Chicago Beer: The Past, The Present, The FutureI have been in Chicago for five years now. During my time I have been witness to the rapid increase
in brewery openings, beer bar openings, restaurants with beer centric beverage lists, the increase in
popularity of homebrew clubs (and homebrew supply stores – here’s looking at you Brewcamp!!), and
a beer fan base whose voice has only strengthened as the popularity of beer, homebrewing, and beer
choices have increased. Lately, I have found myself asking how did we get to where we are today?
Finally, what does the future for beer and breweries look like for Chicago? After some time with my nose in various books and websites, I have a better idea than before.
Chicago’s history with brewing beer began in 1833 with the Wolf Point Tavern and the Fork’s Tavern
which secured the county’s first liquor licenses. The proprietors of said taverns also brewed their
own ‘primitive style of ale’. 1 While it may not have been anything fancy, I am sure their customers were glad to have it as an option.
The first production brewery in Chicago was started by settlers from New York named William Haas and Konrad Sulzer. The first year of production at the Haas and Sulzer Brewery resulted in 600 barrels of beer. It may not sound like a lot by today's standards, but back in the 1830s a few hundred barrels was considered a great deal of beer (especially for a city whose population was around 200 people).
In 1836, William Ogden (Chicago’s first mayor) bought out Konrad Sulzer’s share of the brewery. Soon thereafter, Mr. Ogden financed the construction of a new brewery that was built near the intersection of what is now North Michigan Ave and Chicago Avenue to help keep up with the demand of a population whose thirst seemed unquenchable.
In 1839, an immigrant from England named William Lill bought out part of William Haas’ share of the
Brewery, and in 1841 William Ogden’s share was bought out by an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine (part of modern day France) named Michael Diversey. 1 Afterwards, the brewery changed its name to the Lill and Diversey Brewery (aka The Chicago Brewery). The brewery’s best seller was called Lill’s cream ale. It was so successful that by 1857 Lill and Diversey were able to invest $250,000 in their brewery. The same year, the Democratic Press published a report that said the total production of beer and ale in Chicago reached 16,270 barrels in 1856.
Lager brewing arrived in Chicago in 1847 when John Huck and John Schneider established a brewery on land that was sold to them by William Ogden (who retained a partnership in the new lager brewery after he sold them the land to build it upon) 1.
In 1855, Mayor Levi Boone (a temperance advocate) raised the price of liquor licenses from $50 to $300 per year (renewable quarterly), and he pushed for the enforcement of an old local ordinance that stated local saloons were to be closed on Sundays. Being a town that, for the most part, enjoyed having a beer at their local watering hole, Chicagoans were not happy to have such laws applied to their way of life. On April 21st, after numerous saloon owners were arrested for violating the law, protestors of the law clashed with cops in a skirmish that became known as the Lager Beer Riots. The result was the return of $50 liquor licenses and the removal of Levi Boone and his party members from political office in the next election. 1
By 1860, Chicago’s population had surpassed 100,000 and 32 breweries were in operation within the
city. In 1868, a fellow from Dusseldorf, Germany named Dr. John Ewald Siebel founded the Zymotechnic Institute in Chicago (it would later be renamed the Siebel Institute of Technology), and it became Dr. Siebel’s lab for brewing research. In 1882, Dr. Siebel started a scientific school for brewers. The school survived prohibition by offering classes in baking, refrigeration, engineering, milling, carbonated beverages and other related topics. Today, the Siebel Institute is the oldest brewing school still operating in the USA. 6.
Besides the opening of the Siebel Institute, the progress in mechanical refrigeration, the incorporation of
an analytical lab within a brewery (or the use of an outside lab service), an increase in the acceptance of
bottling beer, and the increase in the number of malt houses in Chicago (by the mid 1880s there were 20 independent malt houses) helped Chicago brewers to sell more beer and make better beer more often
with less fear of unexplainable ‘tainting'. 1 By 1879, the annual local beer production was nearly 400,000 barrels (sixth greatest amount of beer produced annually at that time) 5.
In 1891, Peter Hand (a Prussian Immigrant who worked for the Conrad Seipp Brewing Co.) founded the Hand (Peter) Brewing Company on North Avenue 3 . The brewery’s flagship product was its Meister Brau beer. The beer was so successful that the company was re-named Meister Brau Inc (to help make the connection between its popular beer and the brewery much clearer) after the brewery was purchased by a group of investors in 1965. By the end of the 1960s, the brewery’s annual production had reached one million barrels and annual sales topped $50m (which put Meister Brau among the top 30 beer companies in the United States), but the company was losing money. In 1972, it sold its brand names to (at the time) Milwaukee based Miller Brewing Company. When the Hand Brewery officially closed in 1978, it marked the end of beer produced in Chicago 3.
