In the beginning, there was Best beer
Before there was Pabst – or Miller or Old Milwaukee or even Schlitz “the beer that made Milwaukee famous” – there was Best, as in Best Select, an American lager first produced by Jacob Best and his sons in 1844. By 1860 Jacob’s son Phillip was brewing Best Select as the Phillip Best Company. (The other sons started their own brewery, which later became Miller Brewing.) Phillip didn’t have any sons, but his daughters married astute businessmen and Phillip persuaded them to join the family business. One of them, Captain Frederick Pabst, became president of the company in the 1872. In 1889, the rapidly growing company was renamed for him, and its award-winning Best Select beer became Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
Beer history at Best Place
You can learn all this – and much more – while enjoying a brew at Best Place, where beer history tours are offered daily.
Best Place itself is a conglomeration of historic buildings of various vintages, including the 1858 elementary school that the Pabst Company purchased in 1890 for use as the company’s corporate offices and visitor center. Today the complex serves as an event center with a public bar and gift shop.
The gift shop serves as the entry to the complex on quiet days. This was the brewery’s original gift shop, and it was restored to look much as it would have decades ago, but with a wider range of merchandise available for purchase. Today the shop features Pabst-related items both new and vintage, as well as items with other labels.
Pabst was one of the first to offer brewery tours (starting in 1892), so it seems right to take a tour even though there isn’t actually a working brewery here at the moment. (There are plans to bring brewing back to the Pabst brewery site, so maybe someday a tour of Best Place can include a tour of a functioning brewery as well.)
Blue Ribbon Hall
Tours of Best Place begin in Blue Ribbon Hall, a space that still looks as it did when Pabst Brewing created a German-style beer hall here to celebrate their centennial in 1944. Today guests start their tour here, beginning with a beer (or two) and an engaging (and moderately humorous) presentation on the history of beer brewing in general and Pabst in particular.
The room itself is inviting in an old world beer hall sort of way. There is dark woodwork and walls with beer-related frescoes by Edgar Miller under a vaulted ceiling. The heaviness of the décor is moderated by a wall of windows that overlook a pleasant courtyard with a bronze sculpture of Captain Pabst.
The relatively brief tour begins after the historical presentation. If you visit today you’ll begin by passing through a construction zone in an area the Pabst Company used first as a boiler room and then as an infirmary. It’s being transformed into a Prohibition-themed speakeasy.
The Great Hall at Best Place
The Great Hall is located on the other side of the future speakeasy. Originally the home of Pabst’s corporate offices (that’s a recreation of Captain Pabst’s office in the corner), the carved woodwork and leaded glass windows are original. The floor is new, but created using lumber from other buildings on the brewery site. Similarly, the bar is vintage, but was brought here from another city.
There’s a good view of the old mill and brew houses (now the wonderful Brewhouse Inn and Suites and Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub) across the way. Management didn’t have to go very far to know what was happening in the brewery itself!
Captain Pabst’s office was recreated to the extent possible using old photos. The room contains some original furnishings (like Captain Pabst’s desk and an elaborately carved chair), but other pieces were added to fill in for items that have gone missing over the years.
The tour ends in the area that Pabst Brewing used for entertaining their important guests. It’s another of those old-European type rooms, a cozy spot with dark wood, decorated stucco walls, a fireplace, and leaded window panes with small figural images related to beer.
With views to both the courtyard featuring Captain Pabst and one with King Gambrinus (the patron “saint” of beer), the room is at once cozy and cheerful in a subdued sort of way.
It was a good place for Pabst executives and their guests to drink beer, and it as winter begins to settle in, this quiet, Old World style room in the heart of what was once the largest brewery in the world seems like the perfect spot for a modern-day visitor to enjoy a brew or two.
Best Place is located in the Pabst Brewery complex near downtown Milwaukee. Although most of the building is used as an event center, there is also a bar that is open to the public from late morning/ lunch into the evening. Tours are offered daily for a small charge that includes a beer. Food is not available in the bar at Best Place, but a variety of beers (and a local root beer) are, so there should be something to please even a picky beer drinker like me.
If you can’t get to Milwaukee to tour Best Place, you can take a narrated virtual tour. Of course, you have to supply your own beer for the virtual tour.
I had the good fortune to tour Best Place as a guest of Visit Milwaukee, but all opinions expressed here are my own.