Kevin Wright was happy brewing at Hangar 24, one of the fastest-growing breweries in southern California, but he saw opportunity looming in his hometown.
The California brewery was a great place, he said. But it wasn’t home.
“You look everywhere else in the country and the last seven years had a crazy boom everywhere — but not Milwaukee,” Wright remembers thinking. “Man, there’s opportunity here to start something.”
Wright and friend Andy Gehl opened Third Space Brewing, 1505 W. St. Paul Ave., in September 2016. They weren’t the only ones who saw an opportunity. That year, the number of breweries in Milwaukee doubled.
Along with Tim and Toni Eichinger, who brought Black Husky Brewing from Pembine in Marinette County back to their Milwaukee home, Wright and Gehl were among the first wave of brewers and/or brewery owners for whom Milwaukee was a homecoming. Skills honed in another city were tucked in a back pocket for an inevitable return.
It’s called the boomerang effect, said Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. People leave town, build business credentials elsewhere and then come back.
It’s not just a brewery thing, although the explosion of new breweries in the last two years might suggest there’s a connection.
It’s a phenomenon “not uncommon to the Midwest,” Brandon said. “I think there are more people who are starting to look at coming back and there are people who are spending less time outside the area.”
Maybe they come back to see family and take note of new restaurants or the growth of local coffee shops, all of which attract an audience that usually seeks out craft beer. Maybe, like Wright and Gehl, they want to raise a family in familiar territory.
Wright knew he made the correct decision when he looked around Milwaukee. He had lived on the city’s east side from 2004 to 2009, and it “wasn’t the same.” Now, he said, he could look around to see “more restaurants, more bars and more places for us to sell our beer.”
Research, business plan
Joe Yeado left Washington, D.C., to open Gathering Place Brewing, 811 E. Vienna Ave., attracted by good memories of Milwaukee along with the city’s lower cost of living (compared to D.C., anyway), cheaper real estate and Wisconsin law that allows him to self-distribute his beer.
Yeado, a Marquette University alumnus and former senior researcher at the Public Policy Forum, decided on opening a brewery after a decade of home brewing.
“I spent 2½ years researching, writing a business plan,” Yeado said. “I know Milwaukee was underserved.”
Yeado hired Corey Blodgett as lead brewer. Blodgett grew up in Waterford, graduated with a degree in Native American History and started home brewing when he lived across the street from Lakefront Brewery.
A professional brewer for nearly 20 years, Blodgett was working with Widmer Brothers Brewery in Portland, Ore., when he saw Yeado’s ad.
“The cost of living (in Portland) was getting increasingly high,” Blodgett said. He and his wife were looking for new career challenges, Blodgett said, and in Milwaukee, “we could purchase a house and be involved in the community, which is important to both of us.”
People like Yeado see “a better opportunity in the Midwest or see there’s a stronger legacy of success there,” Brandon said. “They see themselves being better at what they want to do with their lives being in Milwaukee.”
He also noted that Milwaukee’s early history of entrepreneurship influences people who want to come back and build on that legacy.
Kyle Vetter was traveling back and forth between Milwaukee and Colorado for his work with The Crafter Space, a business consultant for brewers and business. This year, he and wife Stephanie, originally from Fort Collins, Colo., made the move permanent and opened 1840 Brewing, an urban farmhouse brewery focusing on barrel aging and blending at 342 E. Ward St.