Who Knew Beer Was So Political?

I pride myself on the fact that I made it all of the way through college without taking any history classes.  Sure, I had to take classes within my major that focused on historical elements, but I never took a class within the history department and for that I am immensely proud of my tenacity and creativity. But now that I have gotten into beer and brewing, I am finding that I want to know the history of how my favorite fermented beverage came to be.  So when I heard that there was an event entitled What’s Brewing in Chicago: The Politics of Beer and it would be a joint venture between the Chicago History Museum and Haymarket Pub and Brewery, I immediately reserved my spot.  I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed history more in school if I was allowed to drink beer during the classes.

The event was held at Haymarket’s backroom bar on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 and it was already packed when I got there at 6:15 PM.  I was hoping I would be able to snag a table by the stage but, alas, they were already occupied. I took up residence at the bar right next to my friends Meghan and Matt Gebhardt, owners of Chicago brewery-in-planning 4 Paws Brewing.  It was great seeing those two; it had been too long! And they are Chicago history buffs so I knew they would be great companions for this lecture.  I perused the beer menu to make my beverage selection and went with the Lucy’s Belgian Style Abbey Trippel.  I am trying to branch out from my IPA comfort zone and get more into Belgian beers, and this beer is delicious; it is slowly taking the place of Mathias as my favorite Haymarket beer.  It is a clear golden hue with fruity Belgian yeast on the nose and a sweet, honey-like flavor.

The hubby didn’t need to look at the beer list; he immediately ordered a pint of Bula Mutari, a Belgian black ale that feeds his new-found appreciation for session beers. I like a guy who knows what he wants… As he was taking the first sip, I looked around the room and was amazed at how crowded the place had become.  The majority of people there were definitely of the beer geek persuasion but there were others that were more into politics or history; it was definitely an interesting mix of people.  And I got to see my new pal Justin Maynard, Executive Director of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild, and Pete Crowley himself came over to say hi! He tried doing some kind of secret handshake thing that I was not familiar with but I think I was able to fake my way through it without looking too awkward.  And I tried to minimize my “OMG PETE CROWLEY KNOWS WHO I AM!” hysterics.  Overall, I think I looked pretty cool.  Well, as cool as a beer geek in a room full of beer geeks can look.

The festivities started with a performance art piece by a Mexican/Irish-American who recounted an experience with beer at the South Side St. Paddy’s Day parade.  After the poem, Liz Garibay, public program manager at the Chicago History Museum and founder of the Tales, Taverns & Towns web project, began her talk.  The television screens came to life with a power point slide that stated “Chicago: We’ve Been Boozers Since Day One.” Yep, sounds about right. Thankfully, all of the TVs around the bar were rigged with the presenter’s power point slides so regardless of where you were sitting, you could follow along.  As an attendee, I really appreciated that. Since Garibay condensed an hour long speech down to 20 minutes, the slides did not always line up with what she was talking about.  But I loved the montage of the Schlitz taverns around Chicago, including my local bar Floyd’s Pub (if you ever want to find me on a Wednesday or Thursday evening, I’m usually there).

Floyd's Pub at Armitage & Oakley in Bucktown
Image: chicago.eater.com

“Chicago got its beginning in a bar,” said Garibay, alluding to the fact that Chicago’s founders met and discussed ideas for our fine city while knocking back a few pints of ale in the taverns.  She continued by discussing the Irish and German immigrants that began moving to Chicago. While there was racism towards these new groups, Germans won over the drinking public with the introduction of lager which had a lower alcohol by volume (ABV), allowing patrons to drink many over the course of an afternoon.

The brewing scene in Chicago was booming, with many neighborhoods sporting their own breweries. But the Chicago fire pretty much decimated the brewing culture.  Not only did it physically destroy the breweries, but breweries from Milwaukee began shipping their beer south, dismantling the need for Chicago to brew its own beer.  Thanks, Schlitz and Pabst. I’m sorry, that was a snarky comment.  And one Garibay would not approve of.  She stressed that it pains her when she hears negative comments being made about mega breweries such as Miller, Pabst, and Budweiser; without them, we would not have the craft beer movement.  “Remember the history,” said Garibay. “And not that it doesn’t taste so great.”

