catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 12 :: 2012.06.08 — 2012.06.21


Beer and the map of Chicago

There are many kinds of maps. We might assume that the maps we are most familiar with — the kind we struggle to refold and fit into our fanny packs and glove compartments — are the best kind to give us an intimate knowledge of a place. They are so useful in helping us navigate an unfamiliar location that it can be easy to mistake them for comprehensive, but this is not the case. In truth, these maps function precisely because of all of the rich details that they ignore. They leave out color, for instance, and texture. Often they don’t even include buildings, not to mention people and animals, nor have I ever seen a map that included smells. Perhaps what is most glaringly absent from most maps is a sense of the history of the place they symbolize. It is surprising, if you stop to think about it, that most of what we mean when we say “location” or “place” tends not to show up on this kind of map.

We could summarize this quality of paper maps by saying that they are abstract. In its most literal sense, this means that they are “drawn away” from specificity and particularity. While we might use paper maps to locate a new place, we cannot use them to really know it. Not, at least, in any intimate, personal sense. We experience this difference each time we go on vacation: once we arrive at the beach and feel the sand between our toes we tend to put the map away.

I have a suggestion: that we consider drink, and especially beer, as a kind of map. Beer is uniquely capable of taking on the character of a place. The elements of beer are dynamic and literally as alive as the place and the people who make it. This is why, when you drink you are not just passively consuming, rather you are always participating in something whether you know it or not.

Take, for example, the city where I live, the city of Chicago. The history of Chicago is bound up in the history of the city’s beer, albeit in a troubled and disjointed sort of way. In 1916, Chicago was home to upwards of 60 breweries, most of which were small-scale operations and important features of the neighborhoods they inhabited. The beer many people drank when they returned home from their difficult labors was normally brewed near where they lived. To really know them and their location, you would have to know their beer. It was one of their primary ways of participating in their place. Most of their work created profits for others and was part of the faceless abstraction known as “industry,” but beer was different. It was local. It was not only something that belonged to them, but was also part of their way of belonging to their neighborhood, to their community and to their friends.

The history of beer in Chicago entered a new chapter in 1919, with the beginning of the era of Prohibition. The sale of beer went underground, a process that came to generate millions of dollars for the now-legendary organized crime ring the Chicago Outfit and its leader Al Capone. At the end of Prohibition, only a few breweries — most of which survived by converting to the production of sodas during the 13 years of prohibition — reopened their doors. Chicago’s brewing industry would never rebound strongly enough to compete with the corporate brewing powerhouses in St. Louis, Missouri, and in nearby Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The competition became tougher and tougher as the bigger breweries expanded and engaged in more aggressive distribution and advertising until in 1978, when the last surviving Chicago brewery closed its doors. For the next ten years no beer would be brewed professionally in the city of Chicago.

Things began to change in 1988 when a man named John Hall opened a small brewpub called Goose Island. Learning from the failures of many brewers who had gone before him, Hall was able not only to survive, but to thrive, and Goose Island became nationally known within a decade.

However, growth itself can become unsustainable. This is what happened last year when Goose Island announced that it would be purchased by Anheuser-Busch. With its Chicago-based names (Goose Island is located on Goose Island in the Chicago River; 312, a popular wheat beer, is named for the principal Chicago area code; Green Line, an IPA, is named for a Chicago Transit Authority train; etc.) the purchase of Goose Island by a company like Anheuser-Busch seemed to many Chicagoans — and beer enthusiasts all over the country — to signal the end of something special. Fortunately, Anheuser-Busch has decided, at least for now, to leave the company, its beers and its operations largely untouched. Still, it remains difficult not to feel as though the names are a bit hollow now, as if they have been retained for marketing purposes only, and their soul is somehow missing. Goose Island once seemed irreplaceable. Now it is just another business model.

If the story of Goose Island is a cause for lament, it (and the $38.8 million Anheuser-Busch spent to buy the company) is also a sign of hope. It shows that the market for local craft beer is growing at an almost unbelievable rate. Even though Goose Island is gone as a locally-owned operation, one doesn’t have to look far for inspiring startups. My favorite of these is Half-Acre Brewing Company. What makes Half-Acre so unique is its very intentional and intimate relationship with its neighborhood. It gives us a little glimpse of what it might have been like to live in Chicago in the golden age of neighborhood breweries. At Half-Acre you can walk in off the street and sample beers right where they are made. Additionally, Half-Acre offers wildly popular weekly tours of their brewery. The brewery has a small store inside the building that serves as its connection point for the community. Beer purchased or sampled at this location travels just yards from where it is brewed before it reaches the consumer. Perhaps most inspiring, is that Half-Acre doesn’t seem focused on growth as much as sustainability. They have added no draft accounts in the last year, and simply want to continue to do business their way even if that means slow growth or no growth at all. Unlike so many companies that have gone before it, Half-Acre is preserving where it is, its place in Chicago’s literal and historical map.

The success of establishments like Half-Acre is a sign that each of our maps shows a city that is still in the making. The history of beer in Chicago shows that, like the first nomadic people who discovered the magic that occurs when grain steeped in water mixes with wild yeast, our work and our world always have the capacity to surprise us, and that to know a place intimately is to participate in its transformation. Here’s to a new chapter in Chicago’s history. Cheers!

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