By Dan Lorentz
MILWAUKEE (IP) – It's a sunny Friday afternoon in September. Johan Macht, wearing a stained apron, is outside buffing chrome with a bar towel.
He steps back. Squints. One last rub.
Now, he can see his mustache on the gleaming surface.
Macht smiles, and in the once grimy and fetid industrial heart of this racially riven Rust Belt city, every part of his new brew pub—Maschine—shines.
And it's not just the chrome-clad exterior that shines. Inside, the mechanical décor glistens. The fare, a German cuisine melded with Soul Food and Latino flavors makes stomachs and cheeks glow with satisfaction. The beers are glorious triumphs.
And the atmosphere—well, how to put it? Maschine radiates genuine multiracial Gemütlichkeit. You'll find out what that means, but first let's follow Macht inside.
A Machine Fueled by Feet and Sun
Inside, you see a profusion of sweaty copper brewing tanks and pipes against the back wall. It all looks a bit like an engine block. That's where Macht spends most of his time. He's one of the pub's four owners, and its brewmaster.
Macht explains that "Maschine" is German for "machine," and the name seems to fit.
Macht points up. You see a giant gear rotating. "That's our ceiling fan," Macht says.
If you're paying attention, you'll see that the gear is turned by a belt. The belt spans the ceiling to a mezzanine lined with stationary bikes. These bikes rotate a shaft that turns the belt that rotates the gear. The bikes are equipped with cup-holders, platforms for food and calorie counters. Patrons who ride long and hard enough on the bikes get free drinks.
From the mezzanine you can get to the rooftop Biergarten. When weather permits, you can dine and drink amid a forest of glinting solar umbrellas. These provide shade and energy for brewing the beer downstairs.
And when you get back downstairs, don't neglect the floor. It's a ceramic piezoelectric flooring system. Which is a mouthful that means the floor harnesses the energy of people walking and dancing on it.
There's a man jumping up and down in a corner of the small dance floor. No music is playing. He's swearing.
"That floor tile has been giving us problems," Macht says and explains that the angry jumping man is Reinhard Hinkelmann, a mechanical engineer, who designed and built most of Maschine's alternative energy systems. He is one of the pub's co-owners.
Macht waves him over to talk. Hinkelmann returns the invitation with an incredulous look that probably intends to convey a message like: "Are you f--king joking? I'm trying to fix this f--king floor tile. F--k!"
Fish Fries, Usinger's Sausage, Collards, Fajitas
Macht pushes through the kitchen door, and instantly hears: "Not now honey, busy…busy as hell."
That's Macht's wife, Steffi Prachel. She's the pub's chef and a co-owner. She's furiously chopping off heads from fish with a gory butcher knife.
Of course, she's busy. This is Milwaukee on a Friday evening. Which means she's preparing for the fish fry rush. The place isn't full yet, but soon Maschine will be jammed with Milwaukeeans from every neighborhood.
Most people, the good folk of Milwaukee included, aren't seeking a culinary adventure when they order a fish fry, and—thank Gott!—you won't get that from Maschine. This is comfort food.
The beer-battered fish—locally caught perch, walleyed pike, bluegills or finger-sized smelt—arrives at table in a paper-lined basket. It's hot and crispy on the outside and moist and flavorful on the inside. Just like it should be.
It's in some of the pub's other menu items that diners may experience a little adventure, may taste a little of what chef Prachel, calls her "comfort mix" style of cooking.
For example, there's the venison meat loaf.
The venison is given some extra fat and flavor from the addition of German pork sausages made at Usinger's, a famous local sausage-maker. The meat is served with collards and garlic mashed potatoes. A potlikker gravy, made from the water used to soften the collards, is drizzled over everything. And there's dark rye bread to sop it up.
The dish is a little bit German, a little bit Soul Food and a whole lot of comfort.
The sausage and sweet pepper fajitas offer a German-Latino comfort mix.
For desert, there's bread pudding and sweet potato pie. There's vanilla flan and rice pudding with cinnamon and cherries. There's lemony poppy-seed cake and apple strudel. And there's plain old chocolate cake and apple pie, too.
Und Don't Forget Das Bier. Oh, ja!
"The kitchen's no fun now, let's drink," Macht says.
Behind the bar, Macht taps generous samples of the pub's three bestsellers.
"354" is the name of Macht's most popular brew. It's a crisp, thirst-quenching Pilsner. The name comes from the federal government's standard industrial classification (SIC) code for metalworking machinery and equipment manufacturers, a once and still important sector of Milwaukee's economy.
Try "Hog Wash," an India pale ale, for something more complex. There are hints of lemon and caraway in it. The name tips its hat to Harley-Davidson Motor Co., which is headquartered in Milwaukee—and whose new motorcycle museum is just blocks away.
