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From the Spring 2019 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

​Many who are steeped in its culture understand clearly that beer has a multi-faceted allure rooted deeply in a history that is as rich as wine and with an audience every bit as committed, if not more, to its culture. Few, however, realize just how much that history is intertwined with Chicago’s history.

Brewing Up Chicago: How Beer Transformed a City, an exhibition by the Chicago Brewseum (yes, Brewseum), hosted by the Field Museum this spring, explores Chicago’s historical connection to beer, highlighting the immigrant communities who etched the parallel history of the city and the ubiquitous brew throughout the 19th century.

One might be surprised to learn that the exhibition would find a home in the hallowed halls of the Field Museum, but for Jaap Hoogstraten, director of Exhibitions at the Field, the new exhibition is nothing if not a natural fit. “Delving into something like beer, which we think we know all about and we enjoy in so many settings, ends up revealing our city’s deep histories, conflicts and aspirations,” says Hoogstraten. And examining those deep histories gets to the heart of the Field’s mission of exploration.

​The exhibition takes guest back through time to survey Chicago’s founding in 1833 and the decades leading up to the World’s Columbian Exposition 60 years later. Tapping into the early Chicago immigrant experience, it reveals the complex evolution of the German-American community that first brought brewing practices to the area, initially perceived as strange outsiders and later as respected Chicagoans.

Says Liz Garibay, founder and executive director of the Chicago Brewseum, “Germans founded some of the earliest breweries, eventually introduced lager beer and provided a cultural foundation upon which the whole city could enjoy—and respect—beer.”  That story demonstrates just how beer was, and is, a driving cultural force within our city, our region and, in fact, the nation.

The exhibition, of course, explores the diverse styles of beer and brewing that have developed over time here in Chicago. But it also sets an entirely relatable historical context vivid with the sights and sounds of a 19th century gathering place like the Sauganash Tavern, an early Chicago saloon—complete with the aroma of the whiskey and bacon on offer there.

Other interactive elements include a historical video revealing the story of the April 21, 1855 Lager Beer Riot, set off when then-mayor Levi Boone dusted off an old local ordinance mandating that taverns be closed on Sundays, leading the city council to raise the cost of liquor licenses a whopping 500%. The move was largely seen as a stab at the German immigrant community, galvanizing a sense of unity among the group and eventually establishing citizens’ freedom to drink beer.

There’s also a fun, interactive “make your own beer label” kiosk that allows visitors to design their own bottles, cans and labels.

​Artifacts showcased in the exhibition include an original Pabst blue ribbon, a 19th-century brewmaster’s kettle and original illustrations of the grand Schlitz Pavilion, where guests enjoyed beers at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Items and images in the exhibition are on loan from The Chicago Brewseum’s cultural partners, which include the Black Point Estate of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Chicago History Museum and DANK Haus Chicago, among others.    

The Chicago Brewseum assembled a varied team of museum industry experts and historians to develop this one-of-a-kind exhibition. They include beer historian Brian Alberts, historian and Chicago Brewseum  founder Liz Garibay, and beer expert and author Randy Mosher. 

Brewing Up Chicago, presented in both English and Spanish, is included with basic  admission to the Field Museum and runs through January 5, 2020.


 

A group of Chicagoans outside J.G. Baer’s Place, where signs advertise pilsners made by the C. Seipp Brew Co., which survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

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BREWING UP HISTORY
A new exhibition hosted by the Field Museum explores the shared histories of the city of Chicago and the ubiquitous brew we've all come to now and love.

By Isaac Jacobs

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