Barley, Hops and Business Growth – The Lakefront Brewery Story

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This epic tale of beer and banking started in Milwaukee, which is no surprise. What is surprising is how a sibling rivalry launched a brewery. If you have a sister or a brother, you can relate. According to President Russ Klisch, Lakefront Brewery started with a birthday gift. Years ago, Russ’s brother Jim got hooked on the idea of brewing his own beer. So, for his birthday, Russ gave Jim a book on brewing, thinking that would be the end of it.

Much to Russ’s surprise, Jim not only read the book… he charged ahead and brewed a beer of his own. And, even more surprising, it tasted pretty darn good. Russ was impressed, but not intimidated. He decided he could brew one better than his brother. Sibling rivalry never tasted so good.

After both of the Klisch boys started entering homebrewing contests and winning awards, their family and friends encouraged them to turn their hobby into a business. Before you knew it, they did just that, and Lakefront Brewery was born.

Beer was hardly an unknown brew to the Klisch boys. They had relatives in the bar business and their grandfather worked for the Schlitz Brewing Company, which, at the time, was one of the top three breweries in the world. The Klisch brothers had beer in their blood.

The brothers decided to start small and chose a location within walking distance of their home: the site of a former bakery in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. They began brewing with 55-gallon, stainless steel drums and used converted dairy equipment. On December 2, 1987, they sold their first barrel of beer to a tavern within “rolling distance” of the brewery. They literally rolled out the barrel, just like in the famous polka song.

Lakefront’s production grew with their popularity: by 1988, sales jumped to 72 barrels; by 1989, 125 barrels; and sales began doubling after that. In 1990, Russ built his own bottling machine and began bottling their beer.

The brothers brought in more used equipment to meet the ever-expanding demand; a visiting food critic once commented that Lakefront was a “Frankenstein operation”, because all their equipment had lived and died in a previous life. In 1998, production had reached nearly 3,000 barrels in the small 3,600 square foot space, and Jim and Russ decided it was time to move.

Their search was on for a new location and the city of Milwaukee had a building to sell. In 1908, Lakefront Brewery’s current building housed the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company’s coal-fired power plant. In 1998, the City considered tearing down the old power plant location, unless a non-industrial business was interested in the location. The City thought beer making was an appropriate industry, and allowed the Klisches to buy the building and move in.

The move was completed, and additions were made to both the building and brewery. In 2000, Russ replaced the homemade brewing equipment with a real brew house.

Everything was going along so smoothly, until…

What’s a story without suspense? In 2008, The Great Recession hit, and suddenly, the Klisch boys had more drama than they could ever have wanted or hoped for when their big commercial bank hit them hard with a financial roadblock. Lakefront’s big bank stopped all lending to them even though they were growing by 30% every year.

Thankfully, a friend recommended that Russ call Commerce State Bank. The CSB team listened to the Lakefront story and decided to work with them on their banking needs.

We understand the importance of numbers in business, but it is more than numbers… it’s about people, too. Sometimes when you run a business, you can feel awfully alone. Commerce State Bank gets it. We’re founders of a small business, too, so we understand the difficult decisions, situations, roadblocks, and risks that every business faces. Business is hard. We make business banking easy.

We have a team of commercial bankers who are ready to help with their experience, their expertise, and their empathy. Just ask Russ.

Lakefront Brewery is an overnight success story… over thirty years in the making. Production has increased throughout the years, and in 2017 had reached 46,848 barrels. Lakefront currently offers 20 different beers available in over 30 states and is distributed to Ukraine, South Korea, Sweden, China and Canada. The Lakefront brewery is known for its innovative ales and lagers, as well as its infamous brewery tour.

For beer lovers, that long-ago birthday gift, with a considerable boost from a sibling rivalry, is the one that keeps on giving. Cheers.

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