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Brew City loses its oldest brewery

gate October 31, 1996
Web posted at: 11:45 p.m. EST

From Reporter Lisa Price

MILWAUKEE (CNN) -- Milwaukee has never had an identity crisis -- as one city resident said, "We've been Brew City for 135 years."

But Pabst, the city's oldest brewery, is leaving town after 152 years. Its departure highlights a sharp divide between perception and reality in this beer town.


Of all its famous breweries, only Miller remains. Schlitz, "the beer that made Milwaukee famous," was bought out by Stroh in 1981, and is now produced in Detroit. Blatz and Old Milwaukee have abandoned their breweries here, too. Pabst will shut down its factory by December 31, becoming the latest in a long list of legacy lagers leaving town.

pabst Auggie Pabst is the great-grandson of Pabst founder Capt. August Pabst. He reminisced about better days for the Milwaukee brewery. "Our brewery started before Wisconsin became a state, and of course, back in those days our market was about as big as (the distance) a horse and wagon could go and return in one day."

Over the years, business boomed. During the 1970s, Pabst ranked third in sales nationally.

But crushing competition, mismanagement and union disputes combined to produce a bitter blend. Now, Pabst has dropped to number six. With the Milwaukee plant producing at a tiny fraction of capacity, Pabst plans to shut down the brewery and move the town's entire production to a competitor's plant in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

Hometown loyalty is leaving too. "When people come over and order a Pabst, I say, I'll be happy to dust it off for you," said Michael Steffes, a local bartender. "There's been that much of a backlash lately."


While poor management may be partly to blame for the Pabst downfall, changing consumer tastes are also a significant factor. Specialty beers, like those produced by an ever- increasing number of microbreweries, are luring away customers.

"The closing of the brewery is more or less like a death, and for all the distance that's been put between the brewery and the people in the last years, there's still pain, there's still sadness," said Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

The Pabst Mansion and the Pabst Theater will ensure that Milwaukee remembers the family's legacy. But now that the company has taken away the actual beer, many wonder what Milwaukee will be famous for.


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