John A. Huck Brewing

By Gregg Smith

Too often we get lost in the boisterous claims of biggest and best. In history, as in other areas, these are important; but, of equal significance are the pioneers. In the rich legends of Chicago brewing the distinction of first lager producer belongs to the nearly forgotten John A. Huck.

The story begins in 1847, shortly after lagers arrived in America, when John Huck entered a partnership with John Schneider to construct a brewery. Located just two blocks east of Chicago's first ale brewery (Lill's Cream Ale) it had an interesting connection to that facility. Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, who had a financial interest in Lill's, owned the land at Chicago Avenue and Division Street which Huck and Schneider purchased for their facility.

This location provided another innovation in Chicago beer drinking. The property included a tree filled square, and in the center Huck put his house. This he surrounded with a beer garden, another first in the city. More than just a retail outlet for their product, brewers in Europe had long built beer gardens for a more practical reason. An essential part of lager brewing is cool temperatures. These are needed for lager yeast to work its magic. For this reason brewers aged the beer in subterranean "lagering cellars". The trees of the beer garden, usually elm, provided a shady canopy on the ground above and helped ensure cellars would remain lager friendly cool.

Huck's beer was a success and rather than sacrifice his home and beer garden to expansion he moved brewing operations in 1855 to a new facility on Wolcott (now N.State Street) near Division. With the move came a new name - Eagle Brewing. The new brewery was, in its day, one of the city's largest. It boasted both brew and malt houses along with more than 2 miles of underground vaults. The name changed again in 1860, to Huck's Chicago Brewing Co. and from 1869 to 1871 was known as John A. Huck Brewing Company.

Unfortunately, this early landmark of Chicago wasn't destined to last: like many others, it was destroyed in the great fire of 1871. A setback such as this would have broken a lesser man, but by 1877 Huck was busy formulating plans for a new brewery. His passing in January 1878 ended that effort, but not his family's involvement in the beer business. His son Louis founded a malting company the same year his father died. Like his father he was a beer pioneer, for he is credited as the first in the US to install the famous Saladin malting process one machine that both turned over the grain and later dried it. His malt house operations set him down the road to wealth and he became one of Chicago's leading capitalists.

Gregg Smith


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