A Brief History of Beer in Chicago

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Brand Brothers, one of Chicago's dozens of lost breweries, now and then. [Photograph: ChicagoGeek on Flickr]

There is some dispute as to when Chicago gained its first brewery; was it in 1833, the same year the city was incorporated, or was the first commercial beer production seen closer to 1835? Many sources quote the 1833 date, but there is also some evidence that J. & W. Crawford's Chicago Brewery may have been the first in town, in 1835. While further digging into local archives could settle the matter, it is clear that the first brewery to make a real impact on the city was the one founded by William Haas and Conrad (or Konrad) Sulzer.

The German-speaking immigrants arrived from New York, and were quickly producing hundreds of barrels of beer annually. William Lill arrived from England and bought into the brewery in 1839, the same year Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, did the same. Beer historian Gregg Smith notes in his Beer In America: The Early Years—1587-1840 that the mayor was very much involved in the business, and not just a silent partner: he wanted to ensure that the brewery's hops came from New York's Finger Lakes region.

But Ogden was out of the business by 1842, the same year that Alsatian Michael Diversey arrived on the scene. With his investment (and the departure of Haas and Sulzer), the brewery became the Lill and Diversey Brewery, and later simply the Chicago Brewery; despite the partially German origins, they chiefly produced porters, stouts and a popular cream ale.

By 1861, they were a very successful business indeed, producing over 45,000 barrels a year, and even with Diversey's death in 1869, things continued to grow at the brewery. But the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ended the Lill and Diversey story—like much of the city, it was burned to the ground—and for many years, only Lill Street and Diversey Avenue commemorated their once-thriving business (and local political involvement). However, just last year a new beer bar named after Michael Diversey opened on his namesake street—a sign that Chicago beer fans are starting to take a closer look at their beer history.

While few initially operated on the scale of Lill and Diversey, German brewers began to arrive in Chicago in the later 19th century, bringing with them lager and beer gardens; we've previously covered the 1855 Chicago Beer Riots that came about as a result of growing tensions over immigration in a city that was still working to define itself.

One of those brewer-immigrants, John Ewald Siebel, continues to influence American brewing, both in Chicago and far beyond. Thanks to him, Chicago has long been the home of 'academic' brewing in the US—the Siebel Institute of Technology was founded in 1868. Although it did not long retain its more mellifluous original name, the Zymotechnic Institute, and it has had something of a peripatetic existence around the city, its mission to educate professional brewers not only survived Prohibition (by teaching baking rather than brewing for a time), but it is still going strong 140 years later.

Alumni of the Siebel Institute can be found overseeing breweries large and small around the world. And it was not the only center of brewing education in the city; the Wahl-Henius Institute of Fermentology was founded in 1886 with the same purpose, and while it did not survive Prohibition, some of their publications are still popular with homebrewers.

Chicago brewing rebounded after the fire (though for a time the city subsisted on beer sent from Milwaukee), with more than sixty breweries in operation by the early part of the 20th century. One of the most significant was that founded by Peter Hand, who arrived in Chicago from Prussia. First employed by the Conrad Seipp Brewing Company, a powerhouse brewery that survived the fire (but would not manage the same trick with Prohibition), Hand began his own brewery in 1891, with a focus on German styles. His Meister Brau brand quickly became popular, and Hand's death in 1899 did not slow down the business. Although things were quiet during Prohibition, the Peter Hand Brewery returned and remained very much a part of Chicago, even as other local breweries were being purchased or shut down (though many of those buildings and their associated tied houses are still standing).

Peter Hand's Old Chicago brand became the local canned go-to, and the Meister Brau brand continued to make history, albeit in a somewhat oblique manner. The brewery was purchased by investors in 1967 and renamed for its Meister Brau flagship. Around the same time, a biochemist from Rheingold Brewery in New York brought his formulation for 'Gablinger's Diet Beer' to Meister Brau; it became the first large-scale 'Lite' beer, but the writing was on the wall for Meister Brau; it was sold to Miller in 1972, who tinkered with the formula and relaunched the product as Miller Lite. By 1978, Meister Brau ceased brewing in Chicago—the last brewery in the city was gone.

But that was hardly the end of the story; ten years later, a small brewpub opened in Chicago—one Goose Island. Their growth and success has paved the way for other Chicago-area brewers, like Two Brothers, Metropolitan Brewing and Half Acre Beer Company. While it remains to be seen what sort of longer-term impact Goose Island's sale to InBev will have on the company and on Chicago beer in general, the fact remains that it was instrumental in putting the city back on the beer map—long may it remain.

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