Wisconsin once lost a major-league ballclub over beer. Well, sort of.
In 1961, just four years removed from its first-ever World Series championship, the Milwaukee County Board voted to ban carry-in beer to County Stadium. Fans stayed home instead of purchasing beers at the ballpark. Attendance dropped from 1.4 million to 1.1 million from 1960 to the following year when the ban was enacted. The county, recognizing its miscalculation over the lengths to which Wisconsinites will vote with their wallets and livers, lifted the ban the following year but to no avail. Attendance continued to drop and by 1966 the Braves were in Atlanta.
Of course, the beer carry-in ban wasn’t the sole reason for the ballclub moving to another market, but it certainly didn’t help the sagging attendance. Though today’s Milwaukee Brewers draw consistently well, considering they operate in the smallest media market in the majors, the club is proactively avoiding another beer-related fan walkout through an expanded craft beer selection announced just this week in Milwaukee.
The Brewers announced a new “Local Brews” bar down the first base line on the main concourse this winter with 24 taps of beers all brewed in the Badger Sate. The updated offerings were welcome news to craft beer enthusiasts, who had at times bemoaned the lack of true “microbrew” options, as I indicated in my review of Miller Park’s beer selection in 2014.
To their credit, and perhaps that of the state’s behemoth and the ballpark’s namesake Miller, the newer options really do seem to vary in terms of brewery, style, and tastes. The craft beer offerings have more than doubled with the new “Local Brews” bar, and Brewers officials indicated that there would also be additional options in beer carts throughout the stadium as well.
For the team, it was a matter of responding to what they were hearing from fans.
“One of the themes that kept coming back from our fans is craft beers. While we had craft beers, we hadn’t had them concentrated or this breadth of it,” Brewers Chief Operating Officer Rick Schlesinger told me.
“Craft beer is a good example of bringing Wisconsin products to Miller Park in response to what our fans want. It’s a natural fit.”
Schlesinger added that they had looked at what other ballparks and venues around the country were doing, citing San Francisco as well as the other macro-brewery namesake stadiums of Busch and Coors.
Busch and Coors Fields, respectively, offer a few of the local micros, like Schlafly and Oskar Blues, but the new selection in Milwaukee seems closer to the more dramatic shift that’s happening just 90 miles south on I-94.
The White Sox are dramatically expanding their craft offerings, ending a 30-year marketing partnership with Miller Brewing. Instead, the southsiders have signed smaller deals with several local craft breweries in addition to Modelo. The Sox partnership and marketing arrangements with the smaller breweries in particular underscores an important piece to the venue's movement toward craft. In addition to the noble ideas of supporting local products and providing a better fan experience, it’s just good business.
At some point, you’d think that an exclusive marketing arrangement along the lines of the White Sox’ former partnership with Miller begins to produce diminishing returns, if customers are choosing other options for their viewing experience where they can have their preferred amenities. Perhaps the introduction of craft is also partly a way for teams to hedge their bets and ride the seemingly ever-expanding craft bubble. Teams like the Brewers, Cardinals, and Rockies still have their strong marketing agreements in place with ABI, but don’t have to worry about turning off potential customers either at the gate or once in the stadium by only offering a few choices.
That affiliation with the big brewers (the people who brew beer, not the ballclub) may have led to a perception of the Milwaukee club’s reluctance to expand their microbrew offerings. But MillerCoors Senior Director of Sales Operations Jim Kanter has a different view.
“We want to see people celebrating beer, coming in to support local team with local beers. We have a lot of great local crafts, to support everything that’s local, we feel we’re an important part of fabric of community along with the Milwaukee Brewers and our partnership at Miller Park,” Kanter said.
For their part, the local smaller breweries seem to agree with Kanter’s thoughts.
The Milwaukee “Local Brews” tap list appears to be a confluence of team marketing and a supportive and collaborative craft beer community that in the end, will benefit the fan experience.”
