This is the second piece in a five-part series about the history of the Chicago flag and its connections to Chicago drinking history. Read Part 1 here.
It’s no secret that Chicago is quickly becoming a key player in the rapidly growing brewing industry. But this certainly isn’t our first time at the beer rodeo. As important as railroads and stockyards were to our city, so was beer. Chicago is, in fact, a city built on beer and it was a thriving beer town before the Great Fire of 1871 devastated both the city and the local brewing scene.
The first brewery in Chicago opened in the same year the area was incorporated as a town. In 1833, immigrants William Haas and Konrad Sulzer arrived from New York and brought with them some malt, beer, an array of brewing equipment and a wad of cash. Haas & Sulzer produced 600 barrels of beer in their first year of production. 600 barrels for 200 residents. Yes, Chicago, we have always been thirsty for local brew.
A few years later, William Ogden, future first mayor of Chicago, invested in the company and, several years after that, immigrants William Lill and Michael Diversey purchased the brewery and worked to grow it. By the early 1860s, their small brewery located at Chicago and Pine (Michigan Avenue) covered more than two acres, stood at four stories, employed nearly 80 people and was pumping out 45,000 barrels of beer per year. Lill & Diversey consequently became one of the largest breweries in the country. The company hired many curious beer lovers who would later venture off and start their own breweries. We can almost consider Lill & Diversey the original Goose Island - truly helping establish Chicago as a booming beer town.History repeats itself.
With the arrival of thousands of German immigrants, Chicago’s beer community grew and grew and brewed and brewed - a lot. Breweries like Seipp & Lehman and Downer, Bemis & Co. expanded at rapid rates and, by the late 1860s, Chicago had established itself as a beer mecca.
Yet in one fell swoop, it would all be destroyed.
On Oct. 8, 1871, a small fire started at 13 DeKoven Street on the city’s near west side. An unseasonably warm day, windy conditions, and the vast number of wooden streets, sidewalks and houses provided the perfect conditions to create a blaze that lasted three days and completely changed the course of Chicago history. In the end, 300 people were left dead and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. The city had been destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. And so was the brewing industry.
The fire engulfed approximately 12 of Chicago’s largest breweries and many of the brewers' homes. Lill & Diversey, a pioneer and a major producer, never recovered. In the end, about $2 million worth of brewery real estate was lost, no small sum in 1871. Chicago’s brewing capacity was now cut in half. The six breweries that managed to bounce back didn’t get to brewing for several months. Downer, Bemis & Co. ceased production and only began operations after creating a direct pumping line to Lake Michigan.
But the lager-colored lining to this story is that it provided opportunity for those that did survive. Small, struggling Chicago breweries were now able to supply the city in ways that were not available to them prior to the fire. Sieben Brewery was spared and grew to be a local favorite.
While Chicago was rebuilding, so was its brewing industry.
But the greatest opportunity, by far, was offered to Milwaukee. In 1870, Frederick Pabst borrowed $100,000 to purchase South Side Brewery because he hoped to grow production to 90,000 barrels per year. It was a big risk because he was taking a chance that he'd be able to sell as much as he produced.
It wasn’t looking good but then, as luck would have it, Chicago needed beer.
Frederick Miller was already shipping beer to Chicago prior to the fire, but sales took off post-1871 and elevated the Miller Brewing Company to new levels. Schlitz jumped at the chance to get into the game too and saw sales increase by 100 percent after the fire. Milwaukee breweries started loading up rail cars and sent beer trains south so that Chicago could drink. Twenty-five rail cars full of fresh, cold beer every single day.
Chicagoans have always been a hardy bunch and instead of wallowing in the ashes of the fire, our predecessors rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt the city in ways people never imagined. Although Milwaukee breweries were making their mark, Chicago beer makers slowly rebounded and continued to create a new city built on beer. Chicago’s golden era of beer-making was just beginning and by the early 1900s, Chicago had more than 60 breweries in full force.
Work hard, play hard, Chicago. We have always loved our beer.
On March 4, 2015 please join Liz and friends at Trencherman for a Chicago flag dinner to celebrate the 178th birthday of the City. Tickets to the dinner are available here.