Monday, October 31, 2011

Chicago on film

Here's a link to Lee Bay's WBEZ website which features two amazing films of Chicago of the past. The first is a newsreel of the city from the mid-thirties, during or just after the Century of Progress Exhibition. It's amazing how recognizable the city is after 75 years.

The second is from a home movie shot in 1955, with folks showing off some serious wheels and duds.

Check it out.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A theater lives in Detroit

Here's a link to an inspiring story about how a group of people in Detroit became involved in the preservation, and hopefully the revival of a theater in their neighborhood. They're taking their neighborhood back, one building at a time, and in a small way, making a real difference in the life of a great city.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Slow down, Big Brother is watching

Automated cameras for years have been installed at selected traffic intersections in Chicago to catch drivers going through red lights. Mayor Emanuel has announced that he would like to see the use of these traffic control devices extended, especially in the vicinity of schools and parks to catch speeders. His stated reason is to protect the children of our city from reckless drivers. Well, who's not in favor of that? Of course if you believe that's the real reason behind the cameras, then I'd like to personally welcome you back from your forty year visit to Never Never Land.

Everyone else knows that at one hundred bucks a pop, catching misbehaving drivers red handed is a cash cow for the city. According to this article in the Chicago Tribune, in 2009, the red light cameras netted 59 million dollars for the city. The city certainly needs the money. As someone who has two school age children and who commutes to work primarily by bicycle, I should be cheering the mayor's new initiative. If only I had a dime for every time I was cut off on the road by a speeding driver and thought: "Where's a police officer when you need one?"

Yet I'm skeptical. As far as I know, studies on the effectiveness of Chicago's red light cameras have been inconclusive. As a driver for well over thirty years, I know that safe driving doesn't depend on slavishly adhering to the rules of the road, but on carefully observing and accessing traffic conditions, and driving accordingly. A safe driver could be completely aware of his surroundings, but be breaking the law if by going with the flow of traffic he is exceeding the speed limit. Another driver could be completely distracted by a conversation, drinking coffee and switching the dial of his radio, all at the same time. If that driver is traveling at the speed limit however, he is not breaking the law. Under the mayor's proposed new use of the cameras, the first driver would get the ticket.

A flesh and blood police officer can make appropriate judgments about safe driving, a camera and a computer cannot. It's just a cold and calculated machine that works 24/7, night and day, rain or shine, without lunch, overtime or a doughnut break, and won't let the driver off with a warning. There is no question of guilt or innocence, no mitigating circumstances, no conceivable justification for one's actions, just a photograph with the conclusive evidence, your car is in the middle of the intersection and the light is red, one hundred dollars please. You have a week to contest but what's the point? If you wait longer than a week, you owe another hundred dollars.

Small wonder the city loves them.

There's no doubt that there will be much opposition to Mayor Emanuel's plan, but I have little doubt that he will get his way. Let's hope that this technology will work to our benefit and will result in fewer accidents. Not that it matters but if they actually do the job they're supposed to do, I would support the speed cameras whole-heartedly.

Until I get a ticket.

Real Ale

My friend, the author and architectural historian Francis Morrone made note of my admitted short shrift of craft brewing in my last post about beer. In the following, he fills in a crucial precedent for the great beer revolution in the United States:

I think a crucial link you left out is that the U.S. microbrew and craft-brew revolution followed on Britain's Campaign for Real Ale, which began in the 1960s (though not made a formal consumer advocacy organization until the early '70s) when a number of Englishmen, most of them young, began to sound the alarm about declining British beer and the decline of the traditional pub. I am sure that when you were over there you noticed that many pubs announce themselves as "real ale pubs." That shows that they pass muster with CAMRA, which is today the U.K.'s single biggest consumer advocacy group. This is important to me both because I think there never would have been a similar movement in the U.S. but for the movement in the U.K., and also because one of the people who most influenced the real ale movement was my idol among architecture writers, Ian Nairn (who, alas, died from cirrhosis of the liver).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reinheitsgebot

That word and everything it entails meant that at one time, all was well in the world, at least in Germany. It was the law stipulating that in order to produce something and call it beer, (yes I'm writing about beer again, just a warning), you could only use four ingredients, water, barley, hops and yeast. The law was repealed in the 1990s when Germany became part of the E.U. and the laws of all the member nations were consolidated. German beers sold domestically continue to adhere to the law. But it is now possible for German brewers to export something they call beer that is something well, just a little less than beer.

What's the world coming to?

A wise man once said:
As goes beer, so goes the world.

I don't remember who said it, maybe it was Abraham Lincoln. Anyway, in this topsy turvy economy with our manic-depressive stock market and the country on the verge of class warfare, the world of beer in many ways parallels the bigger picture.
After all, if you can't trust beer from a place that takes beer as seriously as Germany, what can you trust?

Yes friends, I'm saying that beer is a metaphor for life.



