By David Witter
Chicago was built on beer. Names like William Ogden, Michael Diversey, Conrad Sulzer, Charles Wacker and William Lill sound like a Chicago street guide, but these civic leaders made their fortunes by owning breweries. Yet if you were to sum up the history of brewing in Chicago, you could do it with one word—failure.
As the city with the largest German population, the second-largest Irish population, access to unlimited fresh water, grains via barge, and the railroad center of the nation, Chicago should be the beer capital of the world. Even after Prohibition, there were thirty-three large breweries running in Chicago. Yet since the Peter Hand/Meister Brau brewery closed in l978, there has not been one major brewery located in the windy city. Instead, that honor is split by our smaller neighbors, Milwaukee and St. Louis. The reasons why at least 10,000 Chicagoans are not cashing brewing-related paychecks this Friday are legion, but words like laziness, shortsightedness and the corrupting influence of gangsters and politicians have more than a little to do with it.
It all started in 1854, when an exceptionally hot summer exhausted Chicago’s supply of beer. Happy to oblige, the smaller Milwaukee brewers like Joseph Schlitz came to the rescue. It happened again in 1871, when the Chicago Fire devastated at least twenty breweries. The Chicago brewers cannot be faulted for these misfortunes, but after that, they deserve most of the blame.
In his definitive book, “The History of Beer and Brewing in Chicago, 1833-1978,” author Bob Skilnik notes that, by and large, the Chicago brewers were happy to stand pat and make their money close by, while Milwaukee was forced to use creativity in manufacturing, transporting and marketing to sell their product in Chicago and the growing markets in the South and West.
“The Chicago brewers’ provincial view of brewing was first reflected in the production figures of 1879,” Skilnik writes. “Milwaukee, with a population of 115,000, surpassed Chicago’s beer production having brewed 411,245 barrels of beer. Chicago brewers initially showed no alarm at this creeping trend. They were content to manufacture 336,204 barrels for a city of 503,000, selling almost all of it in the city.”
Today, Milwaukee and St. Louis are the beer capitals due to greater distribution, advertising and marketing. The availability of ice in Milwaukee meant that beer in railroad cars packed with ice and hay could survive the hot summers in the southern and western U.S. The innovation of rubber-lined railroad cars, or “rolling kegs” aided this, and by 1884 Milwaukee had doubled its production to 803,000 barrels a year while Chicago was brewing about 350,000.
Chicago also became a center of beer marketing—for other companies. Before TV and print ads, Schlitz came up with the idea of the “Schlitz House.” At one time, mansion-like saloons adorned with a globe and the Schlitz logo covered the city. Today, Schubas and The Southport Lanes are a few of the surviving examples of this idea.
Even though Chicago breweries were not gaining ground, fortunes were still being made, and the local beer business thrived in Chicago through the end of World War II. Some of the many great breweries included the Manhattan Brewery at 3901 S. Emerald (now Chiappetti Lamb and Veal) Schoenhofen Brewery at 500 W. 18th Street, Monarch Brewery at 2419-2443 W. 21st Street, White Eagle Brewery at 3735-3755 S. Racine, The Canadian Ace Brewery at 3940 S. Union, The Pilsen Brewery at 3024 W. 26th Street and Peter Hand/Meister Brau at 1612 N. Sheffield. Some of the famous brands made in Chicago included Fox de Luxe, Bismark Beer, Bull Frog Beer, Ambrosia Lager, Prima Beer, Monarch Beer, Olympia Beer, Meister Brau and Old Chicago Beer.
It is not hard to imagine that many of Chicago’s breweries were controlled by gangsters. The Manhattan Brewery was the first casualty, sold to Johnny Torrio in 1919. Just a few of the other breweries controlled by Torrio, who deeded his empire to Al Capone and later Frank Nitti, included the Pfeiffer Brewery on Leavitt and Irving, the Atlas Brewery, Canadian Ace and thousands of smaller, “garage breweries” across the city. During Prohibition, these breweries survived by making hundreds of thousands of barrels of non-alcoholic “near beer.” Bar owners paid for the beer, and after receiving the federal stamp, they simply injected the barrels with alcohol, selling what was known as “needle beer” in speakeasies across the city. Obviously, these gangsters knew nothing about making beer, beer quality and the brewing tradition, and cared less about the future of Chicago’s beer industry. Instead, they were content to take their large weekly payoffs—and run Chicago’s beer business into the ground.
The final nails in the Chicago beer coffin can once again be traced to shortsightedness. After World War II, a new invention, television, brought entertainment and sports into the American home. While Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Schlitz and Hamm’s told us about “The King of Beers,” “Miller Time,” “the land of sky blue waters” and “God’s Country,” in their infinite wisdom, Chicago’s breweries concentrated their marketing on tie-ins with local supermarkets. To add insult to injury, it was the Chicago-based firm, Meister Brau, that came up with the idea of a “lighter, less filling” beer in the mid-1960s. Although they eventually landed as number twenty out of the twenty largest beer companies in the nation, Meister Brau/Peter Hand experienced financial troubles. In 1972, they sold the “lite product” to the Philip Morris Company, who owned Miller Beer. The rest, they say, is history.