Old brewery complex in Chicago

Best Brewing Company of Chicago - Best Brewery, Chicago Illinois
Date added: September 11, 2022 Categories: Illinois Industrial Brewery
North front facade (1987)

The Best Brewing Company began in 1891; however, the site had been home to a brewery since 1885. At that time, it was Klockgeter & Company, which only lasted a-short time, and then became Kagebein & Folstaff. In 1891, the Hasterlik brothers purchased the brewery and operated it for the next seventy years. The four Hasterlik brothers (Samuel, Charles,- Henry, and Ignatz) pulled down the small brewery and built the existing plant in 1893, beginning a great family brewing tradition that was one of few to survive Prohibition. The history of the Best Brewing Company is a history of the German beer business in Chicago, reflecting its many struggles and changes through most of a century.

Germans had continually been one of the largest immigrant groups on Chicago's North Side. Being traditionally a beer drinking and brewing people, many brought their brewing skills and know-how with them to Chicago. In 1850, the population of Chicago was 30,000, with 17% German. By 1870, it had grown to 300,000, with Germans remaining one of the largest immigrant groups. By the late 19th century, the German beer business was entrenched on Chicago's North Side, although it had taken a political struggle to reach this point. In 1854, with whiskey as the drink of Chicago's "Know Nothing" Mayor Levi D. Boone and his colleagues, a campaign was waged against Germans and their beer. Beer halls were ordered to close on Sunday and the liquor license fee was raised 600%. During the following Sundays, police arrested more than 100 Germans in beer halls while ignoring saloons selling whiskey. When the eases came to trial in April, 1855 several hundred Germans battled police near the courthouse in a riot that left one dead and many injured. Consequently, the Mayor backed down, affirming the right of the City's German population to make and drink beer. As a result of these events, Germans proceeded to brew beer and lead Chicago to rank as the sixth largest beer producer in the nation by the turn of the century. In the 1882 book The Brewing and Malting Industry of Chicago, the important connection is made between the agriculture and brewing industries. Malting and brewing are the two stages of the process by which grain becomes beer, and at this time, over a million acres of barley were needed to produce the crop for malting in Chicago alone. The combination of agriculture and concentration of German immigrants brought brewing to the Midwest. According to the 1882 book, "Chicago is most favorably located as a great center of beer brewing, by reason of its admirable and unfailing sources of water and malt supply, and on account of its superior advantages with respect to the distribution, in all directions, of the product."

By 1885, Chicago was home to 33 breweries, which employed over 2,000 people. There were many beer gardens and rathskellars open to the public, some run directly by breweries, where German families gathered on Sundays to drink beer, listen to music, and visit with their relatives, friends, and neighbors. By 1890, according to The Saloon Keeper's Journal, 49 gallons of malt liquor were consumed per year for every man, woman, and child in Chicago-- more than twice the per capita consumption in Germany.

Through the turn of the century and until Prohibition, Best Brewery contributed its share of beer to Chicago. At that time, beer was distributed in barrels and bottles to local taverns, beer gardens, and other distributors. According to the 1911 Brewery Equipment Directory, Best was a medium-sized brewery for Chicago, producing 80,000 gallons per year. The beer was distributed by Best's team of 20 wagons and 40 horses. They had a successful business which continued to increase under the management of the four Hasterlik brothers.

By 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, 52 breweries existed in Chicago. Most never re-opened after Prohibition, but a few, such as Best Brewery, struggled through those years and went on to experience considerable success through the Depression. When forced to stop brewing by January 16, 1920, Best turned to alternate products and tried a succession of them with varying success over the next thirteen years. Initially, root beer was tried but was scrapped after about six months. Next, "artificial" ice became the main product, with about 110 tons of ice produced each day and sold wholesale. Then, as refrigerators became more popular and the ice business declined, the company began to produce malt syrup. This was a move tried by many breweries because it used much of the same brewing equipment. The malt was sold to bakeries, ice cream manufacturers, and in cans to grocery stores, where it was presumably used in home brew. Best Brewery managed to stay afloat in this manner, though competition was keen, particularly from Anheuser-Busch and Pabst who were also producing malt. Best produced large quantities of malt syrup, selling some of it to other breweries to retail under their own names. For example, they sold to the Schoenhofen Brewery who retailed the malt syrup under the Edelweiss brand.