OK for those few of you who have continued reading after that last line, I offer my thanks for sticking with me.


The beer world is essentially divided in two camps, the macros and the micros. The macro breweries, Big Beer, represent the one percent of the population who control most of the wealth. As such they represent all that is evil with corporations, greed, capitalism, you name it. Their product is a watered down version of real beer, filled with adjunct ingredients like corn and rice that dilute the product, designed to increase the profit margin for the sole purposes of making the rich CEOs of the multi-national corporations who control them, even richer. Why do people drink their ghastly swill? Because the multi-nationals have brainwashed the unsuspecting public through their marketing campaigns, into believing that using their product will make them hipper, sexier, manlier, more attractive, more honest, and less pretentious than drinking the beer of the smaller, less visible, independent companies, the micro breweries who represent the other 99 percent, aka, the rest of us.

Instead of occupying Wall Street and Chicago, maybe today's protesters of corporate greed gone amok should be at the doorsteps of Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis and Miller in Milwaukee, both subsidiaries of the evil global corporations based in South Africa, or Europe or God only knows where. After all, Big Beer in all its incarnations, controls about 95 percent of the beer market in America, and one of its products, an appalling concoction known as "Bud Lite" has a 28 percent market share all to itself. The insatiable appetite of Big Beer will not rest until its opposition is thoroughly crushed, mangled, and wiped off the face of the map, or short of that, absorbed into Big Beer.

It's not like the old days when the hard working immigrant brewers who brought their recipes from the old country and founded thousands of small breweries in this country, all made wonderful beers and happily co-existed with each other in blissful utopia when the world was less cruel.

Well that's the story as told by the most strident beeristas, the real story isn't quite as salacious. It is true that brewing in America resembles the overall economy in its complexities, and its inscrutable system of hierarchies, ownerships and distribution. But the history of beer making in this country is also a fascinating tale of struggle, innovation, survival, and ultimately for the lucky ones, tremendous success and fortune.

Beer was brewed in the New World before the arrival of the Mayflower. But if you consider beer a genuine part of American culture, as anyone who watches TV commercials during sporting events does, the real dawn of the brewing industry in America came during the great influx of German immigration in the nineteenth century. The thirst of all those new arrivals needed to be quenched and one of the most valued professions among their ranks was that of brewer. Hundreds of breweries were founded in the cities with large Teutonic settlements such as New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis and of course, Milwaukee.

In America, the brewers did the best they could to replicate the beer they made back home, but found that the barley available to them on this side of the ocean resulted in a cloudy brew. They discovered that the addition of corn or rice (ingredients that would have been prohibited in Germany), provided the clarity their customers demanded. The beer those customers wanted was a type of beer known as lager, which was the prevalent, but certainly not the only style of beer found in Central Europe at the time. The descendants of those German brewers would create an entirely new style of beer known as American Pale Lager, which would become virtually the only style this country would produce for a very long time.

The names of a handful of those immigrant brewers are immortalized to this day on the bottles and cans of the products that represent the companies they founded. The names include Frederick Miller, Adolph Coor, Captain Fred Pabst, Joseph Schlitz, and Adolphus Busch. The fact that we still know those names and not the others, testifies to the fact that these men, all of whom came from humble backgrounds, were businessmen first, and brewers second. In each case, they bought their way into existing breweries, and ended up with success far beyond their wildest dreams.

Joseph Schlitz's brilliant marketing skills were helped along by tragedy, the Great Chicago Fire. Five local breweries were destroyed in the fire and almost as serious, the city's water system was contaminated. Relief came from Milwaukee in the form of hundreds of barrels of beer, courtesy of Herr Schlitz. That bit of altruism not only solidified the company's reputation around the country but also that of its hometown. In fact the slogan: "The beer that made Milwaukee famous" was inspired by Schlitz's act of generosity back in 1871. For his part, Schlitz gained a foothold in the lucrative Chicago market which enabled him to open up several saloons serving of course, exclusively Schlitz beer. You can see evidence of this today as the familiar logo of the Schlitz company, (the earth wrapped by a banner displaying the name of company), still graces the facades of many surviving buildings that once housed Schlitz owned saloons.


Beer plays an important part in Chicago's history. Back in 1855, the city fathers enacted a law banning the sale of alcohol on Sunday. Since it was the tradition of Germans to congregate in beer gardens on their one day of rest, the law was seen as an affront to that community. This resulted in the Lager Beer Riot on April 21st of that year. The ban was soon lifted. The labor movement that rocked the city in the 1870s and 80s was made up mostly of Germans and Bohemains, and the resentment towrd those folks and their drink of choice, fueled the fire of the temperance movement, as did the intense anti-German sentiment during WWI.

