Business Spotlight: Tornado Brewing Company

Gateway To Milwaukee’s Executive Director, Jim Tarantino, interviews business owners about working in The Gateway.

Tornado Brews Craft Beer in the Gateway

Head south of Bay View and the KK Ave. business district and you’ll find Tornado Brewing Company, a craft beer gem. In Cudahy at 3506 E. Layton Ave., Dennis Erb serves unique beer and spirits of his own creation with a constantly updated menu. Past small batch brews include a sweet potato porter, turtle sundae ale, Hawaiian pilsner with pineapple, and jalapeño ale. The bar has a relaxed feel and a small menu of bar food; but it’s the diverse beer, spirits, and “brew-stilling” cocktails that are the real draw. We sat down with Erb to talk about his experience operating a watering hole in The Gateway.

How did you get started in the brewing and distilling business?

Erb: “About eight years ago I moved away from Milwaukee to open the Whistle Stop in Woodman, WI. Three years later I started brewing my own beer at the Whistle Stop. I decided I wanted to make unique beers of every flavor infusion and flavor combination. The beer started to get popular and word of mouth was spreading. I was able to obtain a license to sell my beer and in September of 2014, I decided to come back to Milwaukee because of the good market for craft beer.”

Why did you choose to operate your bar in the airport area?

Erb: “In Milwaukee, there are a lot more people that drink beer, so I’m able to sell and experiment with more flavors because there’s a market here. I figured this would be a good place to start because Cudahy doesn’t have many ‘different’ places. I picked this building over any other bar in the area because the building looks like a Belgian monastery brewery. People don’t realize how big this space is, I have two bar areas and a back room with pool table, foosball, and darts. I can fit more than one hundred people in here! When the weather is nice, the space multiplies by four, because I have a volleyball court and beer garden outside.”

“It’s very easy to get to,” he added, “and it’s the closest brewery to the airport. Travelers who are looking for a brewery find my web page and are happy that it’s so close to the airport.”

Where do your customers come from?

Erb: “I have the best customers! Nine out of ten people know what they are coming in for, great beer. More and more people from Cudahy are coming in. Still, 95% of my customers come from other areas around Milwaukee. Everyone in Cudahy has his or her regular bar, which makes it a little difficult to break into that market. The ‘Untapped’ App has really helped with that since people can post the unique beers they get here which then drives there friends here. Most of the people who come here are pretty adventurous and willing to travel a little ways for a unique beverage.”

Tell us about your process for making unique and interesting beers.

Erb: “All the beers are made with the natural flavors that give them their names. For example, the carrot lager is made with carrots. To make the beer, I have a barrel system that is a masher/circulation system powered by water heater elements and an electronic system that controls the temperature of the heating elements. My 3-pot system can run two batches simultaneously so while one batch is boiling another can be mashing. Every Monday I go back home, I brew and bottle on Tuesday, and then I transport everything here Wednesday afternoon so that I can be open Wednesday night.”

Tell us about the spirits.

Erb: “I invented a unique distilling process called “Brew-Stilling” to make malt liquors. It’s special 3-step system that allows me to ferment at 30%-40%. People don’t realize the chemicals that are in store bought liquors. My liquors are 100% natural with no preservatives or added chemicals. I just finished a batch of bitters and I have started making Old Fashioneds. I also make a great Bloody Mary.”

“A lot of people come here for the beer,” he said, “and don’t realize that I have a great stock of all-natural liquors to craft cocktails with.”

Do you plan to sell Tornado products outside your bar?

Erb: “No, it’s just me and I’m the only one who makes my beers and liquors. My goal has always been to make and serve beer. All I want is to just sustain myself and my family. I’m not in it to make a big profit. It’s a family business and I want to keep it that way. I would just like to sustain this place for many years and continue to meet good people.”

What’s next for Tornado Brewing Company?

Erb: “I’m starting to sell growlers and bottles of Tornado beer. I have all the equipment ready. People can purchase a six pack with different flavors or a growler and enjoy my beer at home.”