A new exhibit is brewing a strong blend of local history and beer culture at the Harold Washington Library this summer.
“Beer Chicago: The Refreshing History” opened June 6, having debuted at the Elmhurst History Museum in summer 2015, and is eager to entice beer enthusiasts without offering a drop of the beverage.
“I’m always looking for a subject that I feel people already have an inherent interest in,” said Lance Tawzer, curator of exhibits at the museum. “It seemed to be a real opportunity to engage a demographic that maybe didn’t normally engage in history.”
The exhibit combines more traditional wall panels of information with innovative ways of storytelling, including 150-pound barrels displaying old saloon glasses, signs hanging off a keg and a video that teaches non-beer enthusiasts the brewing process.
“I didn’t want to do a timeline, I wanted to see the themes and the things that would be more interesting to the average person, whether they were a real hophead or history head,” Tawzer explained. He noted the exhibit touches on many issues and events that make Chicago unique, including the Great Chicago Fire, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the local political landscape and general social unrest of the time.
“Beer Chicago” provides brief summaries of the city’s early breweries, such as Haas & Sulzer Brewery, our first brewery in 1833, Lill & Diversey Brewing Co., which used the power of marketing to become one of the largest breweries in the country, and John A. Huck Brewery, the first to produce lager beer in the city. Other, more interactive activities include writing a toast after learning the origin of the tradition as well as smelling the aroma of beer brewing.
For nearly a year, Tawzer collaborated with local beer history expert Liz Garibay, who wrote the exhibit’s text.
“I often argue the point that Chicago is a city built on beer,” said Garibay, who is working to open the city’s first “brewseum” to examine local history and beer simultaneously. “People talk about railroads and the stockyards and architecture and the river, and those are incredibly important parts of our past and development. But I definitely don’t think Chicago would be who we are today without beer.”
Indeed, Chicago’s history may be more closely intertwined with the beverage than people might think. According to one of the exhibit’s many “beer factoids” displayed on signs throughout, local leaders gathered in Sauganash Tavern in August 1833 and, by a vote of 12 to one, declared Chicago an official township.
One of the most prominent features of the exhibit is a pseudo-tavern with tap handles that, when pulled, launch a bartender on a video screen into a short lecture on Prohibition-era politics, immigration and the importance of the saloon as the “third place” for Chicago residents outside their home and workplace.
Garibay believes strongly in the power of looking at history through the lens of alcohol, transforming it from something with “fun after-effects” to a valuable tool to examine cultural change.
“When you start getting the entire history of one bar, you then get the history of the neighborhood, and then the entire city,” Garibay said. “You can keep connecting the dots further.”
“Beer Chicago” ends with a brief examination of the city’s current craft brewery and home brewing landscape.
“Now that so many people are drinking craft beer, it’s kind of like history repeating itself,” Garibay explained. “Back in the 1800s, the earliest brewers were home brewers. The modern craft movement today was started because of home brewing. We wanted to make that connection between the past and the present.”
The exhibit has already attracted many visitors, including self-proclaimed beer lover Joe Martinez of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood who visited the library last week.
“We heard about it on [television] and decided to come check it out,” Martinez said, motioning to his wife, Jackie. “We try to visit as many exhibits as possible,” Jackie added.
The exhibit was so popular when it launched in Elmhurst the museum extended its evening hours, and it even inspired the city to host an annual summer craft beer fest.
“Beer Chicago” will run through January 8, 2017, in the Harold Washington Library’s 9th floor Special Collection Exhibit Hall, 400 S. State.