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Early Days of Brewing in Chicago

It all started in the Tavern’s!


Chicago has such a memorable brewing history its natural to wonder how it all started. Here’s a brief look back, starting with brewing in the Indian settlement that eventually became Chicago.

The first beer in the Chicago Settlement was served in taverns such as Mark Beaubien’s Hotel Sauganash, built in 1831, James Kinzie’s Green Tree Tavern, Elijah Wentworth’s Wolf Point Tavern, and Samuel Miller’s Fork Tavern. These taverns were built on the shores and forks of the waterways which served as a focal point for the Indians, trappers, traders and pioneers which made up the settlement. They brewed their own ale to supplement shipments from the East. The settlement numbered only 350 when the Town of Chicago was incorporated in 1833. Brewing in settlements like this tended to elude the tax man as well as the reference books. 100 Years of Brewing, written in 1903, touched on Chicago’s first brewers of record:

The immense brewing interests of Chicago had their origins in the small plant erected by William Lill about 1833. Associated with him was William Haas. In September 1939 William B. Ogden, who two years previously, had been elected mayor of the city, established Mr. Lill in business at the corner of Pine Street and Chicago Avenue, Mr. Haas being the latter’s assistant. The “plant” was installed in a small tenement building and the first years brew was about four hundred and fifty barrels. After a few years, Michael Diversey, who had been a milkman with headquarters at the brewery, formed a partnership with Mr. Lill when Mr. Ogden withdrew his silent interest in the business. Under the management of Lill and Diversey the so-called Chicago Brewery developed into one of the most extensive establishments of the kind in the West, occupying a portion of the original site, but then covering an entire block. For many years “Lill’s Cream Ale” was one of the most famous brands in the country……..

Note that Michael Diversey was a milkman with headquarters in the brewery!  The milk and beer combination might seem strange today but it wasn’t back in the early 1800’s. Both milk and beer had to be cooled and breweries had ice houses!

The reference book, American Breweries by Bull, Friedrich & Gottschalk updated in 1995 to American Breweries II (AB-II) by Van Wieren, provided an invaluable service by cataloging  names, addresses and years of operation  for the nations breweries. After updating new information, the earliest Chicago brewers of record were Haas & Sulzer in 1833, William Lill in 1839, James Carney 1840, Michael Diversey 1842, Jacob Gauch circa1845 and Huck & Schneider in 1847. During these early years Lill, Diversey and Huck were especially prominent as they nurtured and grew the industry; They are viewed as the first forefathers of brewing in Chicago.


Chicago became a city in 1837 with William Ogden as the first mayor, serving from 1837 to 1838. He refinanced Lill’s brewery in 1839 and served actively as a silent partner until selling his interest to Michael Diversey and withdrawing in 1842. Tying the political Mayor Ogden to Chicago Brewing makes good press but overall the beer biz was a very small part of his career. He was said to have his fingers in almost every financial deal in early Chicago. History paints him as a prominent and successful business man — not a brewer!


In 1853, the Chicago Land Company, of which Ogden was a trustee, purchased land at a bend in the Chicago River and began to cut a channel, formally known as North Branch Canal, but also referred to as Ogden's Canal. The resulting island is now known as Goose Island — namesake for the Goose Island Brewery.


Following the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, a wave of political refugees fled to America. They became known as Forty-Eighters and they settled in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago and New York. It’s not a coincidence that these cities all became America’s major beer centers! These Germans brought with them a preference for lager style beer and they set about proving they could make it. Lager breweries were more expensive and complicated, requiring aging cellars and ice for temperature control. No problem! It soon became commonplace to build new breweries on high ground to accommodate cellars and to harvest ice from waterways during the winter months for temperature control in the cellars during the hot summer months.


Until the 1850’s Chicagoans were drinking English style top fermented ales, porters and stouts. John Huck introduced the first lager to Chicago in 1847. Lill & Diversey began making their own lager in 1856 and it didn’t take long for lagers to become the beer of choice in Chicago as well as the entire US. Huck’s lager beer brewery conveniently had a beer garden with large trees strategically located to provide extra shade for the cooling cellars.


As lager beer gained favor in Chicago new brewery addresses migrated to the north where there was suitable high ground for lagering cellars. These locations now include North Michigan Avenue and the super exclusive Magnificent Mile shopping stretch. Some of Chicago’s early brewers had picked some pretty choice property!

Michael Brand and Valentin Busch were German immigrants who helped mold Chicago’s brewing heritage during the formative 1850’s. Here’s a tribute to them reprinted from 100 years of Brewing.


Michael Brand Brewing Company, Chicago.—Valentin Busch, one of the pioneers of the industry in Chicago, founded a small brewery in 1851.  In 1853 he received Michael Brand into partnership, and together they operated the brewery at Blue Island, with a branch at 29 and 31 Cedar street, Chicago. Shortly before the great fire the partnership was dissolved, the Blue Island plant being taken by Mr. Busch, who died in 1872, while Mr. Brand operated the Cedar Street Brewery, continuing to do a successful business under the name of Michael Brand Brewing Company. The plant was destroyed by the fire of October, 1871, but was immediately rebuilt and brewing operations begun within three months, being the first brewery on the North Side to resume operations after the great fire.


Rudolf Brand, a nephew of Michael Brand, purchased the Blue Island plant in 1874, and operated it until 1878, when he sold the brewery and became interested in the Michael Brand Brewing Company.


In 1878 the brewery on Cedar street was changed into a malt-house and a new brewery erected at Elston Avenue and Snow Street. Mechanical refrigeration was first employed in 1883. In 1889 the brewery was sold to, and is now being operated as Branch 1 of the United States Brewing Company. The capacity of the plant in 1902 was one hundred and fifty thousand barrels, its manager being Henry Weiss.

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