First Day of Beer Culture Summit Delivers a (Nearly) Complete History of Beer in One Afternoon

The first full day of the Beer Culture Summit is in the books, and Third Coast Review was on hand at The Field Museum to take in a full day of beer-soaked history.

Session 1: Beer, It’s Really Old

At one point during the 90-minute barrage of fun facts that made up the first session, I thought back to a quote from Chicago Brewseum founder Liz Garibay: “The guys on the Beer, It’s Really Old panel have been communicating via email and including me on those threads. And it’s really awesome to hear what they’re going to talk about, because it’s such a broad scope of information.” Broad was precisely the right word. Beer, according to the panel’s experts, has been brewed around the world for roughly 10,000 years (and even those cultures that didn’t make beer per se found another sugar to ferment into alcohol). Because of beer’s omnipresence in human society, the panelists constantly drew connections to each other’s research, bouncing back and forth on how the world’s most popular beverage may very well also be its most culturally important. For example:

  • When Travis Rupp of Avery Brewing and University of Colorado Boulder said that “religion and drinking go hand in hand” based on archeological evidence in Europe and the Near East, The Field Museum’s Dr. Ryan Williams chimed in with the role that chicha played in the religious life of indigenous Andean peoples.
  • Williams’ explanation of the House of the Chosen Women and the role that women played (and still play) in Andean brewing tied back to  Frank Clark’s (of Colonial Williamsburg) era of expertise, when brewing began to transition to a male-dominated industry after thousands of years of female stewardship.
  • Clark compared the blending involved in 18th century English porters to modern day sours, prompting The Art Institute’s Lucas Livingston to remark that many of the qualities sought by modern beer aficionados do, in fact, resemble many ancient beers.
  • Lucas discussed the omnipresence of alcohol in the earliest Chinese writings, an insight that foretold Rupp’s later remark about the role of alcohol in Greek mythology.

Author Randy Mosher moderated this conversation with a light touch, allowing the panelists to play off each other. The whole thing was fascinating, but keeping up with scientific terminology was a bit tiring for my untrained mind. Afterwards, I needed a beer. Luckily, I knew just what I’d go for.

Lunch Break

Credit: The Field Museum

During lunch, I headed over to The Field Bistro to try Wari, a collaboration between Chicago’s Off Color Brewing and The Field Museum. Inspired by the traditional brewing customs of the Wari people who Dr. Williams studies, Wari is a tart, pink beer with a low enough alcohol (3.8% abv) to keep Summit attendees in the proper headspace. I thought it was fantastic, and it washed down my chicken poblano soup perfectly.

Session 2: Chicago’s Place in Beer History and Culture

The second session focused more narrowly on Chicago’s role in beer history; the more targeted approach provided for the most compelling of the day’s three sessions. Dr. Maureen Ogle moderated with the curiosity and enthusiasm of a fan, and the discussion established Chicago’s unique place in the American beer story around three factors:

  1. According to The Chicago Brewseum’s Dr. Brian Alberts, Chicago’s rapid 19th century growth perfectly coincided with the large influx of German immigrants to the United States. This dynamic created in Chicago a microcosm of America’s larger questions around ethnicity and citizenship for these new arrivals. Beer was an essential component of German American culture, which brought beer squarely into larger debates about what it meant to be American. Of course, many of these German immigrants, like Conrad Seipp, found brewing to be extremely lucrative. Michael Rehberg of Black Point Estate and Gardens (Seipp’s Lake Geneva Mansion) was on hand to provide that profile, and a bit of extra color around 19th century Chicago brewing.
  2. Chicago’s location made (and continues to make) it the logistics and marketing capital of the American beer. The Chicago-based marketing battles (and subsequent low prices) between Miller and Anheuser-Busch are well-documented. There’s plenty more that makes Chicago important, with tidbits courtesy of Pat Doerr of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago:
    • Constellation Brands (importers of Corona and Model) located all of their beer operations in Chicago.
    • MillerCoors’ creative operations are also located here.
    • Much of America’s beer supply flows through Chicago via rail. Nearly all of the Modelo and Corona consumed on the East Coast, for example, is first shipped to Chicago before heading east. (This shipping component is also why Lagunitas built a massive brewery in Chicago and put it next to the rail yards on the Southwest Side.)
    • The largest beer distributor in America, Reyes holdings, is located in Rosemont.
  3. Chicago has long been the intellectual capital of American beer, even as Milwaukee and St. Louis duked it out over dominance on the production side. The Siebel Institute has provided Chicago with a premier brewing vocational school for 140 years. Even today, the Cicerone Certification Program is located near the corner of Irving Park Rd. and Ravenswood Ave. Siebel Vice President John Hannafan was on hand to discuss the former, while Cicerone founder Ray Daniels spoke to the latter.

Session 3: What’s in Store for Beer History?

Credit: Queen City History

The day’s third session focused on the current and future states of how we look at beer history, both from the academic and from the public education side. The session was unfortunately subject to technical difficulties, but moderator Dr. Theresa McCulla (Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History) and the panelists were flexible enough so as not to impede the flow of information.

All of the third session’s panelists spoke to the importance of multi-sensory experiences when studying or teaching the history of beer. The Chicago Brewseum’s Liz Garibay, for example, conducts historical tours of Chicago’s taverns to most effectively tell their stories. Michael Morgan of Queen City History and Education puts on similar tours in Cincinnati, which include the underground, often well-preserved lagering cellars underneath Cincinnati’s streets (example pictured above). Dr. Jennifer Jordan of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s hands-on approach is decidedly less appealing to amateurs, as it can involve searching through brush in rural Wisconsin while looking for evidence of 19th century hop farming. Like her colleagues, however, her research is important for interrogating the historical record in search of a more complete history.

All of the panelists have a healthy degree of skepticism toward prevailing historical narratives around beer, and find the subsequent need to dig a bit deeper. Garibay, for example, noted that every Chicago tavern owner has an incentive to claim their bar was a speakeasy, whether true or not. It’s her job to put in the research to identify the real thing. Morgan, meanwhile, hopes that his research can help to uncover more details about the day-to-day minutia of 19th century brewing, as most records skew toward the biographical details of the few brewery owners who got rich. And Jordan understands that agricultural records don’t tell the whole story, as the man listed as the farmer was certainly not the only one putting in the work. Her research into female hop pickers has even led to its own beer, a story I’ll let Third Coast Review’s June Sawyers pick up in our next post about The Beer Culture Summit. 

For more information about the summit which runs through Sunday, October 27, visit the Chicago Brewseum. 

Nicholas Blashill
Nicholas Blashill

Nick Blashill is a native of Downers Grove who has recently returned to the Chicago area. By day he works in market research, but he is looking forward to sharing the experiences with Chicago’s craft beer and music scenes that fill his free time.