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The Great Chicago Fire in October 1871 had an horrendous impact on the city wiping out about one-third of the downtown area. Of twenty-three Chicago breweries operating at the time, eleven were in the path of fire and destroyed. After a significant rebuilding period six facilities managed to reopen at the same location— although new investors often resulted in new ownership. These numbers, using AB-II dates and addresses, differ widely from previous reports which say that only five of the cities twelve breweries burned. Here’s a recap of the breweries that were in the fires path:

The fire missed Chicago’s largest brewery, Seipp and Lehmann, and the forth largest, Downer & Bemis. However, the cities other prominent brewers were not so lucky. Lill & Diversey, Chicago’s second largest and successor to the first brewery of record, never reopened. Sadly, Michael Diversey had died before the fire, in 1869, and William Lill died just four years after, in 1875. Huck’s Eagle Brewery, which provided Chicago’s first lager beer and the Sands Ale plant, both very prominent breweries, disappeared from the scene after the fire.  In all, the fire wiped out over 50% of the cities brewing capacity, a fact not unnoticed in the nearby brewing center of Milwaukee. Schlitz, a Milwaukee brewer with a large Chicago distributorship, quickly began rail shipments of water and beer to the burned-out city and this earned Schlitz a major presence in the soon-to-be reborn Chicago beer market.  


The fire marked the beginning of major changes to the Chicago brewing landscape. The next several decades would see efforts to control saloons with fee increases, the growth of the “Tied House” saloon, invasion by British speculators, beer price wars, and a surge of Prohibition sentiment. Finally, in 1920 the unthinkable — National Prohibition along with a new saloon name  “The Speakeasy”. Don’t forget Al Capone and gangster takeover of the brewing biz during the dry years. But these are other stories! 


References:  100 Years of Brewing, 1903,  American Breweries II by Van Wierin, 1995, Google images and numerous references to the Great Chicago Fire.

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