Well into the twentieth century, most beer was sold in saloons. If you wanted to enjoy your beer at home, you'd have to go to the local watering hole and fill up a vessel of one kind or other to bring home. Part of my family's lore is the story of how my great-grandfather Robert Houlihan became a teetotaler. One Sunday morning, Robert had a taste for a beer and asked his wife Margaret to head out to the tavern to fetch him some. Margaret wasn't in the mood for a Sunday morning jaunt to the
neighborhood tap so she did what any sensible parent would do, she sent her child. Apparently, Robert's reaction to the sight of his favorite daughter Marie, my grandmother, returning from the saloon struggling to carry home a bucket of beer, sent him into a tizzy. Such was the disgust from the sight that from that day forward my great grandfather vowed, not to fetch the beer himself, but to give up drink. He would become an ardent and vocal supporter of temperance and Prohibition. Fortunately his beliefs did not rub off on most of his progeny.

The "noble experiment" of Prohibition sent a tidal wave of change throughout the land, little of it having to do with the expressed purpose of eliminating the evils of drink.

A good number of breweries had the wherewithal to survive the thirteen years of Prohibition, mostly by selling legal near beer, malt extract or yeast products. What the consumers did with those products was apparently their own business, so long as they didn't make beer, wink wink.

One unintended consequence was that Prohibition created a whole new market for beer. Old time saloons were primarily the domain of men, whereas the illegal speakeasies of Prohibition were filled with men, women and even children. When the repeal of the 18th amendment came in 1933, the breweries, anxious to recoup their losses, were eager to expand their market well beyond the traditional Central European, male core. The heavily malted, intensely hopped beverage that Bohemians and Germans preferred, was shall we say an acquired taste, not necessarily popular among this new group. So the brewers adapted their recipes to create a beer that was less intense, easier to drink, and had a greatly reduced mouth feel and aftertaste. They did this by adding more corn or rice, depending on the location of the brewery. This was the beginning of the aforementioned American Pale Lager, which became so dominant in the American market.

Many in the beer world call
American Pale Lager an inferior product, but that's not really true. The lack of taste and distinction (at least compared to other styles), is certainly the chief characteristic of APL, but that's exactly the point. While making a boatload of money is certainly their goal as with any business, big brewers do not skimp on effort or the quality of their materials. In fact, the opposite is true for the most part. The breweries spend a great deal of money to procure ingredients of the highest quality and to maintain the highest standards of quality control in their facilities. A brewmaster's most important job at a commercial brewery, especially a big one, is not creativity or experimentation, but quality control, making sure his beer tastes exactly the same, one insipid sip after another. That's not an easy job in the notoriously fickle art of brewing.

When a brand of beer becomes inconsistent, trouble follows, as the makers of Schiltz found out not too long ago. Schlitz was the leading brewer in America for most of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, the company seeking to improve its profit margin, tried to cut corners by experimenting with new techniques that would shorten the aging process and enable them to use a higher percentage of corn, which is cheaper than barley. The change of recipe changed the product, and resulted in a beer than was inconsistent from batch to batch, causing loyal drinkers to switch brands in droves. In about ten years, the great Downtown Milwaukee brewery closed for good, and Schlitz was absorbed into the Pabst company. The Schlitz label exists today, still owned by the Pabst Company, and contract brewed by Miller, as a boutique brand, brewed using the old recipe. Better yes, but don't expect it to taste like Pilsner Urquell.

If innovation, creativity and experimentation are not a part of the brewmaster's job description, that is certainly not the case for the marketers of beer. Early beer ads testify to the beer companies' desire to convince non beer drinkers to drink beer. They typically describe the healthful attributes of beer as well as other benefits. The following is the copy of an ad from around 1900: *

There is no beverage more healthful than the right kind of beer. Barley malt and hops - a food and a tonic. Only 3 1/2 percent of alcohol - just right for digestion.


Rhine wine is 12 percent alcohol; champagne, 20 percent; whiskey, 40 percent.


There are no germs in pure beer, while the sweet drinks you give you children are full of them.


Pure beer is a tonic which all physicians favor. They prescribe it to the weak, the run-down, the convalescent. And they recommend it to well people who want to keep well.
Of course you have to drink the right beer:
But get the right beer, for some beer is not healthful. Schlitz is the pure beer, the clean beer, the filtered and sterilized beer. No bacilli in it - nothing but health.
And now for the coup de gras:
And Schlitz is the aged beer that never causes biliousness.
Of course not.

