This article originally appeared in the Chicago Journal.
Chicago is known as the city that works. But for just as long as its residents have toiled, they’ve been going to drink after the fact.
On Tuesday night in the West Loop, history buffs and booze lovers met halfway at Haymarket Pub and Brewery, 737 W. Randolph St., to learn just how the city grew up around beer and that state of the relationship today.
Hosted by the Illinois Humanities Council’s Public Square program, about 100 people gathered in Haymarket’s back room to hear Elizabeth Garibay, public program manager of the Chicago History Museum, and Haymarket owner Pete Crowley talk about the connection.
More than just being a way to rid yourself of brain cells, the social atmosphere that usually accompanies beer guzzling tends to foster civic engagement, Garibay said. Indeed, while Chicago wasn’t officially founded as a city until 1837, by 1833 it had some of its first bars, according to Garibay.
“In 1833, there were only about 200 residents in the city of Chicago, and we already had three bars,” she noted.
All three were centered around the fork where the Chicago River’s north and south branches split, known as Wolf Point. Appropriately, the first bar was called Wolf Point Tavern, and the second was called the Fork Tavern. But the third, one of the most important, was named the Sauganash Tavern, part of a hotel of the same name.
It was there, amid drinks, that the city formally began.
“There was card playing, there was dancing, there was eating, and it was just a really fun place. Sort of a place to forget that life was pretty tough back then in Chicago,” Garibay said. “In 1833, it was also the place where 28 voters elected the first city officials, and it was also the place where those officials said, ‘Hey, let’s make this place official.’ So Chicago literally got its start in a bar.”
As the city grew larger and more immigrants arrived, one of the biggest groups to move in was the Germans, who brought with them a different set of values for drinking. Instead of the heavier, more alcoholic ales that British descendents had originally brought to the area, Germans preferred lighter, much less alcoholic lagers.
These began to take off during the Civil War, mainly because they were often handed out to soldiers by the government as part of their rations. That led to an explosion in the industry.
“It became more mainstream, and it became a huge opportunity for Chicago and Milwaukee,” Garibay said. “Then in 1871, the Great Chicago Fire happens, and that is really when Chicago’s beer industry starts taking a dive because they just can’t keep up.”
Many of the city’s breweries were ruined, and those that had the choice of rebuilding chose instead to pick up and move north to Milwaukee’s burgeoning brewery scene.
Fast forward to today, and brewing in Chicago is gaining steam again on the local level after decades of domination by big breweries, Pete Crowley, Haymarket’s owner, told the crowd.
It took a lot of factors for craft brewing and the age-old tradition of brewpubs to gain steam in Chicago again, not the least of which was the recent downturn in the economy. In a brewpub, almost a third of the space has to be devoted to brewing equipment and can’t be used for a restaurant or paying customers, he said — that can make it difficult to get started unless circumstances are just right.
“There weren’t a lot of craft breweries because no one could sign a lease on enough space to have room in downtown Chicago to make beer,” Crowley said. “So the fact that rents went down, and a lot of warehouse districts had a lot of space for a fairer price helped the brewing industry.”
Crowley’s also in a unique position to look ahead in the relationship between beer and politics. He’s president of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, a group that’s spent a lot of time lobbying to get the state’s laws changed to give small brewers more flexibility in selling their product.
Last spring, they tried to get a law passed that would have made it easier to self-distribute small amounts of beer instead of going through a middleman. But it was rewritten at the last second through the efforts of big liquor distributors, he said, essentially neutering it and making the process even more convoluted.
Still, the craft brewing industry is stronger than ever, largely because of their solidarity and enthusiasm to collaborate, he said.
“This is what sets us apart from every other industry. You don’t see the car industry, the clothing industry, Coke and Pepsi, you don’t see them collaborating with each other and working on a new recipe. The craft brewing industry, we’re all friends,” Crowley said. “We all want each other to succeed.”