Review: Driehaus Prost! Beer Culture and Chicago’s German Immigrants

Cover image: Metropolitan Brewery at the Driehause © Spirikal for WhereNYC

“It’s more fun to look at history through a lens of alcohol,” Liz Garibay, found of the Chicago Brewseum said raising her beer bottle to the audience.

Beer lecture and tasting at the Driehaus Museum © Spirikal for WhereNYC

We’re at the Driehaus Museum in River North for a lecture with Liz and Doug Hurst of local based- Metropolitan Brewery on the beer legacy of the German immigrants in Chicago. Their introduction of cold, crisp lagers and pilsners forever changed the industry.

For those unfamiliar with the Driehaus mansion on Erie and Wabash, its history dates back to the 19th century and is one of Chicago’s best museums devoted to exhibits revolving around the Victorian, Edwardian and Gilded ages.

The history of Chicago is “rooted in beer” explains Hurst. And the brewing industry dates back to the 1830s when Chicago was a fledgling township. There were only three main bars that stood by the forks of the Chicago River, and everyone drank British-style porters and ales.

The city of Chicago began to take shape. Waves of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere arrived including the Germans, among whom opened Chicago’s first brewery.  In the beginning, they produced mainly British ales, but by the 1840s, the demand for refreshing lagers grew as more Germans arrived.

Beer gardens began to spring up and cold lagers overtook the room temperature ales and porters. Chicago would even eventually open its first brewery school in 1872, a year after the Chicago Fire.

Pretzels, cheese et cured meats served for guests made a tantalizing display © Spirikal for WhereNYC

The city was seemingly on the cusp of a golden beer age with nearly 2,400 brewery projects. However, cruel backlash fueled by an unlikely alliance of the puritanical Temperance Movement and the anti-immigrant American, or “Know Nothing” Party, set forth to crush the brewing industry.  The city’s nationalist Mayor Levi Boone raised brewery licensing fees and restricted sales. The Germans along with other minority groups rioted.

Although Boone later lost in the next election, the beer industry never quite recovered because a series of setbacks. The second major blow was Prohibition. And even after 1933, the number of breweries continued to drop. The third, according to Hurst, was refrigeration and pasteurization, which the final coup de grâce to local  breweries as it became easier to transport cheaper, mass-produced beers from elsewhere. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the craft beer revolution began with breweries such as Goose Island who introduced big, bold flavors.

As Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery once said, “Craft Beer is truth.” And more and more artisanal breweries began to surface, driven by a passion for genuine flavors. Today, there are 86 breweries in city, over a hundred in the Chicagoland area. While some have unfairly targeted lager as the watered-down enemy, Metropolitan Brewery has brought back robust German style beer with its Kölsch-style Krankshaft and Magnetron – an unusual dark lager.

While some Chicago breweries such Half Acre have gone the IPA route, Metropolitan has chosen to resurrect the city’s Germanic roots. And the region’s beer makers owe a lot to the German immigrant community. As Hurst put it, “Whenever you drink a Chicago beer, realize you’re drinking a lot of history.”

Visit the Chicago Brewmuseum exhibition at the Field Museum through January 5, 2020.

Don’t miss Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare’s upcoming exhibit at the Driehaus Museum, which opens March 2nd through September 29th, 2019.

Spirikal