As the advertising world became more sophisticated, a product's image became the selling point for everything from soup to nuts. Beer was certainly no exception. For more or less the first two thirds of the twentieth century, beer ads typically made an effort to present the image of their product and its users as urbane and sophisticated, in marked contrast to the public image that beer was the drink of working class men. The Miller Company for example, famously advertised its signature product, Miller High Life as the "Champagne of Beers"

Here is a TV spot featuring the suave and debonair Ray Milland in character as private detective Roy Markham from around 1960. Note the non-discreet product placement during the closing credits of the program:



A few things happened to beer advertising in the sixties. TV commercials became more epic and cinematic. Gone were the days of on screen talent simply explaining the merits of a product as they did on radio. Imported beer started making real inroads in the American market and the bland, less expensive, American beers could no longer with a straight face claim to be more sophisticated than a beer from say Holland or Germany. So American beer companies reacted by turning to their old reliable consumers as you can see in this ad from 1971:



This commercial was made in the era when the slogans; "Miller Time" and "For all you do, this Bud's for you" were introduced. Their message was; after a hard day at work, sit back, relax, and pour yourself a cold one, you deserve it. The aggressive, over-the-top manly, men doing über-manly things campaign of Schlitz didn't go over as well as its creators had hoped, maybe because viewers found it hard to relate to say, tuna fishermen. But it was part of the trend that continues to this day to market American beer primarily to the working man.

In the seventies and the eighties, the marketers and brewmasters got together to create an entirely new style of brew, light beer. Influenced by the diet soft drink, light beer was probably intended to be marketed toward beer drinking women who wanted to watch their waste lines. The Chicago brand Meister Braü was the first to market the stuff but went nowhere with it. The Meister Braü label was purchased by Miller, who was at the time owned by cigarette giant Phillip Morris Company. "Meister Braü Lite" became "Lite Beer from Miller", and the target audience was changed to thirsty men. The new angle was that you could drink a whole lot of this stuff and get drunk (ok not in so many words), but not get bloated. They also claimed it tasted good which I guess is a matter of opinion. Miller produced several commercials showing some of the manliest of men, mostly sports stars who wouldn't be caught dead drinking diet beer, but were happy to drink two cans of beer that had the same effect of one normal beer. It was brilliant. Not only did the beer companies have a successful new product on their hands, but they could sell twice as much of it. Every major brand jumped on the light beer bandwagon and today about 45 percent of all the malt beverages sold in the U.S. is "Lite" beer of one brand or another.

At the same time, another revolution was taking place in the beer world. No one agrees exactly how or where it all began, but the micro/craft brewing movement brought a whole new world of beer to this country. The author and renowned beer authority Michael Jackson, categorized beers from around the world and identified dozens of different styles in his groundbreaking book; The World Guide to Beer, first published in 1977. Another author, Fred Eckhardt, elaborated on the various styles is his book; The Essentials of Beer Style. Small, independent breweries and brew pubs began creating brews in every conceivable style. In the meantime, home brewing became legal for the first time in the United States since Prohibition, and all over the country people read Charlie Papazian's book, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, and learned how to make their own Oatmeal Stout, English Bitters, Belgian Ales, India Pale Ales, German Kölsches, Weißbiers and Bocks, barley wines, heck even American lagers if they chose to do so. The end result was that in America, people who never knew they liked beer because all they ever drank was the tasteless product of Big Beer, became connoisseurs. It was a great awakening. New breweries sprung up all over the States after a steady decline for decades. Today there are almost 1,800 breweries in this country, and all but about 100 of them are either micro-breweries or brewpubs.

Big Beer of course is taking notice, not that craft breweries are really a threat to them. Boston Brewing Company, the largest craft brewery in the United States, shipped 2,259,000 barrels of beer in 2010 and ranked as the eighth top brewing company in the country according to Newsweek Magazine. That's a lot of beer. But its market share is 1.1% compared to 47.9% for Anheuser-Busch InBev, and 28.9% for MillerCoors. Boston's market share is even less than one half that of Pabst Company which doesn't even brew its own beer. Still those numbers would put the Boston Brewing Company in the ranks of Big Beer, even though there is world of difference between its flagship product, Sam Adams Boston Lager, and your standard American Lager from those other companies.

This year it was announced that Chicago's own Goose Island Brewery was to become part of the Anheuser-Busch InBev portfolio. In other words (to mix a couple metaphors), they went over to the Dark Side by selling out to the Evil Empire. Of course no one has a clue how this will all play out over the next several years, but it's unlikely that the giant multi-national corporation is interested in the brewery simply to destroy it. Here is some evidence to that effect. I seriously doubt if Goose Island will be cranking out Bud and Bud Lite anytime soon.

The craft beer movement has separated beer drinkers into people who either drink beer because of the taste, or because of the label. Big Beer is still the big player in the industry and far more people drink their product than any other beer. I'll admit that there are lots of folks out there who drink American Pale Lager simply because they like the taste of it better than anything else. But I'm willing to bet that far more people drink Big Beer more because of the label.

