost to ride the shuttle, we just ask that patrons treat the driver well and stick to consuming their beverages in the taprooms!
Armed with this information, I arrived at Lakefront Brewery, 1872 N. Commerce St., on Oct. 29 well before the 2 p.m. launch of the shuttle, which begins its loop at the brewery, Riverwest’s oldest and largest, and one of the city’s top tourist destinations. It was a good place to begin, as it is located on the southern end of the loop and is easily accessible to the homes of thousands of nearby residents and convenient to the hotels of tourists.
About eight of us boarded the compact white coach which bore a discreet logo near the door. The vehicle had comfortable seats, ample windows and a suspension that felt as if it were borne on marshmallows as the bus headed up N. Humboldt Blvd., currently a construction zone. Promptly at 2:08 p.m., right on schedule, we arrived a mile-and-a-half north at Company Brewing, 735 E. Center St. As soon as we disembarked, the bus headed north on the way to its next stop, just a few blocks away.
How the Shuttle Differs from a Pub Crawl
This drop-them-off-and-depart schedule differs from the ordinary. In most instances a bus tour of five drinking establishments involves the bus dropping off an entire load of passengers at a given location, idling while they soak up the atmosphere and their beers before heading en masse to the next stop, where the procedure is repeated. Such a “Pub Crawl” model is more popular with the crawlers than with the staffs and regulars of the taverns involved. For one thing, bartenders (especially on the final legs of a tour or their shift) are not fond of being swamped by a crowd of dozens, all of whom expect immediate service, certainly before any of the loyal customers already on their customary stools, who will never see these people again, thank goodness. Nobody gets good service, and the bartender gets no tips. ‘Tis better all around to have a steady trickle of customers during each of the shuttle’s nine passes during its five-hour run.
Tim said he has taken similar neighborhood tours in other cities and often found them (the tours, the neighborhoods and the cities) somewhat wanting, whereas Riverwest has much to offer in addition to its breweries. Unlike a pub crawl, participants are not limited to a short list of venues. He thinks the bus will give tourists a chance to explore the neighborhood, which I consider to be the nation’s largest intact late-19th-to-early-20th-century working-class community. We ordered beers and were just down to the last sip as the bus appeared outside, discharging passengers, boarding new ones and taking right off, leaving us behind.
Perhaps if our phones had vibrated when the bus approached, much as when a rideshare has arrived, we would have slammed rather than sipped. Undaunted, we took off on foot to the next stop, Amorphic Beer, 3700 N. Fratney St., nearly a mile to the north. This brewery, in operation for less than a year, is in a former industrial building such as is common in the northern reaches of the neighborhood. A great novelty is the design of the tappers, the handles of which are vintage shop tools, still to be found in Riverwest estate sales of the many longtime neighbors who were employed in the skilled trades.
The final stop on the circuit is Gathering Place Brewing Company, located on the same block as Amorphic at 811 E. Vienna Ave., a mere two-minute walk away. Here the neighborhood is much more industrial and less densely populated than the rest of the area. The owners, lamenting the lack of foot traffic, are in the process of opening a taproom in a busy stretch of W. North Ave. in Wauwatosa, another community that could benefit from a regular tourist shuttle from downtown, as would its burgeoning neighbor West Allis. The Gathering Place stop is 2.5 miles north of Lakefront Brewery, the point of origin for this journey, and only 11 minutes away by shuttle, with no intervening stops on the way. (Note that the final bus of the evening departs at 6:40 p.m. and does not return to Lakefront. All good things must come to an end.)
Response from the Brewers
After the first week of service, I asked members of the Riverwest Brewery Syndicate what they thought of the shuttle.
“I thought the bus went well,” said Russ Klisch, CEO and co-founder of Lakefront Brewery. “The first time early early in the day, I saw eight people get on. And on the second time I saw it, 28 people get on. Looks like it could be a great addition to the neighborhood.” Toni Eichinger said, “The bus was awesome!” Ron Hockersmith of Amorphic said, “We had 10-15 people hopping off at our place with each lap, so I think it went well!” Chris Geick wrote: “This past Saturday’s Riverwest Brewery Syndicate Shuttle went great! We had roughly 8-10+ people consistently hopping on and off here at Company; the other breweries considered it a similar success too!”
The Shuttle as a Tool for Neighborhood Tourism Development
If the Riverwest Brewery Syndicate shuttle proves to be a success, it could serve as a template for similar tours that would lure visitors beyond the downtown venues and let them experience Milwaukee the way residents do — in the city’s many neighborhoods. There has long been conflict between Downtown and the neighborhoods when it comes to access to economic opportunity, and the truth is Milwaukee’s residential neighborhoods like Riverwest, Brady Street, Harambee, Walker’s Point, Bay View and others have a party infrastructure that would put the main drags of many a metropolitan area to shame. Yet it is not always easy to get tourists away from the tourist traps. Great strides are being made with our Bublr Bikes bike-sharing program, and the extension of The Hop to neighborhoods will also benefit the neighborhoods.
There is a good chance that tours similar to the Riverwest Brewery Syndicate shuttle originating from high-density locations like downtown and the Historic Third Ward and branching out to the neighborhoods could be successful and add to the city’s charm and vitality. This is not idle speculation, since in 2024 Milwaukee will host the Republican National Convention, which will bring thousands of delegates and others to our city. Mayor Cavalier Johnson, a Democrat, welcomes the convention, and invited all of the Republicans to “spend all of their money” here. But why should it all be spent Downtown, when there are worlds to explore within a few miles’ radius of City Hall?