Early Chicago brewing

By Gregg Smith

Beer and Chicago; the two are nearly synonymous. From the city's earliest origins, beer was there. In fact two taverns were among the first of the city's buildings. These were establishments run by Elijah Wentworth and Samuel Miller who sold beer at 6 1/4 cents per pint, a price we wish was frozen.

Most of the breweries built in the city were located on the north side because brewers discovered that area was most favorable to building cool, underground ageing rooms. But the earliest brewery was established on the west side of town. A business association of William Haas and William Lill began brewing in that year and continued their venture until 1839. Then in September of that year Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, bought into the operation. Thus was established the long and legendary link between Chicago politics and beer.

Brewing operations moved about that same time, to a tenement building at Pine Street and Chicago Avenue. This new facility enabled them to expand production to 450 barrels. Far from an absentee owner, Mayor Ogden was actively involved in the business. His letters infer an obsession with the procurement of hops, which he purchased from New York's famous hop growing region of the Finger Lakes. It was, of all things, a milkman headquartered in the same building who bought into Ogden's interest when he divested himself of his part of the business.

In 1842 Michael Diversey, an immigrant from Alsacae-Lorraine, joined the partnership and the name changed to Lill & Diversey from 1863 to 1871. Other names it would operate under included Lill's Chicago Brewery (1867-1869) and Lill's Cream Ale Brewery (1846-1871). Under the direction of these two well known partners the brewery underwent continuous expansion until it covered more than two city blocks. By 1860 their annual sales hit 44,780 barrels and they were shipping beer east to Buffalo, north to St.Paul, south to New Orleans, and west to St. Joseph, Missouri.

Also counted among Chicago's first brewers was James Carney, a grocer, who in 1840 built and operated a brewhouse at 39-63 South Water Street between State and Wabash. Another was Jacob Gauch with an operation on Indiana St. between Pine and St.Clair, that he established in 1845. Later he moved the brewery which became Gauch & Brahm brewing at Rush and Chicago Avenue during 1855.

But of all the early brewers, Lill & Diversey are the names which are most enduring. Diversey passed away in 1869 leaving operations to Lill who lived until 1875. Unlike so many other breweries in the United States, which succumbed to prohibition, Lill's brewery closed at the hands of another historical tragedy; The Great Chicago Fire. It was one of five breweries destroyed in that conflagration. And although now long gone, its name lives on the city's streets and it gets credit for helping develop Chicago into one of the world's great beer loving towns.

Gregg Smith


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