Liz Flag Beer

This is the third piece in a five-part series about the history of the Chicago flag and its connections to Chicago drinking history.

If you tell someone that you haven't read "Devil In The White City," most people would tell you your Chicago card might get taken away. While the book is a fun read for history enthusiasts wanting a bit of drama, it did one incredibly important thing for Chicago history: it brought back the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition. While the Great Fire destroyed our young growing city, it was the World's Fair that allowed us to rise from the ashes and strive for greatness. 

From vying to host the Fair to ultimately pulling together to put on a great show, the story is drama-filled and action packed. And within this curious tale, there is so much history that is still relatively not well known. Like beer history.

The World's Columbian Exposition was meant to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Approximately 27 million people visited the Fair while it was open from May 1 - October 31, 1893. They were left speechless by the neo-classical architecture and modern technology; the numerous structures that were spread out across the 630 acres of fair housed exhibitions that presented world cultures and recent inventions and various innovations.

Breweries from all over the country set up displays informing visitors about their operations and delectable beer. Frederick Pabst and Adolphus Busch had spent the past 20 years ferociously growing their breweries into massive corporations. These two were the heavy hitters and they brought their top game to the Fair. Busch exhibited a 25-square-foot model of his brewery which was intricately detailed to mimic the real thing in St. Louis. The glass, steel and gold pavilion housed models of the stables, horses, home, trains, refrigerated cars - the whole nine yards. Busch proudly stood before his creation and $15,000 later, he was happy.

Chicago Flag Star 3 - Phil Thompson

"Sadly, one feature of the Anheuser-Busch display can never be reconstructed: the look on Adolphus's face when he laid eyes on the Pabst exhibit" writes author Maureen Ogle in her wonderful book, "Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer." She goes on to write that Pabst spent $20,000 on the terra cotta pavilion alone. Stained glass, cherubs, gold leaf decor, carved columns displaying hops - all a space to exhibit a model of the Pabst Brewery which took more than 30 craftsmen four months to build. In the end, Pabst spent $100,000 on his entire exhibit. As Ogle points out, that would be nearly $2 million today.

But the battle wasn't all about physical presence. It was, after all, about the beer and whose was the best. Brewing judges were meant to taste each entry and were to vote on purity, color and flavor. Judging and total points (out of 100) were kept under wraps. But this was Chicago and the five judges all had vested interest in sharing their numbers because they were friends with either Pabst or Busch and wanted to let them know if they voted in their favor. They created their own rules and means of judging. Flavor, chemical purity, brilliancy and commercial importance were the new categories and everyone but the judges were baffled by the new measures. And even though there was a U.S. Department of Agriculture chemist performing scientific analyses on each beer, the judges paid him no attention. It was pure politics and money.

The competition was controversial from the get-go. And although there was no prize in the end, tensions rose and the war was on. Because of their connections to the two big beer makers, numbers were important and were published and a topic of constant discussion. By October 1893, Busch had a two point lead over Pabst. It was good enough for him and placed a sign in front of his display boldly claiming him the King of Brewers. Soon after, the chemist came back with his lab results and Pabst suddenly took the lead. But a couple of judges protested that they were not present to receive the results so they couldn't possibly count. This went on and on, back and forth, and the battle continued to be layered with all kinds of new reasons as to why the points should be changed. And although the Fair closed on October 31, the beer judging dragged on until the end of the year.  In late December the Executive Committee of the Fair read all the findings and ultimately declared the matter over. Frederick Pabst, and his beer, were the winners.

History is often skewed and rewritten based on stories that emerge from various corners of the world.  This story is no different.  While here we sit in 2015 and are all very familiar with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Pabst never won a blue ribbon at the Chicago World's Fair.  He won nothing but a medal - the same medal that all the other entrants received.  During the 1870s, Frederick Pabst's beer begun winning various competitiions.  In 1882, Pabst began placing a small silk blue ribbon on each of his to indicate his beer was good, and classy. He believed that if his bottles looked pretty and elegant, and told a winners story, he might sell more beer. His marketing gimmick worked.  The blue ribbon is important to the Pabst story, but it has nothing to do with the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Or the third star on our flag.

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.