“Miller is a Milwaukee brewery. Ownership whatever, it’s a Milwaukee brewery, people that make it here are local people. They make good beer here, it’s good for everybody,” said Kevin Wright, co-founder and brewmaster at Third Space Brewing in Milwaukee. “Good beer is good for everybody.”
Just five minutes away from Miller Park, Third Space is less than six months old, but had already started to make an impression on the fans. Several of the “beer fans” (who for the most part were friends of employees of the baseball Brewers) had a chance to sample some of the new featured beers that will be available on opening day, and Third Space’s offerings received rave reviews.
Raised Grain Brewing out of Waukesha, Wisconsin was also popular among the attendees, and the team there is looking forward to getting their beers out in front of a new audience that hasn’t necessarily heard of the 18-month old brewery yet. And like the other brewers I spoke with, Nick Reistad at Raised Grain is happy for the partnership with the Brewers, Miller Park, and the Miller Brewery.
“Miller Park is part of Milwaukee’s heritage,” said Reistad. “We’re part of the evolution, and that’s an awesome story that Milwaukee can tell. I worked down the street from Miller Brewing for my dad’s company for a number of years, and it feels like we should be here.”
The Milwaukee area is experiencing something of a craft beer boom. Along with the aforementioned Raised Grain and Third Space, newer taprooms, breweries, and brewpubs such as Goodcity Brewing, Black Husky, MobCraft, and City Lights will soon be joined by even more breweries opening this spring and summer, such as Broken Bat Brewing, a microbrewery with a baseball theme.
Like any race, some days you win and some days you won’t.”
The exposure for some of these smaller breweries at Miller Park will be welcome for fans and beer tourists exploring the local scene, but it’s nice to see some of the more established breweries in the state will continue to be well-represented as well.
Lakefront Brewery, Central Waters, Hinterland, and Milwaukee Brewing Co will all continue to be represented at Miller Park. It is somewhat surprising that for now, it seems that perhaps the state’s flagship craft brewery, New Glarus, will only have Spotted Cow at the beer stand locations.
New Glarus owner Deb Carey thought that the brewery’s popular Moon Man Pale Ale may also be available in the stadium at cans during the season, but wasn’t sure why the brewery wasn’t selected for the “Local Brews” bar selection.
“Like any race, some days you win and some days you won’t,” said the affable owner of Wisconsin’s most sought-after craft beers. “But we’re really grateful [the Brewers] are focusing in on craft. Craft and beer in general is important to the Wisconsin economy, and we’re proud of the Brewers. Anything that brings attention to craft beer, we’re supportive of.”
So even with expanded offerings and well-intentioned plans for additional choice for fans at venues across the country, there will still be breweries that are left out or breweries that are included and aren’t necessarily representative of the local craft scene. After all, the clubs and breweries still have businesses to run, even if the support for all breweries and local businesses factors into teams’ decisions to expand their beer selection.
Schlesinger, the Brewers’ COO, indicated that the tap selection will be rotating, however, so there may be a possibility to see even more variety and brewers throughout the season.
The Milwaukee “Local Brews” tap list appears to be a confluence of team marketing and a supportive and collaborative craft beer community that in the end, will benefit the fan experience. While tailgating will always be king in Wisconsin when it comes to food and drink at sporting events (or hell, probably even movies), the new effort and expanded options probably place Miller Park in the top tier of ballpark beers. It’s quite a jump from the days when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale led the few craft options available.
Each team and city’s craft beer selection is dependent on a number of factors. Local availability, fan preference and tastes, and team business arrangements can all play a role before your favorite beer hits your lips on a summer day at the ballpark.
But whether an investment in the local community to build goodwill and brand loyalty to the team, a desire to celebrate and promote all beer and rise all boats, or a calculated business decision, it seems like more and more teams are moving toward expanded beer options that ultimately will benefit the craft beer consumer.
See you April 3.