Image: Chicagofree.info

At the conclusion of Garibay’s speech, she introduced Haymarket’s brewmaster Pete Crowley who climbed onto the tiny stage and asked in a booming voice, “Who likes beer?!?!”  The audience erupted in cheers and applause, and it reminded me that my own glass was dangerously low.  I ordered a Mathias, a dry-hopped double IPA with fresh hop aroma and a well-balanced flavor. Mmmm…  Mathias…

Craft beer has been produced in Chicago for 30 years but it really started booming within the last five.  Crowley started his speech with a question that he hears pretty regularly: “Why is there a rise in craft beer in Chicago today?” He explained that the fall of the economy was bittersweet for the craft beer industry; the crash of the housing market provided properties that were cheaper, allowing investors to open breweries for a much lower price tag than in recent years.  This is the reason we were able to be sitting in Haymarket that night; the property was at the right price point to move forward with opening the brewery.

Crowley continued by stating that people are not traveling as much; they are having “staycations” rather than shelling out a large sum of money for a vacation.  This has sparked a local, community-driven aesthetic, and individuals wanting craft breweries in their neighborhood.  Similarly, there has been a push for farm-to-table, locavore culture; the idea that people want to know where their food comes from and how it is made.  Again, this has fueled the desire for local, sustainable craft breweries so consumers can have a full meal, beer included, all grown and/or produced within a 50 mile radius of where they live.  All of these factors have contributed to the boom in craft beer in Chicago.

Pete Crowley, Brewmaster at Haymarket Pub & Brewery, answers questions from the audience

According to Crowley, the trend in craft breweries in Chicago is moving more towards production breweries rather than brewpubs. Brewpubs require more staff, more aesthetics, and production breweries are able to support the already established restaurants in Chicago through self distribution.  Just a review of my past blog posts shows that all of the individuals I have interviewed are planning production breweries, although some will have tap rooms where samples will be available. There has also been an increase in contract brewing which allows a brewery to get their products out to the market before they physically open a brewery.  Say what you will about contract brewing but both Three Floyds and Half Acre started that way and I hear they are pretty successful.

After the talk, Crowley and Garibay opened up the floor to a question and answer session, and Crowley received a question that he has been getting a lot over the year: “Do you still drink Goose Island?” For those of you that don’t know, Goose Island was partially bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev last year and there was a huge uproar in the craft beer community. I admit, when it first happened, I swore I would never drink Goose Island beer again.  But over time I have come to realize that the beers are of the same, if not higher, quality.  And Pete had a similar sentiment stating that as long as the quality is there, and as long as his friends are still brewing it, he will drink it.  He continued by saying, “If you are angry that someone worked their ass off for 30 years and finally got a paycheck, then you are an asshole.”  Well said, Pete.  Well said.

This was an educational, fun event that contributed to the building of community through beer.  I was surprised at the number of hands that rose when Garibay asked how many audience members were at Haymarket for the very first time.  I’m sure it will not be there last; everyone seemed to be having a great time talking with fellow history/political/beer buffs, listening to experts pontificating on the political strife that led to Chicago’s beer landscape, and drinking Crowley’s tasty brews.  I find that if you learn about the history of something, how it is made, the extensive labor that goes into creating it, then you have a new found appreciation and respect for it. I feel that this occurs with beer. If you do not consider yourself a “beer drinker” or you think you don’t like beer, I encourage you to read about it or attend functions such as the one discussed in this post.  It may motivate you to try different styles until you come across that one that is the gateway to other craft beers.

For more pictures from this event, be sure to check out Christopher Murphy’s Flickr page.

6 Responses to “Who Knew Beer Was So Political?”

  1. waynerooneysboot

    Hi, great seeing at you at this great event, Jessica. I just did a brief writeup on it, too – not nearly as detailed or interesting as yours, but if you’re interested, its at http://www.singingboysbrewing.com/The-Blog.html

    Thanks, as always, for the interesting article! Cheers,

    Jim

    • girlslikebeertoo

      Thanks Jim! It was great FINALLY meeting you in person! Thanks for sharing your blog post! I, too, loved how this event really pulled the community together through beer. Thanks for sharing your experience at a communal table and spreading the love of craft beer to those young macro drinkers! Cheers!

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