Being born in 1971 and starting to watch television at the end of that decade, my first visions when I think of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will always be Laverne and Shirley schlemieling and schlimazeling and the Fonz’s magical snap of his fingers.
A recent visit to explore The Harley-Davidson Museum and the city’s beer scene—past and present—has me thinking beyond Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley.
Thinking of spending time in Milwaukee before or after you head to EAA AirVenture? Fly in to commercial hub General Mitchell International Airport, five miles south of downtown, or Lawrence J. Timmerman Airport, which features turf and paved runways, eight miles northwest of downtown. You’ll have to be selective to fit everything in if you’re adding to a trip to Oshkosh.
Harley-Davidson is an experience: It’s a look, a sound, a feel that is recognized around the world, Bill Davidson said of the iconic brand his great-grandfather Arthur Davidson co-founded with William S. Harley in 1903. Bill Davidson was at The Harley-Davidson Museum the day I visited.
Opened in 2008, the museum is a treasure trove for gearheads, but it's fun too, even for someone like me who doesn’t ride. There are exhibits on the history of the company, engines, tank art, racing, and customized bikes. Galleries display more than 350 motorcycles illustrating the evolution of the motorcycle, including the oldest Harley-Davidson known to exist. My favorite section was the “Experience Gallery” at the end of the tour where I was able to sit on several new and classic models.
Visits to the 20-acre campus are self-guided unless you purchase a tour option. In addition to museum tours, an extended tour combines all three areas that I explored separately. The Bikes, Brats & Beers Tour is offered on Thursdays and Sundays throughout the summer in partnership with Milwaukee Food and City Tours, the same company I used to visit a cheese store, sausage shop, and other popular stops in the Old World Third Street neighborhood.
Whether you want to sample beer or learn about Milwaukee’s history as the home to as many as 113 breweries—including the big four commercial breweries: Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller—there are tours in Beer City for you.
Miller, the only brewery that still has large-scale production in Milwaukee, has a visitor center and takes you on a tour through 155 years of its history. Highlights include seeing the historic caves where Frederick Miller cooled his beer and samples in the Bavarian-style Miller Inn bar.
Visit the 1892 Pabst Mansion to tour the only fully restored beer baron’s home in the United States, then see Frederick Pabst’s former office with a tour of the former Pabst headquarters, Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. The 21-acre production complex just west of downtown was left vacant in 1996 and in recent years has been rebranded The Brewery with repurposing of the historic buildings.
Brewhouse Inn and Suites is in the former brewhouse, where you’ll still find six original brew kettles and a two-story stained glass window featuring the patron saint of beer, installed by Frederick Pabst to inspire employees. In another building on the complex, Pabst Brewing Co. opened in 2017 in a building on the original complex—an 1871 church acquired by Pabst in 1898. The microbrewery is using original Pabst recipes.
A surge in recent years has Milwaukee’s brewery count at more than 30 again. I took the Lakefront Brewery tour, which has received national attention for the quality of its tours. I agree, it’s the best I’ve been on. It was funny enough to keep someone who isn’t a beer nerd entertained, and the highlight for me was that the tour ends by singing the Laverne & Shirley theme song while a few lucky tour-goers operate the bottling conveyor that was used in the opening credits of the show.