"Tapping" into innovation

On a recent trip to Wisconsin, I had the opportunity to spend a morning and afternoon in the City of Milwaukee. Now, I’m a regular visitor to the city, but Milwaukee has certainly had its share of visitors. Usually, I’m just flying in and out of the Cream City, but this time, I actually had some time to explore. On this particular fall day, I thought I’d combine a few of my interests: history, running, and—what made Milwaukee famous—beer.

Schlitz Brewing Company building

I set off on my self-guided running tour with the intent to check out three of Milwaukee’s largest and most famous breweries—Schlitz, Blatz, and Pabst, all three of which ceased to operate in Milwaukee years ago, but still maintain a physical presence in the city’s urban landscape. What impressed me most, in addition to the size of these massive old brewing complexes, were the recent efforts to preserve the old buildings and reuse them within the neighborhoods that they had helped develop and define.

The preservation and reuse of these buildings not only reflects how important they are historically to the city of Milwaukee and their specific neighborhoods, but it also reveals an innovative practice in sustainability. Sustainability is a word used a lot these days, but in this sense, when a building is restored, preserved, and reused for other purposes beyond its original intent, energy resources that would have been used to construct a new building are saved. In the case of Blatz and Schlitz, several of the old brewing buildings are used for condos, apartments, and businesses. What remains of the Pabst brewery is much larger, and emptier, yet the old keg house has been converted into loft apartments, a historic tavern operates at the former corporate offices and visitor center, and attempts have been made to save other buildings within the complex.

Blatz Brewing Company building

When it comes to beer and breweries today, innovation does not solely lie in the sustainable reuse of abandoned buildings at historic brewing complexes; nor is it only found in bottles with grooved necks, wide-mouthed “vented” cans, or labels that change color to let you know when the beer is cold (I always thought my hand did a well enough job of that).

Pabst Brewing Company building

This month’s episode of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation’s Inventive Voices podcast series features interviews with the sustainability director at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the owner of Meridian Pint, a Washington, D.C., bar that focuses on being an “environmental steward” in its Northwest D.C. neighborhood. My experiences as a homebrewer (and the Lemelson Center’s interest in Fort Collins as a “hot spot” of invention) drew me to seek out more information on New Belgium—their founder originally crafted recipes in his own garage. And I’ll admit, as a D.C. local, I have stopped in to Meridian Pint to do a little “research” from time to time.

Beyond my interest in beer, however, each of these companies are great examples of people and businesses that use innovative practices to become more involved and ingrained in their surrounding communities. Whether it’s New Belgium tapping into a local wind power grid and promoting a bike culture amongst its employees and customers, or Meridian Pint redistributing glass bottles to the local homebrew community and employing a compost company to help handle their waste, both businesses are taking steps to work within their surroundings in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner.

The Lemelson Center is very interested in inventive communities and networks of people, and with our upcoming Food for Tomorrow symposium, we have been paying special attention to how invention and innovation affect the way food and drink are produced, prepared, and consumed. Take a listen to this month’s edition of Inventive Voices; you’ll learn a lot about some innovative aspects of the beer and service industry, and you might even be inspired to think about how your own actions affect your immediate environment.

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Matt Ringelstetter is a project assistant with the New Media Program and the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.