1840 Brewing Company in Milwaukee
With a name like 1840, a reference to the year when the first commercial brewery opened in Milwaukee, you’d think that owners Stephanie and Kyle Vetter have a long history in the state or with Midwestern beer tradition. Neither of those is exactly true. The husband and wife co-owners didn’t intend to move to Wisconsin either. While living in Colorado, the couple spent many months flying back and forth to their space in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee, blending and experimenting with beer on the weekends.
Kyle is originally from Mequon, WI and he attended college in Colorado. Rather than enter a fairly saturated beer market (not only for breweries in general but for the style of beer and of business he intended to pursue), he turned to his home state, specifically Milwaukee. The city has been experiencing a slow, steady wave of new breweries, in contrast to the ancient breweries of German immigrant tradition that still maintain a strong presence in the area.
We got a local tip that sent us — almost running — to 1840. The folks at Ursa, a Bay View boutique with a Bohemian vibe, were hosting a miniature Warpigs beer tasting. There is where we were told that 1840 is a must-drink. The brewery, though, is only open about one weekend per month. On those weekends, certain hours are for members, while others are open to the public. The main event on weekends is the bottle releases, but tap beers are available as well.
It’s a unique model that Stephanie says they were initially discouraged from using. Critics and supporters alike wondered why the two wouldn’t want to be open typical hours and earn more income. There are several reasons the schedule and membership model was chosen and is thriving. She explains how building a community is important to them, and while that phrase gets thrown around a lot, the co-op model with face-to-face bottle releases and events seems to be an ideal venue for getting to know one’s neighbors.
Kyle points to capacity as the reason for keeping their sales controlled. The 7-barrel stainless fermentation set-up is secondary to the extensive amount of wooden barrels, which is the heart of 1840’s operation and is a very time-consuming process. Kyle experiments with not just aging in barrels, but fermenting in them. Additionally, no brewing (meaning the “hot” side of the brewhouse, raw malted grain heated to mash) takes place here. He routinely commissions other breweries to craft wort that he then ferments in stainless or wood. From there the beer is expertly blended, a practice that reminds me of the blending houses of Belgium.
During our visit, there had been four beers released. These bottles, by the way, can be enjoyed in the taproom or taken to go. A number of beers were also on draft.
Euphonium: A dry-hopped brett saison aged in white wine barrels and dry hopped with Bru-1.
The funky brett aroma is textbook barnyard and straw, while a faint mango probably arises from the mixed fermentation as well as the hop varietals. The saison character is found in the finish, with citrus and black pepper, plus a dryness that makes this package complete. [below left]
Opalescence: Double IPA
The aroma of this rich IPA is almost savory with faint thyme. It’s soft in the mouth with a well-incorporated bouquet of bitterness and herbs. There’s some fruit character, tangerine and peach, but it’s subtle. It struck me as similar to Bell’s Two Hearted but at higher alcohol that adds intensity. [below right]
Rickety Elevator: mixed culture saison fermented in red wine barrels, in collaboration with Crafter Space
Super bright, gueuze-like carbonation set this apart from the other beers we tasted. Even more funkly than the Euphonium, with a different profile entirely. There’s little saison character, instead it drinks like a framboise. [below right]
The success of the membership model isn’t a surprise to me at all. When in the space, with its production and taproom vibe in a nondescript block of town, it’s not begging for crowds. Instead, it works for conversations and tasting. The exclusive memberships and public bottle releases generate buzz at a brewery that doesn’t merely rely on hype.
Be aware, like any mixed culture or wood-aged beer, the pours and bottles are more expensive than the average taproom product. It’s well worth it, though, and the majority of these beers (with exceptions, of course) will stand up to aging.