Monday, January 07, 2008

Miller Time

I've made occasional visits to breweries or other beer sites over the years, such as the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen, a Stroh's facility in Memphis and the Sapporo Beer Museum in Sapporo, among others (see also BTST, April 8, 2005). But I'd never made it to the relatively close Miller Brewing Co. in Milwaukee until last weekend. Miller, the all-American beer with German ancestry. They don't bother to mention during the introductory video -- which was really mostly an eight-minute commercial for Miller Time -- or during the tour itself that Miller is actually part of the international beer conglomerate headquartered in London, with roots in South Africa, SABMiller.

Amazingly, we were up at 8 on Saturday morning and out by about 9, arriving at the Miller Brewing Company Visitor Center, which is next to the Girl in the Moon Gift Shop, in time for the noon tour. The tour video did hint that Miller was international in scope, but mostly focused on Miller Time. Then the group entered various building along State Street, which sports Miller property on both sides for quite a ways -- including some fine old facades in places -- and with signs built over the road letting you know that the company calls the area "Miller Valley" (the road does slope a little).

There's nothing like the whiz and motion of a bottling plant in operation, with the lines of bottles snaking along and gizmos spraying in the liquid, capping the bottles and slapping labels on. We saw that on video. Saturdays are cleanup days at the Miller plant, so the most motion and action we saw on the bottling floor were guys hosing the equipment down.

The brewhouse was more fun, with its enormous shiny kettles and intense yeasty smell, and even better was the beer cave. Herr Frederick J. Miller himself oversaw the expansion of these manmade holes-in-the-ground in the years before the Civil War, as cold storage for his wares in pre-refrigeration days. Brick lines the floors and walls, maybe 20 feet wide, just as tall, and stretching 50 feet or so to a back wall marked by the entrances to two other branches of the beer cave not on the tour.

Though lit with electricity these days, I figure you could have a fine keg party by candlelight in the beer cave. Beginning in the 1950s, displays about the history and lore of beer were installed, including small wooden figures behind glass serving as illustrations of old-timey beer production. It looked like hard work, like most physical labor in the 19th century. I was also pretty sure I saw a depiction of King Gambrinus, a figure that has been sadly neglected in modern times. Herr Miller's men, who made the brew and handled the barrels and hauled the ice to the caves, would have known him.

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