Chicago’s Brewseum/Field Museum of Natural History: Brewing Up Chicago

If you happen to be in Chicago before January 5, 2020, be sure to catch a small gem of an exhibition at the Field Museum: the Chicago Brewseum’s Brewing Up Chicago, their first exhibition, hosted by the Field Museum. It’s a combination of history, politics, and the brewer’s art.

But first you have to find it. It’s tucked away in a small room just off the African Mammals hall, opposite a mural of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Once you get to that hall, it’s easy to find the exhibition: there’s a sign pole outside with Chicago street signs showing the streets named for breweries or those individuals who were important in the Chicago brewing scene. (Don’t ask me why it’s in the middle of the African Mammals; I’d guess it’s because that’s where they had an appropriate space.)

The exhibition begins in 1835, with the arrival of William Haas and Andreas Sulzer in Chicago, along with 150 barrels of ale and the equipment to set up a brewery. They began brewing lager, something new to Chicago, which until that time had been very much an English ale sort of city. There are small cases with mementos of the period, and a watercolor of Wolf Point on the Chicago River in 1833, with Fort Dearborn in the foreground, juxtaposed to a photograph of the same view now. Needless to say, there’s quite a difference.

We move forward to the 1850s and rising tensions between the Anglo-American “old guard” and the new wave of German immigrants, which found their focus on the lager vs. ale controversy. It all came to a head during the administration of Mayor Levi Boone and his American Party — also known as the “Know-Nothings”, in essence, an anti-immigrant party (sound familiar?) — in alliance with the temperance movement, in the “Lager Beer Riot” of 1855, the result of the city’s imposition of high licensing fees on establishments that served alcoholic beverages and the arrest and imprisonment of tavern owners who ignored the fees. The exhbition offers a video narrative of the riot and its aftermath: several police officers and demonstrators were injured, one was killed, and Mayor Boone lost his next election, while his American Party never held another city office. And, to add insult to injury (as far as the temperance movement was concerned), a state-wide referendum banning the sale of alcohol was handily defeated.

There is a section on German culture and festivals in the growing city, and their effect on city life in general, which leads into a large sequence on the art of brewing, which takes up almost half of the exhibition space and is quite informative.

In the center of the room is a large brewing cauldron flanked by panels describing the several “beer traditions” in Chicago, from the English ale of the original settlers to the lager of the German immigrants, the “American lager” (which happened because the real stuff was heavy, dark and more robust than most people wanted), to the pilsner, a lighter-bodied beer that eventually took the nation by storm.

The exhibition ends with the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, when Chicago brewers faced stiff competition from Milwaukee (Pabst) and St. Louis (Anheuser-Busch). Pabst won the competition that year, but there was no blue ribbon — their award was the same as everyone else’s.

It is, as I noted above, a small gem of an exhibition, entertaining and informative, and when you’re done, you get to go out and look at the stuffed animals and watch a video on some of the research that Field staff scientists are doing in the Rift Valley.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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