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A pint-sized beer exhibit at the Field Museum explores Chicago’s thirsty origins

A pint-sized beer exhibit at the Field Museum explores Chicago’s thirsty origins
Photograph: Nick Murway

In 1855 Levi Boone, the anti-immigrant, pro-temperance mayor of a nascent Chicago, tried to leverage his power against a growing German population by going after their right to drink. He ordered police to enforce an old law requiring taverns to be closed on Sundays, a move that would disproportionately impact immigrants, who worked Monday through Saturday and (surprise) liked to throw back a few steins on their sole day off. He also jacked up liquor license fees from $50 per year to $300 a quarter, threatening to drive the city’s mostly German- and Irish-owned saloons out of business.

Hundreds of tavern owners defied the law by remaining open on Sunday and were arrested. The day of their scheduled mass trial, some 1,000 protestors marched downtown, prompting Boone to call in militia reinforcements. A fight broke out between protestors and police, leaving one German man dead. A disgraced Boone was forced to release the prisoners and lower liquor license fees, and his weakened party didn’t run for re-election in 1856. Thanks in part to German voter turnout, a statewide prohibition referendum failed, leaving citizens to enjoy a drink as they pleased and helping a marginalized group claim a place in the growing, diversifying city.

From this earliest instance of civil unrest known as the 1855 Lager Beer Riot, which laid the groundwork for Chicago’s rough-and-tumble politics, to the 19th century brewery-induced building boom that would establish the city as an architectural powerhouse, beer has played a pivotal role in the birth and development of Chicago. You can experience these stories up close at “Brewing Up Chicago,” an exhibit created by the nonprofit Chicago Brewseum that runs through January 2020 at the Field Museum.

The jam-packed, 750-square-foot exhibit spans 60 years, from Chicago’s origins to the 1893 World’s Fair through four sections that parallel the beer-brewing process: the Raw Ingredients, the Mash, Fermentation and Maturation.

Photograph: Courtesy Liz Garibay

“It really focuses on German immigrants in Chicago and their struggles,” says Liz Garibay, beer historian-about-town who developed the Chicago Brewseum. “People arrived to this swampy frontier town that didn’t even have beer. They created an industry, and fought to have it. We want to tell that story, and how the brewing industry in Chicago grew and, really, how Chicago grew. These three narratives all come together.”

A hulking 19th-century copper brewing kettle from the Siebel Institute takes visitors back to when the country’s oldest brewing school was founded, in 1872. Color sketches of the proposed Schlitz pavilion at the World’s Fair allow a glimpse of what the fair might have looked like in full color. A time-worn blue ribbon displayed beneath a pair of participation medals on loan from Milwaukee’s Pabst Mansion exposes a long-held myth of a certain beloved hipster lager.

Pabst [Brewing Co.’s] Blue Ribbon never got a blue ribbon at the World’s Fair,” Garibay says. “Every brewer who entered the fair, no matter if they won the competition, got the same medal. So this blue ribbon thing is a hoax.”

Photograph: Courtesy Liz Garibay

The exhibit offers a taste of something much bigger: a 30,000-square-foot standalone museum, slated to debut in a yet-to-be-determined location within the next few years. The sprawling Brewseum will house one permanent and two rotating beer exhibits, a rooftop beer garden, a classroom, an event space and—of course—a nanobrewery that will serve suds inspired by what’s happening inside the museum.

“You’ll literally be at the museum experiencing a story and get handed a beer from that time period,” Garibay says. “Or maybe you’ll be sipping something in the beer garden and read on the menu why it’s there, which will make you want to go into the museum to learn more. That’s the vision.”

In the meantime, the Brewseum is still fundraising for “Brewing Up Chicago,” to which you can donate online or by attending upcoming beer-focused events. It’s all in the name of fostering a deeper connection to Chicago’s history and culture through a beverage that’s perhaps had more influence over its development than any other.

“Beer is more than just a beverage,” Garibay says. “It is a powerful cultural force that brings people together and has the ability to make change. That is truly the mission of what we want to do, and the stories we want to tell.”

For more information on the Brewseum, donations and upcoming events, visit chicagobrewseum.org.

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