History: Old Style is Not Chicago's Beer and Other Chicago Beer Factoids
Chicagoans love beer. We love it so much, in fact, that in 2014 GQ named us “Officially the Greatest Drinking City in America” (a title we still retain the last time I checked). According to a recent list put together by The Hop Review Chicago has 71 breweries inside its city limits and 127 or more in Chicagoland. For the most part, Chicago as a beer destination is a recent trend that was kick started when Goose Island Brewery opened in 1988. But what came before Goose Island? It turns out, a lot of things.
Chicago was never Milwaukee — it was never the beer capital of the Midwest or the country. But before Goose Island came around Chicago was a respectable hub of local brews. Perhaps one of the better known defunct beers is, ironically, the Best Brewing Company. According to Forgotten Chicago (a treasure trove for Chicago history nerds) Best operated in Lakeview from 1885 to 1961, excluding Prohibition. Best is unique not just for its longevity — most contemporary breweries were in and out of business — but for it’s building. Unlike most breweries from the turn of the 19th century, the Best building was preserved and converted into an apartment complex in the 1980s. You can view it today at 1300 W. Fletcher Avenue.
The city was also home to the likes of Brand, Mutual, Monarch, Pilsen, and City breweries, all of which are now shuttered, but whose buildings can still be visited by curious Chicagoans. Unfortunately, not every building was preserved, including the facility that once house Peter Hand Brewery which brewed Meister Bräu. Meister Bräu was the Chicago brand — think a local version of Hamm’s, Schlitz, or Old Style.
Old Style, you may know, is “Chicago’s beer.” It even goes so far as to brand itself as such. And who can overlook the numerous Old Style signs hanging off taverns — that may or may not still be in business — around the city? But Old Style isn’t really “Chicago’s beer.” The Old Style brand comes from La Crosse, Wisconsin, where it was first brewed in 1902. The beer caught on more in Chicago than anywhere else, and by 1935 the company uprooted from Wisconsin and moved to Chicago. Old Style remained primarily an Illinois brand — until 2016, when it moved its operations back across the border to where it began. It now brews its Oktoberfest beer (a new recipe) across state lines.
Meister Bräu, the once well-known beer from Peter Hand brewery, was a different story. Founded in 1891 by Prussian immigrant Peter Hand, the self-named brewery found success in pre-Prohibition Chicago and came roaring back as soon as the law was repealed.
In 1965 (or 1967, according to one source) the company was purchased by a group of investors intent on making Meister Bräu a national brand. WBEZ found that the brewery sponsored White Sox, Bears, and Blackhawks games, as well as gave away a number of promotional items like posters, bottle openers, and steins. For a while the gimmicks worked and Peter Hand brewery was producing upwards of a million barrels of beer a year, or almost two million kegs.
That’s a not-insignificant amount of beer. But the brand never took off outside Chicago and by 1972 the brewery was faced with serious financial issues. It was later purchased by none other than the Miller Brewing Company of Milwaukee. The site of the former brewery is now the strip mall at the intersection of Sheffield and North Avenue.
Because these beers are defunct and haven’t been picked up by national distributors (like Hamm’s, Schlitz, and others have) their taste, for the most part, is lost to history. But we can still get a sense of what they tasted like, if not a literal one.
The recipes for beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller Lite, for example, haven’t changed much over the course of their production. And in fact, PBR and Old Style both have their origins in Chicago. The Pabst Brewing Company was originally the Best Company — the same Best Company with the preserved building in Lakeview. Only later did it move to Wisconsin and base its production there. Miller Lite also has roots in Chicago, despite being a Milwaukee-based company. The original recipe was Meister Bräu, which was a Chicago mainstay for eight decades. But once the brewery was sold in 1972 the recipe for Meister Bräu was sold with it, and after some tinkering became the Miller Lite we know today.
Chicago may not have the reputation as a beer hub in the way Milwaukee does — none of our sports teams are named the Brewers, after all. But Chicago has played and continues to play an important role in American beer culture. Perhaps most importantly, without Chicago’s contributions the domestic beer market would look a lot different, and not for the better. Whether or not you prefer the taste of Pabst to craft beer, it’s still important to appreciate local beer’s roots. Ultimately, the beers that came from Chicago helped shape the domestic industry for decades.