Home††† ††††††††††††††† ††††††††††††††† Chicago Brewery Histories

References: One Hundred Years of Brewing, 1903, American Breweries II (IL-117, IL-79) Van Wieren 1995; US Beer Labels, Kay;† Brewery Directories. Interviews with retired brewery workers.

Text Box: c1890-96, An early label 
before in-house bottling.
Text Box: An 1894 Postal Cover
Text Box: Note Ernst Bros. is now prominently displayed on these factory scene articles. The early postcard pictures Prima, Prima Tonic and Burg Brau bottles, while the companion lithograph dropped Burg Brau from the scene ó suggesting that Burg Brau eventually lost flagship status.
Text Box: A 1900 Postal Cover which mentions only Burg Brau
Text Box: These c1898-1916 Labels show Independentís four principal brands.
Text Box: Independent Brewing Assn. ó The Pre-Prohibition Years

Three Ernst brothers, C. Emil, Leo and Otto organized and built a 70,000-80,000 bbl/yr lager beer brewery at 47-67 Larrabee Street in 1884. It was a relatively big brewery ó among the ten largest in Chicago. The Ernst Brothers operated this brewery for about six years, then sold out to Milwaukee & Chicago Breweries, Ltd., an English syndicate in 1890. These were unsettled times for the Brewery Industry as several different English Syndicates were vying for the remaining independent breweries in Chicago. At the same time US Brewers were forming syndicates to help resist the Brits. The Ernst Bros. were at first supportive of their Syndicate, but by 1894 after four years of English ownership, they became disenchanted and finally openly opposed the Brits by resigning their positions with the syndicate and buying into the American owned Independent Brewing Association located at Blackhawk and Halstead Streets.


The Independent Brewery had been built in 1890 as a 70,000-80,000 bbl/yr brewery. It took the Ernst Brothers 2 more years to gain controlling interest and then, in 1896, the brewery became known as the Ernst Brothers ó Independent Brewing Association. In-house bottling was added somewhere around 1898. Early brands included Burg Brau, Prima, Prima Tonic, Rienzi Brau and Rialto. Success in the marketplace helped Prima, a pale lager, and Prima Tonic, an extract of malt, hops and wildwood honey become their flagship brands. Despite business downturns associated with the approach of† Prohibition the brewery managed to stay afloat.† They continued through the dry years operating as the Primalt Products Co. or Prima Co. and emerged into the repeal years as the Prima Co.† By then a new generation of Ernstís were running the brewery but they missed the business savvy and experience of their elders and overextended by borrowing too much to upgrade their bottling capabilities to four lines. It was a bold move but it failed.† Suddenly the repeal sales boom ended, and when they couldnít meet their obligations they fell into receivership.


The new bottling equipment attracted the mob controlled Manhattan Brewery and they quickly gained control from the receiver, primarily by assuming Prima Co.ís debt. Useful equipment, especially the new bottling lines, were stripped from the facility and the plundered plant was closed in 1938.† The Prima name proved to be valuable and Manhattan made good use of it. Their floundering Westminster Brewing Co. was promptly refitted with new bottling equipment and renamed the Prima Brewing Co.† Three years later, in 1941, Manhattan took over the Bismarck Brewing Co. and renamed it Prima-Bismarck Brewing Co. At the same time they closed the Westminster/Prima facility. The Prima Co. has now been closed since 1938, but both Independent and Prima left some really neat collectables to help us remember the good ole years. Hereís a look at some. Enjoy!

†††††††††††††† Bob Kay Beer Labels††††††††††††† Chicago Brewery Histories†††