Russ Klisch has put his chemistry degree to good use in a business that made Milwaukee famous.
Klisch, a 1981 UW-Eau Claire graduate, is owner and president of Lakefront Brewery, a regional craft brewery located in the Beerline neighborhood of the city of Milwaukee, on the bank of the Milwaukee River. Klisch and his brother, Jim, started the business in 1987 after Jim expressed an interest in making beer and Russ bought him a beer-making book for his birthday.
"He made a batch of beer, which, to tell you the truth, looked like hell," Russ said. "The floor was sticky, every kitchen utensil was used, and I'm thinking this is going to taste terrible. But he gave me a bottle, and it wasn't the worst thing I'd ever had."
And this is where Klisch's chemistry background came in.
"I'm thinking, gosh, he made it palatable, and so I started looking at the book, and it was all chemistry," he said. "It was about the chemistry of enzymes and temperatures you had to have, and I said this is just like chemistry class.
"I sat there and thought about how many people who read this book actually understand what they're doing. So the chemistry part actually gave me the confidence to go try to brew and try to perfect my recipes and actually understand and read a lot about brewing."
Klisch said it became obvious during the early days of the brewery that the brothers had a lot to learn about the business end of things.
"When we first started out, I tried to get a loan from banks," he said. "I had a one-page, hand-written business plan, and I asked for like a quarter-million dollars, and we didn't understand the concept back then that you had to have money to borrow money."
He said the banks politely turned them down, which was probably a good thing "because if I had received the money, I would've gone bankrupt."
Klisch said they decided that instead of trying to get a lot of money together to create a big brewery, they would instead start with the smallest brewery possible to lose the least amount of money.
"We went out and bought a bunch of 55-gallon drums, and we bought an old bakery building down the street from where my brother lived," he said.
The Klisch brothers at first produced beer only on weekends, and they were able to roll it down the street to the corner taverns in the Polish neighborhood where they lived.
Russ, who also worked at Johnson Controls at the time, worked weekends and during the week (when he wasn't traveling for his job) delivering, making or kegging beer. As the business grew, the Klisches purchased additional equipment and in 1989 hired their first employee.
"Every year after that we brought another person onboard and then kept adding people and equipment," Russ said. "In 1995 I was finally able to quit my job at Johnson Controls, and by 1996 I finally started paying myself a wage."
The brewery moved from its original bakery building to its current location at 1872 N. Commerce St. in 1998.
Klisch said the beers produced at Lakefront are unique.
"We try to be innovative instead of imitative," he said. "In the early '80s brewers were imitating some sort of European style, which was great because none of them were produced in the United States back then. Some of the brews we do today are still similar to the styles of Europe, but as time went on American brewers found that they should create their own taste and flavors."
Klisch said Lakefront was a pioneer in the organic brewing industry and was the first to produce a gluten-free beer approved by the federal government.
"We try to brew the beer the best. It's not only from a marketing standpoint, graphics and styles, but you also have to have good liquid in that bottle." -Russ Klisch
"We try to produce beers the big guys can't;that's kind of our niche," he said. "So we try making things like organic beer, gluten-free beer, beer using indigenous products —those different things that set ourselves apart from other brewers."
Lakefront Brewery produces 19 different types of beer, including seasonals like Imperial Pumpkin lager, year-round beers like Klisch Pilsner, so-called "green" beers like Organic Extra Special Bitter Ale, and a number of limited-edition and specialty beers.
Klisch said Lakefront sells more gluten-free beer than any of its other products.
"Actually, 10 percent of our production of gluten-free goes to Canada," he said. "Our New Grist is that country's No. 1 American imported craft beer."
One of the next frontiers in brewing is the use of local ingredients and indigenous flavors, Klisch said.
"A hundred years ago in Wisconsin, we had a great brewing industry," he said. "Every little town had a brewery, and they all grew hops and barley right outside their back door. You had a very interesting flavor that came from the state, and that's what we've tried to do. We try to get hops grown around Stevens Point and barley from around Wild Rose. We also have our own indigenous yeast grown in Wisconsin."
Klisch has had his hands in all aspects of the business.
"At one time I did the brewing, the kegging, the bottling," he said. "There isn't one job I haven't done. But as we've grown, about every year I take a big section of the job and give it to someone else. This past year it was production control. The year before it was accounting;a couple of years before that the bottling machine.
“Right now my main role is being in charge of other managers; making sure they’re doing what they need to be doing, that they’re getting the people and equipment that they need and making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.”
Klisch’s family has roots in the beer-making business.
“My family at one time owned a bar, my grandfather worked for Schlitz (brewing company), we had cousins in the bar industry,” Klisch said. “At one time I actually caddied for the Uihlein brothers, who owned Schlitz.”
And family plays a big role in the operation of Lakefront Brewery. Russ’ brother, Jim, works as a salesman for the company; his cousin is comptroller for the business; and Russ’ 17-year-old daughter, who has worked in Lakefront’s gift shop, is currently expressing an interest in the brewery.
Originally a craft brewer when producing fewer than 15,000 barrels of beer a year, Lakefront received regional brewery designation from the Brewers Association of Boulder, Colo., three years ago when its production surpassed 15,000 barrels.
“Last year we produced 33,000 barrels; this year we’re on track for about 40,000,” Klisch said.
As Klisch looks to the future, he knows it’s important to maintain a competitive edge.
“We try to figure out what other brewers are doing, how many hops they put in their beer, what the customer is thinking is hot right now,” he said. “We go to different festivals and see what people are drinking.
“Besides that, we try to brew the beer the best. It’s not only from a marketing standpoint, graphics and styles, but you also have to have good liquid in that bottle. We try hiring the best people in the industry, to make sure the beer has no contamination, it has great taste and flavor, and we’re getting all the extract out of the grain and flavors that we need.”
Lakefront Brewery’s top-selling beers are New Grist, Riverwest Stein, Lakefront IPA and Fixed Gear. As to Klisch’s favorite beer, he says it’s whatever one is currently in his hand.