MILWAUKEE -- They stand in the cold, fingers numb around a bottle of beer. They might or might not have slept in the car. For sure, they are in line and drinking before the sun made an appearance.  

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Mike Doble, owner of The Explorium Brewpub in Greendale, putting labels on bottles for his Black Friday brew: bourbon barrel-aged Cherry Chocolate Imperial Stout.

On the surface, they are there on the day after Thanksgiving for a specific, special beer release: Lakefront Brewery's barrel-aged Imperial Stout Black Friday beer.

But the people who line up in the cold — an estimated 1,600 people did so last year — are there to tap more than a rare brew.  

"The first year I went because it was a novelty," said Eric Sullivan, who has been to every Lakefront Black Friday since the first one in 2012. "The thing that keeps me coming back is the community, the awesome people." 

Black Friday in Milwaukee is no longer just a shopping day — it's a beer lover's day. 

Five years ago, Lakefront was the only Milwaukee brewery to have a Black Friday event. This year, 11 craft brewers and brewpubs have announced a special-release beer for the day after Thanksgiving, with one more doing a release on Thanksgiving Eve and another on the Saturday after Black Friday. And other local craft-beer destinations are having special Black Friday events, too. 

The day after Thanksgiving has become a time when breweries release big, unique and creative beers, said Steve Pribek of Urban Harvest Brewing.

"Our Imperial Chocolate Whiskey Stout just happened to be ready at this time last year and it fits that description: big dark, full-flavored, and just a hint boozy. We look to make this a traditional Black Friday release beer," Pribek said.

When Lakefront staged its first Black Friday event in 2012, it was just to give people something to do.

Lakefront Brewery's Black Friday
The line wraps around the side of the Lakefront Brewery building during a Black Friday special release.

Lakefront president Russ Klisch, inspired by the people who went Christmas shopping in the pre-dawn hours, decided to offer brewery tours starting at 8 a.m. the Friday after Thanksgiving. He thought people would shop, hit up a tour and head home for a nap. 

After the first tour, he asked how many of the tour-takers had hit that day's door-buster sales, and no one raised a hand. People, it turned out, were just looking for something to do on their day off. 

The second year, Lakefront added a special-release beer to the mix. Crowds lined up to purchase long before the doors opened.

A tradition was born.

"There's always one character who comes at 10 the night before," Klisch said. "I always come at 5 in the morning and there's a line to the end of the ramp." 

Chris Paulos, who lives near Lakefront, will miss Thanksgiving with the family in Chicago to line up at 7 or 8 p.m.on Nov. 23 to secure his usual spot in line — third — as much for boasting rights as fellowship. 

"I see the same people every year," Paulos said. "We are clearly like-minded." 

He doesn't know their names, but he remembers things about them. The first guy in line always wears a Seahawks shirt, and "there's the guy from Decorah, Iowa, who always brings Toppling Goliath (beer)." 

 

Unlike the big-box-store sales, no one comes to a Black Friday beer event for a deal. It's the sense of being part of something special that is a big draw.

Sullivan compared the atmosphere to a block party — a sometimes bitterly cold block party.

Chicago's Goose Island was the first brewery to release a specialty beer on Black Friday, when it launched Bourbon County Stout Rare in 2010. But Lakefront's Klisch was the one to trademark the name Black Friday for his beer.

Mike Doble, who opened Explorium Brew Pub at Southridge mall this year, remembers when Bourbon County Stout was the thing to buy. He vowed that when he opened his own brewery, he would have a stout to compete with the beer.

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Doble isn't a fan of Bourbon County Stout anymore, but he will have his stout this year on Black Friday, even if he has to open at 6 a.m. because the mall says he does. 

He plans serve doughnuts and coffee to the beer lovers in line, and open Explorium for breakfast from 7 to 10 a.m. for the first time.

"I like Black Friday," he said. "It really is the start of our busy season."