Chicago, Illinois, was little more than a marsh in 1833, but it was destined for great things. William Haas and Konrad Sulzer arrived that year with equipment and supplies for Chicago’s first commercial brewery. A succession of important names became part owners of the Haas & Sulzer Brewery, including William B. Ogden, Chicago’s mayor. The brewery was renamed the Lill & Diversey Brewery around 1841, after William Lill and Michael Diversey took ownership. By 1866 this ale brewery was the largest in the Midwest.
John Huck started Chicago’s first lager brewery in 1847. Lager beer was a touchstone for Chicago’s swelling German community. Anti-immigrant sentiments were strong, and in 1855, efforts to control Irish- and German-owned saloons caused a bloody clash known as the Lager Beer Riot. One person was killed and many were injured, but the conflict tore apart the nativist political coalition, which had wanted to prevent Irish and German taverns from opening on Sundays. Eventually, the immigrants prevailed.
Chicago’s growth outstripped demand, so ambitious brewers in Milwaukee began shipping beer to Chicago. In 1871, the city of Chicago burned to the ground. Nineteen breweries were destroyed, with a value of $2 million. Of course, Milwaukee brewers were quick to rush water, then beer, to the parched survivors. Chicago rebounded at an even greater rate of growth, with plenty of customers for local and out-of-town brewers.
Chicago became an important center for brewing research and education. In 1872, Joseph Ewald Siebel founded the Zymotechnic Institute, and his Siebel Institute still exists as a brewing school today.
In the 1890s huge amounts of English capital flowed into US breweries. By 1900, half of Chicago’s brewing capacity was in British hands. With this came notions such as tied houses; one British group invested more than $6 million in brewery-owned bars. Today, dozens of distinctive former Schlitz (also with British ownership) taverns ring the center city, many still bearing the iconic old terra cotta Schlitz globes.
Prohibition was enacted in 1920, and the Chicago beer scene, which Prohibition was meant to smother, instead took on its own flavor. At first, 2.75% alcohol beer was still legal in Wisconsin. Pabst, Schlitz, and others flooded the market illegally. Mobsters like Johnny Torrio got involved in brewing and began to consolidate gang holdings. One holdout, northsider Dion O’Banion, sold Torrio his interest in the Sieben brewery, but not before he tipped off the Feds, who raided the place just as Torrio took ownership. Eventually Al Capone, a former Torrio protegé, edged out his old boss. In one transaction, Anheuser-Busch sold Capone more than 250,000 tapping heads, an indication of the size of the illegal enterprise.
From the end of Prohibition to the 1980s, Chicago’s brewing story is the same as that of most US cities: price competition, consolidation, and brewery closings. The last old-time brewery in Chicago, Siebens, closed along with its beloved beer garden in 1967.
The city’s first modern microbrewery, a reinvented Siebens Brewpub, opened in 1986. Others followed, including Goose Island Beer Company in 1988, now a successful regional brewer of craft beer with ties to Anheuser-Busch. As of mid-June 2010, the Chicagoland area had more than 30 small breweries and a growing number of bars catering to craft beer enthusiasts.