The Beer Museum That Could Make Milwaukee Famous

It's not easy being from Milwaukee.

I was recently grounded at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me. I said I was from Milwaukee.

Awkward silence.

"Where is Milwaukee?" I was asked.

You heard it. Where is Milwaukee?

"East of Madison," I answered. Everyone knows where that is.

It got really painful when someone on a facing seat said, "Jeffrey Dahmer."

After a wry smile, I groped for air. "Harley-Davidson," I mentioned. Things kick-started. "Miller beer." Now we were flowing.

You will never see these people in Milwaukee. Why should they come? What do we have that they can't see somewhere else?

Paintings at the Calatrava not from Milwaukee? Summerfest's main-stage bands not from Milwaukee?

I am tired of being an also-ran. I want to proudly stand up and say I am from Milwaukee and have the conversation become electric.

We will not be that city by looking through the window at other cities' aquariums and zoos. Rather, we need to look through the mirror at our own. We need to be ourselves. We need to show some self-confidence in who and what we are. And we need something that puts us on the map.

Am I living in a fantasy world? Not a chance.

In 2008, our first all-Milwaukee attraction is scheduled to open - the Harley-Davidson Museum. Vrroooommm.

This will be to Milwaukee what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is to Cleveland. Vrroooommm. It lies near the heart of our identity, and we don't have to compete for it with any other city. No one had to dream this one up on a drafting board at a marketing agency. It was here all along.

That's just part of our magic.

Beer made Milwaukee famous, as Schlitz liked to remind the world. Schlitz was the world's largest brewery in the 1960s. In 1980, we were home to three of the five largest American brewers: Schlitz, Miller, Pabst. Today, Miller is America's second-largest brewer. We made beer the sixth-major food group.

But Milwaukee offers little more than a walking tour of the Miller brewery. The city should set its sights high and welcome the world to a national beer museum.

Think about these two museums. Can you separate suds and cycles?

The scale of the beer museum would have to be large enough to make it a must-see on par with Harley's effort. Take your pick of historic brewery buildings smelling of stale hops to house it.

The museum would tap the greater municipal vision of the convention center. It needs complementary attractions to achieve critical mass, and a beer museum could deliver in tandem with Harley.

This museum has been obvious to almost any Milwaukean with an appreciation of history, or just the barley sandwich, but we are still wandering among the empty silos as no one has stepped forward with the vision, leadership and funding.

There is a lot of hard work ahead, but Harley has broken the ice. Our future is here. It doesn't need to be invented, just uncovered.

I can't wait to buy the world a ticket to Milwaukee's magic.

Brian Back of Mequon is a historian and author.