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In the mid-19th century, Chicagoans worked hard and frolicked with their families in spots like Riverview Park that also served as beer gardens. Germans, in particular, demanded quality brews to wash down their sausages. Brewers such as Schoenhofen and Siebens flourished in the city due to our access to waterways, central national railways and large beer-drinking population. Chicago was a beer town, a very German beer town in some parts.
But with the rise of the Know Nothings, a Baptist in the mayor’s office and temperance movement, the beer-drinking Chicagoan encountered new obstacles. Mayor Levi Boone, under pressure to deal with rising crime and a largely misunderstood immigrant population, began enforcing a law that closed taverns on Sundays and raised the cost of a liquor license to $300 a year. Chicago’s constabulary consisted of only nine men at this point, so enforcement was easier said than done—a new police department was created. The cops stormed German and Irish taverns in the central areas and the North Side of Chicago, but not where the nativist parties lived. The result was the Lager Beer Riot that had immigrants storming downtown Chicago. Boone was tossed out of office the next year with 75% turnout at the polls.
Among Chicago’s most famous breweries, the Schoenhofen Brewery (original buildings at 18th and Canalport date from 1896–1902) turned out the popular Edelweiss beer for Chicagoans (you can see Edelweiss steins on exhibit at Dank-Haus right now, in fact). Designed by Hugh Garden and built in 1902, the brewery sat on a natural spring, which supplied the water for its brews. During Prohibition, the company continued to make near beer under an L Permit from the federal government, though it had its assets seized under the Trading with the Enemy Act. It survived Prohibition in part by turning to soft drinks such as Green River. Somehow, it emerged as one of Chicago’s larger breweries after Prohibition. Today, its Prairie School powerhouse and Victorian-era administration building still remain, but redevelopment of the historic structures has been stalled.
As for why Chicago’s brewing tradition faded and Milwaukee’s rose, I’m willing to entertain several theories, any of which seems online somewhere.
The Chicago Fire Though the Milwaukee competition actually began in 1857 when the cities were linked by rail, it was the fire that turned Chicago from a producer to a consumer of beer. While some Chicago breweries were spared, Siebens for example, five of the city’s 12 breweries succumbed to the disaster. Milwaukee’s brewers jumped on opportunity and cornered the market—Schlitz donated train cars of beer and water to Chicagoans after the fire and eventually built hundreds of its tied houses here; Chicagoans have been loyal, more or less, ever since.
Mass production Consolidation in the beer industry in the decades after WWII meant that bigger brewers snatched up smaller ones. Regional breweries couldn’t compete with big brewers' economies of scale, distribution channels and national advertising.
Changes in taste In the mid–20th century, darker, richer beers went out of fashion—lighter, drier beers emerged.
What to look for at breweries: the brewer’s star
The hexagonal shape looks like a Star of David, but in fact is the brewer’s star.