Ahh, summer in Chicago! Traditionally, it is a fun season for holiday and weekend barbeques, 16-inch softball games and drinking a good cold beer served in a frosty stein or right out of the icy bottle or can.
Let’s reminisce about the good old days of beer—decades ago in the Lincoln Park neighborhood—long before quiche and pinot grigio wine became gourmet delights.
Even though the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 reportedly had destroyed 16 local breweries, at the turn-of-the century, the city was still considered one of America’s beer capitals, and the North Side bubbled with the frothy stuff.
In 1949, Lincoln Park was a blue-collar neighborhood. Siebens Brewery on Larrabee Street and Peter Hand Brewery on North Avenue, brewer of Meister Brau, were selling what the ethnic neighborhood made best—cool steins, bottles and cans of German-American beer.
On the northeast corner of North Avenue and Halsted Street, stood the landmark Yondorf Hall, the biggest saloon in Lincoln Park. Today, Yuppies know it as a historic Victorian restoration now leased by Steppenwolf Theatre and a fancy jewelry store.
After the Great Depression of 1929, this former bank building fell on hard times and was shuttered. It was reborn in the 1940s as “The Barrel House,” a large neighborhood saloon and beer hall. Its neighbor to the east was “Sam’s Cut-Rate Liquors.”
In those days, North Side “wine connoisseurs” preferred their vintages in pints with screw caps, rather than delicate and aromatic Cabernets. Neighborhood bums frequented Sam’s, a popular neighborhood establishment, and usually drank their pints under the Brown Line el tracks behind the saloon.
One hot summer day, my father—Chester (Frenchy) DeBat, a Checker Cab driver—purchased a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and told the bartender: “This cold one is for my son.”
So, this writer’s very first beer was sipped as a 15-year-old at The Barrel House, during an era when few teens were carded when accompanied by a parent.
Along with Pabst, which won a Blue Ribbon at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1883, several affordable blue-collar beers were on tap or sold in long-neck bottles at The Barrel House. They included: Schlitz, Meister-Brau, Old Milwaukee, Hamm’s, Rheingold, Drewry’s and Budweiser.
Now, with all that frothy history under our belts, and craft beer breweries popping up in several city neighborhoods—Chicago’s beer drinkers will be shocked to learn that in 2015 the city of Houston, Texas drank more beer than the Windy City.
According to new data from IRI, a market-research firm, last year Houston bought $1-billion worth of beer, nearly double the $545 million Chicagoans purchased.
Apparently, the abundant hot and humid weather in Houston leads to drinking huge amounts of domestic beers, light beers, and Mexican imports, analysts say. That’s also probably why thirsty Texans wear wide-brimmed cowboy hats and drive those pickup trucks with the giant coolers strapped down in the back.
However, Chicago still holds the edge in craft beer sales with a solid $93.3 million in sales, compared with only $75 million in Houston.
For more current beer news, Budweiser—in an absurd branding extreme—has renamed its beer “America” from the peak summer beer-selling season until the November Presidential election. “We thought nothing was more iconic than Budweiser and nothing was more iconic than America,” said Tosh Hall, creative director at JKR, the beer maker’s branding firm.
Since 2011, Budweiser, under the delusion that it actually is the favorite beer of United States residents, has released special summer-edition cans that feature patriotic images such as the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. The red-white-and-blue cans were especially designed for patriotic beer guzzlers on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day.
All this hoopla over beer brings to mind the “Great Mike Royko Beer Taste” of 1973, dubbed the first formal beer taste by a newspaper.
Royko, the famed Chicago Daily News columnist, asked a team of judges, including this writer, to sample 22 beers ranging from Budweiser, the so-called “America’s beer,” to Bass Ale, an English brew.
The Royko Beer Taste judges concluded that the best American beer was “Point Special,” brewed in Stevens Point, Wis. “Pilsner Urquell,” a fine pilsner brewed in the Czech Republic, was voted the best beer in the world. What about Budweiser? “It tasted like it had been run through the bladder of a horse,” Royko quipped.
Over the years, especially after a pitching a 16-inch softball game for my Vintage Risk team on a hot summer evening, this writer preferred Amstel Light, a Dutch beer, that currently goes for $5 a bottle at the neighborhood saloon.
However, when our sponsor—Brad Rompza, owner of Chicago Joe’s in Lakeview’s North Center enclave—announced last week that his saloon was serving Miller Lite for $1.50 on Monday nights this summer, my brand loyalty went out the window.
After some research, it was learned that Miller Lite was introduced in 1975. The beer was created from an original 4.2 percent alcohol-content recipe developed in 1967 by Joseph L. Owades, a biochemist for Rheingold Brewery based in New York.
At the 2014 Great American Beer Festival, Miller Lite won the gold medal for “Best American Style Lager or Light Lager.” All this for $1.50? It’s an offer a Chicago softball player cannot refuse.
Cheers! Prost! Here’s mud in your eye!
Beer-lover Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com and www.dondebat.biz.