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Wisconsin Brothers Turn Sibling Rivalry Into Brewery

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Brothers Russ and Jim Klisch have a sibling rivalry like many others. Theirs just happens to have yielded one of America’s most innovative craft breweries. 

In 1987, Jim’s birthday was approaching, and the Milwaukee, WI, native had been going on about his desire to brew beer. His brother Russ devised a gift idea, somewhat in jest: a home beer brewing how-to. 

According to the pair’s recollection, Jim was far from a Michelin-star chef, so there was little expectation that he would render an impressive product. To Russ’s surprise, Jim’s DIY brew was rather enjoyable. As siblings do, Russ decided to one-up his brother. As both began to expand their skills, the two quickly decided a third party needed to make a final decision. They began submitting their creations to local competitions, and surprisingly, the two both won several awards. 

Jim (left) and Russ Klisch (right) in the 1980s // Photo Courtesy Lakefront Brewery

As time went on, a viable business opportunity brewed from their shared passion, and the two brothers launched Lakefront Brewery. Over three decades, Lakefront has broken a wide array of ceilings previously uncracked by beer companies, ranging from sustainability efforts to revitalizing historic recipes and progressive blends to accommodate dietary restrictions. 

At the root of the company’s success is an unwavering commitment to waste reduction, a love for renewables, and a constant dedication to repurposing and reusing. 

Photo Courtesy Lakefront Brewery

Lakefront moved into its first official brick and mortar location in the second half of 1987. The property was an old bakery near the brothers’ home, an affordable and convenient location. Their equipment was far from top tier, as they used thrifted dairy production machinery to craft what would be their first of many barrels of beer. 

The appetite for a locally crafted beer, unique in profile and rooted in the endeavors of a Milwaukee brotherhood, was bountiful, and Lakefront saw quick success. 

Photo Courtesy Lakefront Brewery

Beer is produced by the barrel — a standard industry measurement of 55 gallons — a more easily trackable and scalable metric. Breweries themselves are classified in tiers depending on the number of barrels produced annually. For example, the cap for a microbrewery is less than 15,000 barrels per year. 

With one barrel produced in 1987, 72 barrels in 1988, and 125 barrels in 1989, the brother’s profile quickly rose. By 1998, they were producing 3,000 barrels per year. Soon, Lakefront’s successes outpaced their space. The brewery expanded to a new location that again echoed its dedication to waste reduction. The brothers secured an old coal plant built in 1908 and subsequently used by Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company. The building was set to be demolished, but thanks to Lakefront, it was repurposed.

Photo Courtesy Lakefront Brewery

In a larger space, the brewery grew into its operational capacity, bought new brewing equipment, and by 2017 produced nearly 47,000 barrels of beer. Lakefront still occupies that location today. 

In 2017, the brewery installed an impressive 254 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the cold storage warehouse. Lakefront said that the panels produce an average of 73.69 MWh of electricity annually as of April 2022. 

Mike, a bartender, serves at an outdoor tent // Photo Courtesy Lakefront Brewery

Over the years, Lakefront Brewery has upheld its dedication to its Wisconsin roots and woven it into its product offerings wherever possible. It has brewed the now-famous Wisconsin Summer Weiss — a beer crafted from 100% in-state ingredients, including a proprietary Wisconsin yeast strain.

Lakefront also became the country’s first certified organic brewery in 1996 and only the 22nd brewery globally to be recognized as “climate operation forward” for its reuse of ingredients, water, and energy. Its New Grist brew, released in 2005, was the first FDA-approved gluten-free beer. 

Photo Courtesy Lakefront Brewery

Today, Lakefront is known for its lively brewery tours on its water-front site, standing apart from the competition for serving beer before, during, and after the tour as opposed to just at the end, making for a memorable Wisconsinite experience. 


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