If you're in the mood for something dark and Guinness-like, order a pint of "Müeller's Slow Life," which has got to be the flavor opposite of Miller Brewing Co.'s Miller High Life, which is still brewed in Milwaukee (among other places). This is a beer you can't see through. It tastes of cherry, chocolate and honey—and it goes down slow, smooth and burp-less.
In the Valley, Near the Viaduct
Eye-catching design, comforting food and good beer do much to explain Maschine's draw. But Macht says the pub's location in the city's Menomonee Valley near the 16th Street Viaduct is an important factor too.
"We chose this site deliberately," Macht says. "For market reasons, and for symbolism."
From a market perspective, Maschine's in a sweet spot. It's near a major sports stadium, a giant casino and popular new museum. Downtown is not far away, and the nearby interstate makes it easily accessible from almost any neighborhood in the city.
For locals, the pub's location is charged with meanings from the city's history.
In the 1960s, a Catholic priest and civil rights activist named James Groppi led marches in favor of fair housing across the viaduct. The valley and the viaduct, situated between a historically white south side and a black near north side, became symbolic of the city's racial divisions.
But the symbolism of the location goes beyond racial divisions. It also speaks about the city's history as a major industrial manufacturing center. About its decline with the loss of manufacturing firms, the loss of lots of good jobs, and about the valley's revitalization in the past fifteen years.
It's now about 6:30 p.m. The fish fry is in full swing. And Maschine is suffused with what the Germans call Gemütlichkeit. Pronounced ge-MOOT-lich-kyt, the word means warm friendliness, sociable coziness.
"Look around," Macht says. "The place is full. But look at who is here. That's what we're proud of."
About fifty percent of the people are white. Forty percent black. Maybe ten percent Hispanic. There are a few who look like they have Asian or Native American backgrounds. Lots of twenty- and thirtysomethings. Lots of children with parents and grandparents. About fifty/fifty gender-wise.
Racially, this approximates the city's mix, though whites are slightly over-represented and Hispanics slightly under-represented. Still, this is a remarkable mix for a pub in a city that has been called—fairly or unfairly—"hyper-segregated."
Macht, who along with Prachel and Hinkelmann are white, says grappling with Milwaukee's segregation is an important part of Maschine's business philosophy.
"Using local produce and products, using green energy, paying fair wages, giving back to the community—we do all that local and sustainable stuff at Maschine," Macht says. "But we really wanted to connect to the social realities of our community, too. For us, that meant trying to break down racial barriers. Maschine is a pub—it's a social place—what better place to try something like that?"
So, Maschine located in the middle of the city. It developed a menu of comfort foods with both wide and specific appeal. Its jukebox has everything in it—from German waltzes, to traditional Mexican oompah-pah music, to soul and rock and hip-hop. Maschine promotes itself in all of the city's various ethnic neighborhoods.
Glory Days, and Drinks
Maschine's fourth owner is Anthony Riley, a wealthy real estate investor and former state legislator. Riley, who is black, has no day-to-day role at the pub but did help finance the start-up.
Macht and Riley were classmates at Milwaukee's Riverfront High School in the early 1980s. The socially concerned business philosophy that guides Maschine today started there.
"Riverfront at that time was an integrated school—about 60 percent white, 40 percent black," Macht recalls. "But it wasn't really integrated. In the cafeteria, the white kids sat together, the black kids sat together. After school, black kids went home West across the river, and white kids went East. It was something you noticed everyday."
But, Macht says, some interracial friendships did form. Like his and Riley's.
"It's getting better now," Macht says. "Kids in their twenties and younger are baffled by racial angst. They might be clueless about history, but racial diversity is normal to them."
Macht concedes that Maschine's ownership doesn't itself reflect its own clientele. "It does probably reflect who has a better chance of launching a business here in Milwaukee, and that's troubling."
Macht pauses, surveys the scene in his pub.
"Look out there," Macht says, pointing to Maschine's dining area, "African-Americans are mostly eating with other African-Americans and whites with whites, Hispanics with Hispanics. They're at separate tables, but they are all here together in this room. And it's after school hours, and it feels good in here. That's something."
Riley enters the pub and makes his way to the bar.
"Thank God!" Macht says. "Now, we can change the subject and talk about the Packers and drink properly."
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NOTE: IP is an acronym for Imaginary Press, a wire service providing factually dubious news and feature stories to credulous media outlets worldwide.
Here's Wikipedia's take on Milwaukee.
Like many American cities, Milwaukee—especially its suburbs—is segregated. But is the "hyper-segregated" label fair? Read about the controversy.
Here's the Web site for the newly opened Harley-Davidson Museum.