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Chicago Craft Beer History

By Jenn Harrman on January 14, 2014


Some cool beer festivals are coming up this winter. So before we talk about the party, let’s talk about the brew. There are over 60 microbreweries, nanobreweries, and brewpubs around town. Considering that, its hard to believe that less than a decade ago Chicago had only a handful of local breweries. For one, Chicago has a long love for booze. But it’s also the home to the Siebel Institute of Technology, a world-renowned brewing academy founded in 1868. We even discuss Chicago’s brewing past on the Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour! So why wasn’t there a Chicago craft beer industry until the last few years?

Chicago’s history in craft beer goes back to 1833. Chicago was then a small frontier village with two small batch taverns. As the city grew, so did the number of breweries, peaking in the 1880s and 1890s before the larger breweries swallowed the smaller ones. But the real hit came with prohibition. The local breweries that still operated during those dark years made cereal beer, an essentially non-alcoholic beer. However those breweries did not create a strong enough industry to survive when prohibition was repealed.

Chicago beer peter hand poster

Then with growth of big business in the ’50s and ’60s, Chicago’s small craft breweries could not compete with the large corporations. In 1978 Hand Brewing Company, which was the last remaining brewery in Chicago, closed its doors. For 10 years Chicago was devoid of breweries.

Contemporary Chicago Craft Beer Revival

In 1988, Goose Island Brewing Company opened to the start of a slow-moving new era in Chicago craft brewing. After a period of nominal numbers of brewery openings and then six years of nothing, Metropolitan Brewing opened in 2009, and a real surge began happening in the Chicago craft beer scene. To further promote the craft brewery business, the Illinois Senate passed legislation (SB 754) in 2011 that allowed microbreweries to sell and distribute their own beer versus having to go through an official distributor.

Revolution Brewing craft beer Chicago local
Photo courtesy of Revolution Brewing

Now in 2014, Chicago is finally home to a wide variety of local breweries like Revolution Brewing and Half Acre, and the city could be said to rival some of the big name craft beer towns like Portland and San Francisco.

Though it’s not a book about brewery history in Chicago, I got some of this background from the introduction of author Denese Neu’s, Chicago by the Pint: A Craft Beer History of the Windy Cityin case you’re curious.


— Amanda Scotese and Tour Guide Jenn Harrman


Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Google and TripAdvisor.


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