Technology that Changed Chicago: Beer 1830-1855

According to the The History of Beer and Brewing in Chicago, even before Chicago became a town, its residents were served by several taverns that brewed their own ale. Haas and Sulzer, the first wholesale brewery, began brewing ale in 1835. The first year they brewed 600 barrels.

Both Haas and Sulzer sold out a few years later. Konrad Sulzer moved to a farm on the north side. Sulzer Regional Library is named after him. His share of the brewery was bought by William Ogden, Chicago’s first Mayor, starting a long Chicago tradition of politicians with roots in the beer industry.

Two log cabins with the river between
Two saloons near the forks of the Chicago River ca. 1830 Source: Andreas. History of Chicago

In 1837, the City of Chicago was incorporated. The Charter gave the Mayor the power to regulate groceries(saloons), taverns and other liquor establishments. It was forbidden to sell liquor to servants, apprentices and Indians and at all on Sundays. The stage was set for well over 100 years of municipal strife over where and when and who could drink what.

William Ogden was also involved in the John Huck brewery which began brewing Chicago’s first lager beer in 1847. The American Brewery  describes the worldwide 19th Century revolution in brewing which popularized lager beer. Lager beer is brewed using a hybrid strain of yeast that prefers cold conditions. Ales and other malt liquors are brewed using yeast that ferments in warm conditions. Lager beer, which was often known simply as beer or bier, is lighter tasting. Lager had been brewed in caves in Germany since the 1500s, but more general production was not possible until the large scale commercial ice trade developed.  The ice is necessary to keep the wort (brewing liquid) cool throughout the process. This era also marked the beginning of brewing as a large scale urban industrial activity.

Picture of a brewery
Portion of an ad for Lill and Diversy's Brewery from the 1859 Chicago Business Directory. In 1859 Lill & Diversy were at Pine (now Michigan) and Chicago Avenues, right next to the waterworks.


In the latter half of the 19th Century, Chicago’s brewers continued to flourish, but increasingly lost out to Milwaukee. In the hot summer of 1854, Chicago ran out of both beer and ice. Both were imported from Milwaukee, which may have had a natural advantage due to cooler weather and more ice. According to Commerce, Railroads and Manufacturers of Chicago, in 1853 Chicago imported 399 barrels of ale and beer. In 1854: 11,191 barrels, 1855: 5,554, 1856: 21,767.

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