There was, of course, bootleg beer produced during Prohibition and, of course, it was controlled by such non-Germans as Al Capone. Prohibition led to one of the most violent decades in Chicago and the nation, and some breweries fell into the hands of hoodlums. Hundreds of police and federal officials responsible for enforcing prohibition were paid from illegal beer profits to ignore brewing operations. In Chicago, there were four major gangs, Irish and Italian, that controlled the breweries and beer distribution. Many of the German brewers were law abiding citizens and wanted nothing to do with illegal production or the gangs. Mr. Hasterlik recalls that one day during Prohibition, he was approached by a member of an Italian gang who said they wanted to look at the brewery with the idea of purchasing it. When Mr. Hasterlik, then a very young man, reported this to his parents, he was very nearly kicked out for even reporting it. The Hasterliks were incensed at the very idea of selling the brewery, and wanted nothing to do with the gangs, or illegal production.

On April 7, 1933, beer came back to stay, and eight months later, the 21st Amendment was passed ending Prohibition. Some of the German breweries, including Best Brewery, had survived and immediately began producing beer. By this time, the second generation of Hasterliks, Jerome and his brother, Joseph, were running the brewery. Distribution began as it had ended at Prohibition, with delivery of barrels and some bottles to taverns, distributors and liquor stores. They were producing two different beers at this time, the Hapsburg Beer and the more economical Best Made. The plant also continued its ice and malt syrup business for awhile, but then discontinued as beer business increased.

Approximately 37 breweries opened in Chicago following repeal, 18 of these, throughout the city, had remained open during Prohibition, producing other, usually related products. Many did well for a few years or less, but then a change in marketing began forcing many breweries out of business. The large brewers were using advertising to expand their markets, driving smaller brewers out of business. Pabst and Schlitz in Milwaukee and Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis were quickly becoming major factors in the race for tavern and liquor store markets.

The years 1935-1937 were crucial for Best Brewery, changing the direction of the company and helping to revolutionize part of the brewing industry. Not to be undone by elaborate marketing techniques, the Hasterliks came up with a new marketing strategy of their own that saved the company. They became the pioneers of the chain food store beer, developing private label house brands for each of the different chains. It turned out to be their most successful endeavor, with chains such as A&P Tea Co., Hillman's, Kroger, and National Tea Company as their best customers. Some of these carried Best's products locally for over 25 years. In addition to production for the local market, private labels were developed for the Katz Drug Store chain in Missouri and Safeway Foods, as far west as California. By this time, over 250,000 barrels of beer per year were produced by Best Brewery. Some of the early brands were Tudor, produced for A&P; Hillman's Superb for that chain; Embassy Club for Kroger; and the premium Hapsburg for National Tea. In all, there were about 54 different brands being produced, though most were from one recipe.

Also in 1935, American Can Company and the Continental Can Company were developing the more perfect container for beer. Best Brewery was a target for early experimentation with cans, and became one of the first in the area to sell canned beer. They packaged it in both 32 ounce cone top cans and 12 ounce flat top cans. Initially, in the 1930's, a 12 ounce cone top can was also produced, but discontinued shortly thereafter. As the production of beer in cans coincided with the new marketing techniques for Best Brewery, the brands such as Tudor, Hillman's, Embassy Club and Hapsburg were sold in cans beginning in 1935.

By 1950, Best Brewery was doing well with the chain store business but struck a deal with Metropolis Brewing Company of New York to brew under the Tudor brand for New York distribution. Metropolis basically took over the company with financial backing and supervisory management, but the Hasterlik brothers continued to operate Best Brewery and produce Best brands of beer. This system continued until 1961, when Metropolis went out of business and the Hasterliks decided to close production at the brewery.