Again, there's that ever fascinating subject, marketing, and its ability to elevate one product over another even though there is absolutely no difference between the two. Take Pabst Blue Ribbon, an old time brew that was once best known as the beer preferred by red necks. PBR has recently gained a new life as the hip beer of the indie rock set. How that happened was a combination of dumb luck and shear brilliance. In the mid-eighties, Pabst was a near moribund company whose future was in the hands of a hostile takeover. The new owner concentrated on selling all the real estate holdings of the company and all but eliminating the advertising budget. The label became essentially invisible for a decade, until young, anti-establishment types, "re-discovered" it
as a cheaper alternative to the familiar, more "commercial" brands like Miller and Bud that their fathers were drinking. Without any effort at all from the company, Pabst became big again, and while keeping away from main stream advertising, the new owners, the Metropoulos family have nudged the brand along by sponsoring alternative events such as concerts at indie rock venues, bike messenger contests and artists who work on Pabst related projects.

In the meantime, the good folks at Miller, in a sense bucking the trend themselves, began to emphasize their "macro-beer" image, featuring the High Life brand that we hadn't heard from for a while, though it never went away. A recent ad campaign has featured a likable Miller High Life deliveryman who actually takes his beer away from people whom he deems pretentious and therefore unworthy of "living the high life." This is a message obviously directed at the "everyman" but in a way has made MHL hipper than hip as a counter-counter culture product. In other words, drinkers of MHL reject the faux coolness of PBR and view its drinkers as poseurs. They drink what is in their opinion, a more honest, therefore hipper product.

The irony of all this is that Pabst Blue Ribbon is contract brewed by Miller. While the two are brewed using slightly different recipes, they are both made in the same brewery and are essentially the same beer. I'm guessing that if the workers at the Miller bottling plant accidentally switched the labels on a batch of PBR and a batch of MHL, nobody would notice.

These are pretty good times for beer lovers in America. For those of us who love beer for the taste, never before has there been more selection of styles of beer available to drink fresh, at a local brewpub, or to pick up at a retail establishment, even the local supermarket. For those drawn to the label, many of the old, forgotten brands will be coming back as a sort of niche for drinkers interested in nostalgia. Of course they'll all be brewed up at Miller's, but what's the difference, label lovers only care about the label after all.

For those folks who feel bilious about big business, there are still independent brewers out there without any corporate affiliation, you're job is to find them.

And if the idea of anyone at all profiting off of the making of beer sends you into a tizzy, you can always brew your own.

It is after all a free country. Let's drink to that, while we still can.



* reprinted from an advertisement for Schlitz Beer, c. 1900 as found in:
Breweries of Wisconsin, Jerry Apps, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992

Monday, October 24, 2011

Restoring a piece of Chicago's past, one block at a time

Chicago's last surviving wood block alley has been restored. Here is an article by Lynn Becker that makes a very good point about the economy of long range planning.

Well done I must say.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

From the morning commute...

Reality struck this week as the pleasant early fall weather gave way to a torrent of cold, wind and rain, in other words, normal weather for late October in Chicago. As I get older, I find myself a little more practical about my bike rides to work. By Tuesday with the weather reports looking particularly bad for the next two days, I had already made up my mind to shelve the bike. Any sense of denial about the weather to come was put to rest by a 30mph noreaster which made Tuesday's ride home a challenge.

Anyway, the ride to work yesterday was uneventful, the gentle rumble of the wheels along the L tracks, the muffled conversation of a few passengers, some soft music leaking through headphones, and the sound of the rain falling on the roof, were almost as comforting on a cold, rainy day as the heat coming through the vents. Even though the car was filled to the gills with riders, the car was remarkably still, until the monologue. The voice of a woman pierced the treasured silence as she enumerated her complaints to her colleague who apparently was not living up to his/her end of the bargain. "I'm just worried about you guys coming through for me" she said in a tone of voice loud enough for every single person on the car to hear. What should have been none of our business became everybody's business. It was as if the eighty or so other people in the car simply did not exist. That one way conversation kept up for about four stops until she got off the train without braking stride in her conversation, as far as I know, she could still be talking. After she left, peace and quiet took her place.

Today, similar circumstances. As it was hard to read standing up, I took an informal survey of my fellow passengers. In my immediate vicinity, two of them were reading the RedEye, one was engaged in a sudoku puzzle, another a crossword. One woman was reading an interior design magazine and two people were involved in a conversation. On the seat I was standing over, a man was reading his Kindle and a woman was surfing the web on her Android tablet. I counted at least eight people who were connected to a variety of mobile devices with headphones, some of them just listening, others listening and surfing or e-mailing. Then there were at least six more who were either e-mailing or surfing on their mobile devices sans headphones. One man read a book. Five people were lost in their thoughts and one, yours truly, was just taking it all in.

Not a soul was talking on a cellphone.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Open House Chicago

This weekend, October 15 and 16, the Chicago Architecture Foundation is sponsoring a magnificent event called Open House Chicago. Well over 100 sites around town that are normally not publicly accessible, will be open to the public.

Here
is their website.

