On Dec. 2, 1987, brothers Russ and Jim Klisch opened a small microbrewery on Chambers Street in the Riverwest neighborhood. In 1998, the brewery moved to its current, much-larger location, 1872 N. Commerce St.
Over the years, the brewery, which will begin to celebrate 25 years in business next month, has achieved many firsts.
In 1992, Lakefront introduced a seasonal cherry lager and became the first brewery to bottle fruit beer since prohibition was repealed. In 1996, the brewery produced the first organic beer with Lakefront Organic E.S.B. (extra special bitter) which uses 100 percent organic malt and hops.
In 2007, Lakefront was the first brewery in the state and the first business in Milwaukee to receive the Travel Green Wisconsin certification which recognizes tourism-related businesses that work to reduce their environmental impact.
Earlier this year, Lakefront introduced Wisconsinite, the first beer in the United States to be made from 100 percent in-state-grown ingredients: barley, wheat, and hops, including a first-of-its-kind, never before fermented, indigenous Wisconsin yeast strain.
Now, Lakefront is one of the first Wisconsin breweries to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Sprecher Brewery, which opened in 1985, celebrated the milestone in 2010.
"We really wanted to celebrate with something special for the entire year," says Lakefront's Chris Johnson.
In recognition of the anniversary, Lakefront will brew a series of four different anniversary beers and will release one each quarter. The first edition, set for release around Christmas time, will be an imperial stout aged with cocoa nibs, Madagascar vanilla bean and cherry puree. Each beer will be available for a limited time on draft and in 4-pack bottles.
The three celebratory batches after the imperial stout are yet to be determined.
"We have some ideas, but we haven't solidfied anything yet," says Russ Klisch.
Today, there are 25 different Lakefront beers that are available in 36 states and distributed to Canada, Israel, Japan and Australia. Lakefront employs 35 full-time people on the brewery side and around 37 part-time employees in their tour department.
"We've added a lot of new equipment to keep up with all of the growth and demand as well. Visually, it's much different walking around the brewery than it was a year ago. Our tanks keep getting bigger and bigger," says Johnson.
The craft beer industry has changed and expanded greatly since the Klisch's started brewing more than two decades ago.
"Craft beer fans have never had so many choices of great beer from so many outstanding breweries as they have right now," says Johnson. "I read recently that there are almost 1,400 new breweries just in the planning stage."
Milwaukee will most likely welcome its newest brewery, Brenner Brewery, in the middle of 2013.
So far, Johnson says, the industry is very supportive of one another, but that each business strives for its signature offerings in hopes of appealing to customers.
"Each brewery has their own groove and style and we definitely have ours," says Johnson. "Unfortunately, there is only so much space on the store shelves and I'm not sure if the new breweries know how competitive that side of the business is. I'm excited to see how the industry will shake itself out in the next five years."
Johnson cites the innovation and quality of Lakefront products to be the driving forces behind the brewery's success, along with the brew team and the tour style.
Lakefront's popular tour is offered at multiple times every day except Sunday and the cost is $7. Reservations are required. Lakefront was one of the first, if not the first, to offer beer at the beginning of as well as during and after the tour instead of making visitors wait until the end.
According to Klisch, tours started in 1989, about two years after the brewery opened. Prior to that, he and Jim were too busy brewing to afford time for tours. Once they were able to hire help, they gave tours on Saturdays. They still give tours occasionally today.
"We encourage people on the tour to try a beer or two before the tour starts and we have sample stations set up in the middle of our tour, too," says Johnson. "Milwaukee is the best beer city in the world! We can't say thank you enough to all our loyal customers and accounts that have supported us for the past twenty-five years."