Tapping Into the Past | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Tapping Into the Past

Bob Skilnik gazes into a stein and sees a beery history.

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By Mike Sula

Bob Skilnik never forgot how it used to rain beer in Bridgeport. Growing up at 38th and Lowe in the 50s, just blocks away from the stockyards, he was thankful for the nearby Ambrosia and Canadian Ace breweries, which provided occasional relief from the unrelenting animal stench. "Getting up in the morning you would smell the accumulated debris of livestock from scores and scores of years," he says. "The only saving grace was when the wind would blow just right and you'd smell the malt. It was just a sweet, earthy, grainy smell, and it would totally disguise the smell of the stockyards. Plus, during the colder months, the steam would come up out of the stacks and hit the air and you'd have a mist of unfermented beer, almost like rain if you were real close to the brewery. You could feel it on your skin and taste it, and there was always a sweetness to it."

In the late 1800s, the peak of Chicago's brewing industry, the city was home to over 50 breweries. But local brewers gradually became victims of the city's explosive growth during its first century. While breweries from smaller cities like Milwaukee and Saint Louis grew stronger exporting their surplus barrels here, Chicago brewers saw no need to expand their markets beyond a huge and thirsty local population. Eventually they were smothered by giant outsiders like Schlitz and Anheuser-Busch. The city's last brewery drained its vats in 1978, putting a period on a tumultuous and storied 145 years.

The local brewing industry doesn't exist even as a memory for most people, and for years Skilnik, a 49-year-old former postal carrier, ignored his own recollections of its last gasps. But beer in general has always preoccupied him. In his early 20s, long before the home-brewing fad began, he'd discovered the raw materials for garbage-can brew in a Taylor Street hardware store. "They had the old cans of malt extract," he says. "The hops were gray and shitty-looking, and your yeast consisted of little packets of Red Star. I did everything I was supposed to do, faithfully skimmed the scum off the top. But every time you open that up to stick your finger or utensils in there, you're gonna cause a problem. We bottled it and opened up a quart of beer and it went off like a rocket, gushing all over the place."

Skilnik's brief career as a home brewmaster was cut short by a three-year stint in Germany as an army translator, nonetheless an enlightening experience. "The beers in Europe tasted different, funky, somehow," he says. "Every little village seemed to have a brewery, and they all had something in common in that their beers were these thick, rich lagers. A lot of them were very malty. Some were very yeasty. You hear the expression nowadays, 'I want a beer I can chew on.' After three years you come to the point where you can drink the beer warm like they do. You come back here and start to drink your old favorites--your Old Style, your Schlitz--and it's horrendous. You've got thin beer served in an iced mug and you start to think, 'God, I don't like these beers anymore.'" Skilnik read Charlie Papazian's classic guide The Home Brewer's Companion and began having more success making his own. He even started a home-brewing mail-order business as a sideline but eventually wanted something more.

"I don't know if this was my midlife crisis or what," he says. "But I had been carrying a bag of mail for years and I thought, 'If I'm gonna do something, this is the time to do it.'" After undergoing surgery for a heel spur, he took advantage of a three-month convalescence to enroll in the Siebel Institute of Technology on the north side, hoping to open his own brew pub or to land a job at a microbrewery. Siebel, founded in 1872, is the oldest brewing school in the country, having weathered prohibition and nine years during the 70s and 80s when Chicago wasn't home to a single brewery. Much of Siebel's student body already worked for national beer companies or microbreweries when Skilnik attended in 1991. He didn't realize that to break into the business one needed youth, money, or experience, none of which he had. After graduating with his Certificate in Brewing Technology he opened a deli hoping to clock some restaurant experience, but it folded after a year and a half.

"It kind of disillusioned me just because it was so hard," he says. "There are so many things you can't control, and by the time you understand where your problems are you run out of money. The one thing I learned is that if you ever open a brew pub, the most important thing is to do it with OPM--other people's money.