Long before the Hand Brewery closed, brewing in Chicago had already significantly declined. By the time Prohibition became law on January 16th, 1920, many breweries had already begun ‘de-alcoholizing’ beer so that they could legally sell it as 0.5% ABV ‘near beer’. Predictably, customers were not very receptive to this new product, and sales suffered. To add to Chicago brewers’ troubles, stronger (and thus more popular) 2.75% ABV beer from Milwaukee was making its way into Chicago saloons. After city, state and federal officials found out, nineteen beer trucks were seized on their way to Chicago, and representatives from the Jos. Schlitz, Pabst, Val Blatz and Fred Miller Brewing Companies were ordered to appear before a federal judge 1 (p121). This action was “too little, too late” to help the already struggling local brewing industry, and Chicago breweries steadily continued going out of business even after prohibition was repealed.
While I cannot imagine how Chicagoans faired without locally made beer, the void was filled in 1988
when Goose Island, founded by John Hall, opened its Clybourn brewpub. The beer produced at the
Clybourn brewpub became so popular that Mr. Hall decided to open a production facility in 1995
on Fulton Ave to keep up with demand, followed in 1999 by a second brewpub in the Wrigleyville
neighborhood. It was because of Goose Island that Chicago began to regain its footing on the national
Around the time that I arrived in Chicago in 2007, the lone breweries that I recall being up and running
were Goose Island, Piece and Rock Bottom Chicago. While it is great to have such capable, award
winning breweries operating, it felt like there was still room for more breweries, beer, and beer centric
bars/restaurants. Thankfully, my move to the North side coincided with Half Acre Brewing Company and Metropolitan Brewing Company setting up shop in the North Center and Ravenswood neighborhoods respectively.
Half Acre started by contract brewing out of state for a year before construction began on their own facility on Lincoln Avenue (local production began in 2009). After developing a solid local fan base, they turned heads in 2010 by being the first Chicago brewery to can their beer since the Hand Brewery. It was a move that took some people by surprise, but it also attracted new fans to the brewery, and
kickstarted a trend: Finch’s Brewing Company began canning upon opening in 2011, and Revolution
Brewing Company’s production facility will start canning this year 12.
Metropolitan Brewing Company was started in 2007 by Tracy and Doug Hurst in the Ravenswood
neighborhood of Chicago. Setting Metropolitan apart from other Chicago breweries at the time (and
continuing to this day) is that they are a lager only brewery.
These days, Chicago’s beer and brewing community has expanded to eight brewpubs (Piece, Haymarket, Revolution, Hamburger Mary’s, Goose Island Wrigleyville, Goose Island Clybourn, Rock Bottom, Moonshine), six local production breweries (Revolution, Finch’s, Goose Island, Half Acre, Pipeworks, and Metropolitan), and nearly 20 breweries in various states of opening (see Chitownontap.com for a comprehensive list 9). Beer focused eateries (such as The Hopleaf, Farmhouse, Owen & Engine, Fountainhead) and bars (Quenchers, The Long Room, The Map Room, Delilah’s and many more) are thriving, and offer a wide variety of beer made by Illinois breweries. There is also an active home brewing scene propagated by long running clubs such as the Chicago Beer Society (Chicagoland) and HOPS (South Side), as well as relative newcomers like Square Kegs (Lincoln Square) and the C.H.A.O.S. brew club. All of the above, combined with an active beer blogging/publication community, provides the Illinois beer drinker with many resources and opportunities to enjoy the fantastic beer that Chicago and Illinois have to offer.
What does the future for Chicago beer hold? Gabriel Magliaro (founder of Half Acre) has several thoughts on the matter: “Obviously there are a lot of brewers coming, a lot of bars open with craft centric beer programs, everyone is piling on - saturation of the whole movement will increase. Hopefully the diversity and creativity of passion based players allow for continued interest and reason to crave further learning and exploration of our city's beer drinking public… I hope that the people going out to try beers, attend events and support beer are met with ongoing passion and creative takes on what all this can and should be. I hope those that arrive to all this for the wrong reasons shrivel away and make way for those that reinvent the landscape of people brewing and drinking craft beer. There's a lot of room for thoughtful people looking to innovate, but there's no room for people looking to capitalize on what's shiny.”
1. The history of beer and brewing in Chicago by Bob Skilnik, page 1
2. Gapers Block (http://gapersblock.com/airbags/archives/
3. Serious Eats (http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/01/beer-history-chicago-diversey-siebel-meister-
4. Encyclopedia of Chicago (http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/164.html)
5. Chicago Tribune (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-07-16/entertainment/
6. Siebel Institute (http://www.siebelinstitute.com/about-us/history-a-focus)
7. Half Acre Beer - http://halfacrebeer.com/story.html
8. Metropolitan Beer - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Brewing
9. Chitownontap - http://chitownontap.com/2012/01/03/2012-chicagos-craft-beer-preview/
10. Thefullpint.com = http://thefullpint.com/breweries/half-acre-beer-co/half-acre-brewing-profile-on-a-
11. Timeout Chicago = http://timeoutchicago.com/things-to-do/this-week-in-chicago/7543049/