One certainly not to miss building in the Loop is the former Chicago Auto Club Building, an Art Deco masterpiece by Holabird and Root that has been empty for a number of years. It is one of the most elegantly proportioned buildings in Chicago. It is scheduled to become a hotel in the near future, hopefully.

What's really great about this event is that it includes parts of the city that are off the beaten path, neighborhoods such as Garfield Park/North Lawndale, Little Village, Bronzeville/Hyde Park, and Rogers Park/West Ridge. Shuttles will operate in the neighborhoods making frequent stops between the individual sites. The website allows you to create your own personal itinerary.

If you do happen to be up in Rogers Park this weekend, do check out our building, Casa Bonita on Ridge Avenue, a magnificent late twenties Spanish Renaissance Revival apartment building, which is one of the sites.

Stop by and say hello. If you're lucky, you might even get a tour from my ten year old son.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More beer!

Some stats on beer from Newsweek magazine combined with some scintillating commentary:

The most beer is consumed yearly per capita in which state?
New Hampshire - I would not have guessed that.

How about the least?
Utah - Not much of a surprise there. However New York State is number three, least that is.

Of the top ten beer companies in the U.S., I've only heard of five. On the other hand, the top two companies combined enjoy more than a 75% market share in the U.S., and I've definitely heard of those. One's based in St. Louis, the other in Milwaukee, but neither are owned by American companies anymore.

You need to enter your age in order to access the web sites of some of the beer companies. Is it illegal for anyone under 21 to read about beer? I wonder if anyone lies.

Pabst, a brand that almost disappeared not too long ago and a company almost continuously in transition, is number 5 with a 2.7 market share in the U.S.

Montana proportionately employs more brewers than any other state, 3.2 per 100,000. However less than 1,000,000 people live in Montana which means about 30 people work as brewers in Montana.

Beer was virtually tied with milk as the third most popular beverage in the United States in 2010 with a per capita yearly consumption of 20.7 gallons. Soft drinks come in at a staggering 44.7 gallons and bottled water at 28.3 gallons. Americans drank 18.5 gallons of coffee per person in 2010, 2.3 gallons of wine (a little surprising) and 1.5 gallons of the hard stuff. Despite the high number for soft drinks, we drank 16% less of it than we did ten years ago.

In terms of beer consumption around the world, the United States comes in at number 15, between Slovakia and Denmark. Now get this, of the top beer drinking countries of the world, the Czech Republic is number one and Ireland number two. So how could I not love beer? It's my heritage. Extending this, Germany is number four right behind Austria. My wife is mostly German, meaning my children have even more beer running through their veins.

Nazdravy, Sláinte and Prost to all.

Getting thirsty

All the talk of Prohibition has gotten me thinking about one of my favorite topics, beer. The world's greatest beverage and I go way back, you could say it flows along with my Czech and Irish blood. What's more, my surrogate grandfather was a German, and he enjoyed his bier at least as much as my father enjoyed his pivo. For many childhood years I spent my summer vacations up in Milwaukee with my grandparents, and with each trip inevitably came a brewery tour. One year it would be Schlitz, another Pabst, still another, Miller. These were not just factory tours, the breweries themselves were magnificent works of industrial architecture that played an extremely vital role in the history of Milwaukee. The companies. very conscious of public relations, put a great deal of effort into those tours which of course would end with a sampling of the product.

Since I was underage, the highlight of the tours for me was the brewhouse where gigantic copper kettles would boil thousands of gallons of wort, the sweet liquid that is derived from the malted barley which is the basic ingredient of beer. It is here where the hops are added, at the beginning to stabilize the brew, then at the end to contribute to the flavor and aroma of the beer.

The Pabst brewhouse was the most beautiful of the three, a nineteen century structure lined with steel, cooper and ceramic. Ceramic tiles also lined the magnificent kettles which resided in a room that featured a wonderful stained glass window featuring, what else, the history of beer.

But to me the most wonderful part of a brewhouse, was the smell of the boiling wort mixed with the spicy, herbal smell of hops. Folks either love or hate the smell of brewing beer but to me it brings back a particularly happy time of my life, and I love it.

I fell in love with the process of brewing beer, long before I learned to love drinking beer. The latter corrected itself soon enough, it was in Milwaukee in fact where I enjoyed my first legal beer as the drinking age in Wisconsin was 18 back in those days. It took me much longer to brew my own, it was during a brief period of bachelorhood in my mid-thirties when I finally had the time and inclination to pursue a life-long interest. As is usually the case with me, I plunged into my new hobby head first and for a few years, it was my main passion. Everyone who knew me back then knew not to bring up the subject of beer because it would begin a monologue which would last, well let's just say, longer than necessary.

Anyway, the bachelorhood and the brewing lasted concurrently for about five years. While I don't miss the bachelorhood part one bit, there are a few parts of brewing besides of course, the steady supply of beer, that I miss. Most home brewers brew with malt extract, a powder made from malted barley which you boil in water, add hops, then yeast after the mixture cools down. You could say it's a little like making instant beer.