"After that I had some time on my hands. I was sitting around one day thinking about these two old breweries in Bridgeport. I thought I was going to walk into a public library and a book was going to fall on my head and have all the information about the old Chicago brewing industry." It didn't happen. He began hanging out at the Newberry Library, the Historical Society, and the University of Chicago, looking at old trade journals, newspaper clippings, and history books, uncovering the forgotten exploits of pioneer brewers, saloon keepers, gangsters, prohibitionists, and reformers. "I wasn't serious about any of this," he says. "But I became the kind of guy at a party who could talk your ear off about some obscure reference to some brewery that nobody ever heard of." He was pleased to discover that his cherished neighborhood brewery, the Canadian Ace, was under mob control for years, beginning with Johnny Torrio, the godfather of Chicago bootleggers, who passed it down to Al Capone, who in turn handed it off to Frank Nitti. He also tracked down a number of original Chicago breweries that remain standing, either abandoned or converted to other uses. Part of the Canadian Ace is now a slaughterhouse.

About three years ago Skilnik decided to do something with his expanding arcana, publishing a piece in the American Breweriana Journal about labor conditions in the city's early breweries. This eventually led to an assignment to summarize the history of Chicago brewing for the 150th anniversary of the Tribune. "One day I had so much shit I had to do something," he says. "I turn to my wife and say, 'I'm gonna write a book about the history of beer and brewing in Chicago.' She just looks at me and says, 'That's nice.'"

Skilnik intensified his research and shaped it into a narrative beginning shortly after the birth of the city, when William Haas and Conrad Sulzer opened Chicago's first commercial brewery in 1833, producing 600 barrels of ale in their first year. Lager breweries and saloons proliferated with the arrival of German immigrants and so did the first attempts to ban them, sponsored by the nativist Know-Nothing Party, which shut down saloons on Sundays and raised licensing fees in an attempt to keep "the business in the hands of the better class of saloon keepers"--by which they meant those who weren't German or Irish.

In fact, Skilnik's book, The History of Beer and Brewing in Chicago: 1833-1978, is defined by the conflicts between the local beer industry and those who would regulate it or shut it down. But not even the 18th Amendment could stop beer trucks from rolling past crooked cops or the spiking of near beer after it passed government inspectors. Ironically, Skilnik says, it was repeal that killed the industry in Chicago. It opened the door for the bigger Milwaukee breweries to move in, forcing complacent local brewers to suddenly deal with advertising budgets and sales staff to push their product when they'd previously relied on hoods with pipe bombs.

Skilnik signed a contract with Pogo Press in Saint Paul because the two university presses that responded to his query letter demanded a more scholarly rewrite. "It took five years to do this and I wasn't going to do it again," he says. "I tried to make it readable. And I didn't want it to be dry." Skilnik convinced Pogo to include a picture of his grandfather's Bridgeport tavern in the book. It shows two fellows in straw boaters sitting at the bar enjoying a couple cold ones. Inexplicably there's a guinea pig sitting on top of the bar, but everyone's smiling as if it just delivered a bully-good punch line. "We have no idea what that's all about," he says. "I don't know if he came in on his own. Maybe he was the mascot of the bar. I don't know."

Pogo is a small publisher, so Skilnik's taken on some sales work for the book, which will be in stores in mid-October. He's received just under 400 prepublication orders on his Web site (www.chicagobeerhistory.com), which also includes excerpts, photos, and links to related Web sites. He's also working on a second book, which will pick up in 1978 and look at how the national breweries competed in Chicago and the birth of the microbrewery and brew-pub movement. He also wants to examine the effects of the recent vote-dry trend in south-side neighborhoods, which he considers an ominous echo of pre-prohibition days. "You have a few troublemakers, bad places where things are going on that are bad for the neighborhood," he says. "But to use this blanket local option shuts down liquor licenses for restaurants and shuts down neighborhood places. Last year there were 23 precincts that were dried up. It's not happening just in African-American communities. There was a precinct in Bridgeport they voted dry. I thought, Jesus, that's a drinking community. Who the hell voted dry in Bridgeport?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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