Miller High Life may not be as hip as it has been in years past. Millennials, who are the largest target demographic for beer companies, crave craft beers and micro brews, claiming mass marketed beer tastes bland and boring. However, I am from Wisconsin and take pride knowing that a city from the state boasts the nickname Brew Town. So a tour of one of Milwaukee’s famous breweries, a historic testament of the second largest beer company in the world, was a must.
The place they call Miller Valley is an 82-acre facility, mixing functional buildings and ones with rustic aesthetics. It is by no means Miller Coors’ largest compound, having one in Colorado a massive five miles. However, the Miller Brewing Company has been brewing beer at the site since 1855, with prohibition being the only time production of beer was halted.
The size of Milwaukee may intimidate you if you’re from a rural area. If you fear getting lost or don’t want to get caught on busy city streets, relax. The traffic is light once you’re off the freeway and if the GPS fails, signs are posted from I 94 to the attractive parking lot of the visitor’s center.
When I arrived, after a brief gander in the parking lot, I strolled into a sleek and appealing visitor’s center, being greeted by two smiling attendants behind a ticket counter. Very warmly, they checked my ID, handed me free tickets for the tour and directed me toward a gentleman who took our picture. (they offer the print, along with other goodies, for $25 dollars at the end of the tour)
After a brief wait, the tour began with a short film, offering a partly informative and partly promotional overview. Starting with the genesis of the company (Frederick Miller’s purchase of the plank road brewery from the Best brothers), it offers some history of Miller Brewing including a folksy tale about the origins of its Iconic logo-the girl in the moon. The film also includes Miller Coors’ partnering in the community and lists the events and sports teams the company sponsors.
After the film, two tour guides started our trek of four city blocks and five destinations. The walk alone is pleasant, as you pass refurbished facades and architectural artistry of a rustic nineteenth century tone.
Our first stop was the bottling plant, where we had a birdseye view of the plant floor through plate-glass windows. As the state of the art machinery operated before my eyes, the tour guide popped off some rather mind blowing facts. Bottling 1,400 bottles a minute and 2,000 cans in the same time frame, the plant yields 300,000 cases a day. Another plant in the facility bottles another 200,000. That’s a staggering 500,000 cases per day. Considering that in 1855 Frederick Miller produced a grand total of 300 barrels his first year, that’s some serious evolution.
The next stop was not awe-inspiring, at least not for me. Simply what they call their distribution center is, for all intents and purposes, a giant warehouse. The beer journeys to ten western states from this place, of course after being stacked on pallets and shrunk wrapped. 40 percent of the beer leaving the distribution center finds its way to the city of Chicago.
The guides warn of a long stair climb and rather hot temperatures at the next stop, providing a waiting area for those who prefer not to endure such conditions. However we found the climb to be moderate. As for the heat, it was quite warm wich makes the destination that follows all the better.
First off, however, you find your self on a cat walk in the brew house, face to face with the lauter tuns and gazing down on the stainless steel boiling kettles. I’ve never brewed beer, although it is an aspiration of mine, so I don’t understand the lautering process. I also really don’t know why they boil the wort. That being said, this place was fantastic, surveying the image of mass brewing at its finest. The fermentation area, where they apply Miller’s secret brewing yeast, is mentioned at this point but not part of the tour.
As great as the brew house was, the next stop was the highlight of the tour. Caves, reaching 60 feet underground, once stored the products of the brewery. Ice, from nearby lakes, was transported and packed in the caves to keep barrels of beer fresh.
Today they have been refurbished, dimly lit with lamps of archaic design. Although I have never ventured in a medieval cathedral, these caves ignite that sensation as you pass through its stone arches. While the group gazed upon a painted mural. the projected image of an actor portraying Frederick Miller tells you the tale of the caves, a spectral image relevant in such a setting.
I have mentioned that the beer caves were the highlight, however the last stop runs a very close second. Earlier, I had told you that the friendly ticket attendants checked my ID. If you are twenty one or older, the tour ends with three sample size beers, as you relax in a trendy and casual courtyard known as the Beer Garden. Demonstrating the company’s ability to evolve with changing markets, three of the six choices of beer are from Miller Coors’ craft brand, Lienenkugel’s.
It’s here that I think of the positive influences of beer, with so much attention given to the adverse effects of alcohol. From very early man, people have been congregating with the assistance of the beverage. I think this as I am in the presence of good company both old and new, just as folks have been doing since we thought to write history down.
Whether its home brew, micro brew, craft beer, imported or mass marketed this drink has roots in this country and the world, being the third most popular drink behind water and tea. It’s present at weddings, parties, festivals, concerts and sporting events. Even if you choose not to consume alcohol, you can’t deny its influence as a social beverage.
I would recommend this tour to anyone, the guides are well rehearsed and provide you with a great deal of information. As I have mentioned the tour is free, being about an hour long. We soaked in the great weather at the Beer Garden and lingered in the gift shop, browsing a great assortment of T’s and hoodies- spending two hours total. It’s informational, intersting, fun and relaxing- a great way to burn a late morning or early afternoon.