That wasn't enough for me, no sir. I started with grain just like the real brewers, malted barley, ground it by hand, then mashed it by mixing it with water and cooking it at a very precise temperature. This is the process that extracts the good stuff from the malt into the water, and also chemically converts the starches from the grain into sugar, most of which will later be converted into alcohol. There is a fine line between success and failure in the mashing process, and it more than doubles the amount of time, but to me it was the essence of brewing my own beer, very much akin to processing my own film.

That was grunt work to be sure, the real fun came after the wort cooled down, and the yeast was added to the five gallon glass container that would be the home for the brew for the next few weeks or more. Usually, fermentation would begin the next morning, if not, anxious hours would be spent waiting to see if I would end up with real beer, or near beer. Fortunately for me, fermentation always took place. It was a joyful moment to discover that the hours of careful preparation and work were not for naught, when the brew would come alive as the yeast did its magic, feeding off the sugars I created in the mash, creating the byproduct of alcohol. Different batches fermented differently, but there was always a bubbling cauldron of activity as the yeast gleefully fed and fruitfully multiplied as it did its magic. Eventually most of the sugars would be converted, the yeast would go dormant, and it would be time for what now could be rightfully called beer, to age. Usually two or three weeks were enough, then it was time for bottling. That was the least fun part of the process. The bottles would have to be disinfected with bleach, then boiled, as were the caps. Each bottle was filled individually and capped. That process alone took at least four hours. Then came the anxious wait as the still active yeast in the beer would continue to do its work in the air tight environment with some freshly added wort to produce carbon dioxide, the all important carbonation.

After a few impatient days, the beer was ready to drink. How was it? Well some of it was pretty good if I do say so myself, although quite honestly not as good as the best commercial beers I've had. All of the batches were drinkable, better than many commercial beers, although to paraphrase a famous backhanded compliment, some may have had a taste that only a brewer could love.

But the satisfaction of brewing my own from scratch made even the lesser of my brews well worth the effort.

Eventually however the time and effort became too much, I just couldn't bring myself to bottle what could very well have been my best batch of beer, a Belgian ale. I sadly dumped all five gallons of the brew that had gone bad from sitting around too long, down the sink, and knew it was the end of my days as a brewer.

I became a father not long after that and even imagining going back to brewing now is something I can't even comprehend.

But it was fun while it lasted.

Now you know, don't get me started talking about beer!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

There ought to be a law

The man who bears a strong resemblance to a familiar Latin American dictator, emerges from the Presidential Palace in the fictional country of San Marcos to address his people:

"I am your new president." he says to an ecstatic crowd.

"From this day forward, the national language of San Marcos, will be Swedish."

"You will change your underwear once every hour, and you will wear your underwear on the outside, so we can check."

"All children in San Marcos under the age of 16, as of today will be 16."

I first saw Woody Allen's movie Bananas, not long after it was made forty years ago. That scene which still makes me chuckle after all these years, silly as it is, is useful in examining the nature of laws and how they are implemented.

I've been thinking about that subject since last week after watching the PBS documentary, Prohibition. I may not be the biggest Ken Burns fan, but I will say that he does a good job telling the story and presenting both sides. Viewers come away from the program understanding that although Prohibition in the United States was an unmitigated disaster, a total flop in terms of accomplishing its goals, there was a certain logic in the movement to ban booze. Its advocates, rather than being strictly religious zealots, actually came from diverse elements of society, and most of them had very good intentions. Prohibition in fact was seen as a progressive movement in many circles. Needless to say, alcohol when abused, causes tremendous suffering and hardship, not just to the abusers, but to those around them, as well as innocent bystanders. To solve the problem the theory went, why not make a law to get rid of the stuff altogether.

As everyone knows, banning alcohol did not end up solving the problem of alcohol abuse. While the total number of people who drank was slightly reduced during Prohibition, those who continued to imbibe, and there were a lot of them, drank more. The supply of alcohol may have been reduced, but the demand skyrocketed. As always, there were people who were more than happy to meet the demand, and they made a fortune selling illegal hootch. Organized crime flourished. Everything was turned upside down, industrious, honest people became criminals, and criminals became legitimate. Since a good portion of the country thought Prohibition was a joke, including most of the police, the law was unenforceable. Cynicism and disregard for law and law enforcement ruled the day, a situation that one could argue, exists to this day.

Arbitrary, frivolous laws like the proclamations of the fictional dictator of San Marcos, ill conceived, unenforceable laws, laws that that take away liberties that people once enjoyed, and laws that enforce one brand of morality over others, are counterproductive at best. Prohibition was all of that.

For much of the country, the era of Prohibition was a decade long drunken binge. It took the Great Depression, the repeal of the 18th Amendment, and ironically the restrictions that went along with legal booze, to sober the county up.

