Review: Chicago Beer: A History of Brewing, Public Drinking and the Corner Bar by June Sawyers

Since its early days, Chicago has had a deep connection to drinking. As author June Skinner Sawyers (a regular contributor to Third Coast Review) shares, “Drinking in the Windy City has deep roots.” It’s a claim that hints at a larger story. Fortunately, Sawyers holds true to her word by taking readers through Chicago’s fascinating and sometimes twisted relationship to drinking, brewing, and the bar community in her new book Chicago Beer: A History of Brewing, Public Drinking, and the Corner Bar.

The author of several Chicago-based books, Sawyers’ research, expertise, and love for the material is apparent. Serving as both a historical guide and a love-letter to the beer industry,  Sawyers weaves a highly readable account that is accessible enough to entertain a general audience but thorough enough to pass academic muster.

Sawyers starts at the earliest possible point, taking us through Chicago’s early saloons and breweries. Key figures like Mark Beaubien, James Kinzie, and John A. Huck are introduced, each playing a key role in bringing saloons and breweries into the fledgling city. Despite hurdles like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the opposition of the American Temperance Society (ATL), these early innovators planted the seeds for a booming industry that would soon be enmeshed in the inner workings of the city and how it operated. 

One of the running themes of the narrative is the relationship of Chicago’s beer industry to those who run and operate the city, officially or not. Sawyers writes “In Chicago, politicians and saloon keepers were natural bedfellows.” It’s a key relationship highlighted frequently in the text. Sawyers supports her claim with key statistics and events. In 1886, 7 out of 36 aldermen were saloonkeepers, with many using their business for political gain. One prominent story is that of saloonkeeper and aldermanJohn Brennan of the 18th ward. A section of the book details how Brennan and other aldermen like him provided food and lodging to the homeless in exchange for votes in the election. It’s this story and the others like it that support Sawyers' point that by this point in time, the beer industry had grown to a level where control over it was highly sought after by those running the city.

Politicians weren’t the only ones interested in utilizing the breweries and saloons for social currency. As Sawyer continues into the early 20th century, the industry would find new challenges in Prohibition and the rise of organized crime. Sawyers relays the city’s general stance to Prohibition being divided, with arguments being raised on the benefits and detriments observed from the industry. Since Prohibition looked to be staying around longer than many had hoped, most breweries came to rely on the mob for ensuring their survival. This uneasy marriage of necessity would create a thriving, although delicate, nightlife culture.

The other key relationship Sawyers explores in depth is that of the beer industry to the residents of Chicago. Later chapters of the book explore the arrival of craft breweries, like Goose Island and Revolution Brewing. With the rise of these independent breweries, Sawyers discusses the complex relationship between craft breweries and the neighborhoods they represent. As Sawyers relates, “craft breweries and craft pubs form an important fabric of the neighborhood and community life.”

In these later sections, Sawyers’ love for the topic is on full display as the personal relationship between neighborhoods and their breweries and corner bars are explored in further depth. For Sawyers, bars serve a key function: being to “anchor a neighborhood and community against rough economic winds. But they also echo and reflect moments—chapters of our lives: the good and the bad.” It’s a statement that summarizes the story that Sawyers is telling here. Since its founding, the city of Chicago and its identity were largely shaped by the development and culture surrounding the drinking industry. Sawyers spends time laying out both sides of the narrative, highlighting the key figures and organizations that either worked to further develop the city’s beer industry or those who fought to eradicate the city of what they perceived as a representation of society’s ills. As a result, the text reads as a complete telling of the story where multiple opposing viewpoints are expressed.

In addition to the main narrative, intermixed within each chapter are short vignettes that relate to the thread of history but work on their own to expand the material in fun and creative ways. Sawyers provides blurbs covering everything from the history and culture behind beer labels, recipes, Chicago drinking songs, to the backstory of Chicago's most infamous drink, Malört. These side stories add further depth to the work and showcase the “deep roots” that Sawyers teases early on. By the end of the book, readers will see just how influential the beer industry has become in Chicago. Sawyers also shares what she calls a “subjective list of classic Chicago bars,” with each bar getting a short excerpt on their background, atmosphere, and location. It’s a great coda to the main text and fun to go through to see which of the spots on the list you have visited and which you’ve missed.

Sawyers' book tackles a lot of material in its 140 pages, but the tone is so natural that the information flows rather than overwhelms. Rather, Sawyers presents what she considers the key figures and events and gives just enough information for readers to understand the general context behind its subject matter. Given its brevity, however, Chicago Beer clearly leaves a lot out. With a story as engrossing as this one, you can’t help but want further information on many of the stories discussed. Sawyers could easily write more extensive works on the subject. But for now, there’s enough here to give readers a good introduction to this fascinating corner of Chicago’s history.

Both fond and informative, Chicago Beer is a wonderful introductory read to the world of breweries and beer at large.  Offering just enough information to quench your thirst, Sawyers lays out a narrative that is filled with larger-than-life figures and events but never fails to commemorate the contributions of the many working-class innovators, bar keepers and customers that these corner bars and breweries have welcomed through the years. Cheers.

Chicago Beer: A History of Brewing, Public Drinking, and the Corner Bar is now available at booksellers and through its publisher.

Picture of the author
Adam Prestigiacomo