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Today's Craft Beer Fans Have Got Nothing on Yesterday's Beer Rioters

By Patty Wetli | December 17, 2015 5:47am
 Chicago's Great Beer Riot is back in the spotlight as the subject of a new book.
Chicago's Great Beer Riot is back in the spotlight as the subject of a new book.
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The History Press

NORTH CENTER — Hundreds of beers lovers descended on Half Acre over the weekend to nab a share of the brewery's annual limited-release Big Hugs imperial coffee stout, forming a line that snaked up Lincoln Avenue and around the block.

If you think these folks take their beer a little too seriously, such steadfastness in the face of the adversity of an hourslong queue pales in comparison with the grit of Chicagoans of yore who fought, and in one case died, in the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of lager.

We speak, of course, of the Great Chicago Beer Riot of 1855.

Though the event has been dwarfed in the annals of the city's history by the Great Chicago Fire and subsequent riots (e.g., Haymarket, the 1968 Democratic National Convention), it arguably played as great a role in shaping the city's character.

Co-authors John Hogan and his wife, Judy Brady, revisit this often overlooked episode in their new book, "The Great Chicago Beer Riot: How Lager Struck a Blow for Liberty," placing the incident in a broader socio-political context.

Beer, it turns out, was simply a symbol of long brewing tensions between Chicago's old guard and upstart newcomers. 

The beer riots are featured in the "Lost German Chicago" exhibit at DANK Haus, the German American Cultural Center in Lincoln Square. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

Though the riot took place 160 years ago, the circumstances surrounding the uprising, described by Hogan during an author event held Saturday at DANK Haus, sound very much ripped from present-day headlines.

Picture an influx of immigrants from Germany and Ireland that swelled Chicago's population in the 1840s — intellectuals fleeing political repression in the case of the Germans; peasants fleeing famine in the case of the Irish.

Both "brought with them a love of drink," in contrast to the Yankee Puritanism of the city's elites, Hogan said.

The Germans' cliquishness, including a refusal to learn English, further irked members of the establishment.

Enter an anti-immigrant mayor in the form of Levi Boone, a member of the Know-Nothing Party or American Party, which "didn't have any use" for foreigners or their culture, according to Hogan.

To quash the growing German and Irish influence, Boone, riding waves of both anti-immigrant and pro-temperance sentiment, shut down sales of alcohol on Sundays and raised the cost of a tavern license sixfold, from $50 to $300, good for just three months.

Members of the newly formed Chicago Police Department arrested hundreds of Germans and Irish for violating the new law, while at the same time allowing "American-owned" taverns to continue operating on Sundays as usual.

A mob of 500 to 1,000 Germans (estimates vary widely), armed with muskets and meat cleavers, marched on the courthouse in protest over the arrests.

After an hourlong battle in which dozens were injured and one man was killed, the rioters were repelled back across the Chicago River at the Clark Street bridge, where they regrouped for a second assault.

Boone called in the militia, who brought a pair of cannons to a musket/meat cleaver fight. A truce of sorts was called, the jailed Germans and Irish were released, and the Sunday drinking ban was lifted until the temperance measures could be voted on in a special election.

A huge number of Chicagoans turned out at the polls — some estimates say as many as 75 percent of eligible voters — and roundly defeated the ban.

Though the riot has often been treated as a one-off event, Hogan said it represented a turning point for Chicago.

Old alliances shifted, new coalitions formed, and the Germans and Irish eventually came to wield serious political power. The moment is important enough to merit inclusion in the "Lost German Chicago" exhibit at DANK Haus, the German American Cultural Center in Lincoln Square.

The moral of the story is: Don't mess with Chicagoans and their beer.

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