So have we learned anything from Prohibition? Well, people still flock to politicians who are more than willing to write laws that effect the behavior of other people. This "better life through legislation" mentality is not the domain of any one political ideology. Everyone likes freedom of speech, especially when it applies to themselves, but many wouldn't mind laws prohibiting certain speech of people with different opinions. So called "Pro Lifers" favor banning abortions but few seem prepared or interested to address the issue of how to enforce such a ban. Many folks support frivolous amendments to the constitution such as one defining marriage as a union specifically between a man and a woman, and an amendment that would ban flag burning.

And so it goes, it seems we just can't get enough of the idea that if we don't like something, make a law to get rid of it, and it will go away.

It just so happens that last week, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that in a very small way, illustrates this point. On the surface, it seemed like a good idea, create a law that would forbid talking or texting on a cellphone while riding a bicycle. Quite honestly, I'm perplexed by people who use cellphones while riding their bikes. I think to myself: "if that conversation is so important, can't they just stop riding for a minute?"

I was prepared to accept this new law until I heard its sponsor, alderman Margaret Laurino speak about it on the radio. The interviewer asked what inspired her to come up with the law. She said that one of her constituents brought it to her attention and then she noticed some cyclists texting while riding. That's it, no studies, no data, not even rumors suggesting that texting and biking contributes to accidents, just an alderman's hunch that's it's not a good idea, simple common sense she said.

Well OK I can live with that, safety's important and it's hard to argue that using a cellphone while riding a bike is not the safest thing to do. On the other hand, there are more dangerous things that cyclists do all the time such as listening to music through headphones. I've been involved in several incidents and one accident involving people wearing headphones who turned into me because they couldn't hear me coming from behind. The alderman said she hoped bikers would hear her message on the redio while they were riding, presumably through their headphones. Could she possibly be that clueless?

Then she added that since it's illegal to text while driving, she wanted to "level the playing field" between drivers and bicyclists. I never realized the playing field was stacked so highly in favor of bikes, frankly I thought it was the other way around.

Where do I begin with that one? First of all, stand next to a city street on a normal day and count how many cars pass by before you see a single bicycle. I'd say that a very conservative estimate in Chicago would be ten cars to one bike on a good day to ride a bike. On a less than perfect day, the ratio of drivers to cyclists would be far higher. An average car weighs 2,000 pounds. A bike, including its rider might weigh around 200 lbs. An average automobile engine is rated between 100 and 150 horsepower, while an elite cyclist can generate about 1/4 horsepower, but only for a short amount of time. Speed limits on streets where you are likely to find bicycles range between 25 and 35 mph. Drivers routinely drive faster than the speed limit while most cyclists struggle to reach half that. Of course cars are capable of speeds well in excess of 100 mph.

If leveling the playing field were really an issue, it stands to reason that motorists would be the ones asked to sacrifice, not bicyclists. There is absolutely no comparison between the numbers, the space they take up, the speed, weight and the power of automobiles compared to bicycles. That's not to mention the relative safety afforded to the passengers in a car versus a completely vulnerable cyclist.

I've said it before in this space and I'll say it again, it's ridiculous to assume that cyclists should assume the same responsibility on our streets that motorists do. Cars and their drivers are responsible for wreaking far more havoc than bicyclists. Our lawmakers need to do better than perpetuate this "level the playing field" nonsense.

Alderman Laurino, the daughter of the old Machine alderman Anthony Laurino, clearly doesn't have a clue about traffic safety, at least as it relates to bicycles. Her new law will probably not cause any harm, but I doubt that it will be taken seriously, let alone save lives. Do we seriously want our over-extended police to be on the lookout for the dreaded bicycle texter? Motorists continue to talk and text on cell phones while driving even though it's illegal in Chicago, and it's hard to imagine that cyclists, (I'm guessing this new law is directed primarily at renegade bike messengers), will be any different.

This issue is certainly not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I haven't heard any opposition to it nor do I expect to see a phalanx of cyclists riding to the Daley Center, holding hands singing, or more appropriately texting "We Shall Not be Moved." But the law is unnecessary, unenforceable and arbitrary. There are many other dangerous things we could do on our bikes that are perfectly legal. How about a law banning juggling while riding a bike?

One of Ken Burns' trademarks is his use of the "talking head", the authority who appears on camera to help move the story along. Of all the talking heads in each documentary, there's usually one who I call the go to guy, the most colorful character, the expert of experts who comes up with the most memorable lines and often has the last word in each episode. Civil War historian Shelby Foote served that purpose as did baseball great Buck O'Neil in previous Burns' productions. In Prohibition the capo di tutti capi was New York journalist Pete Hamill. In his closing words of the film, Hamill spoke of the futility of laws that take things away from people. He said: "I haven't had a drink in thirty years and don't care if I have another one for as long as I live. But if the government were to tell me tomorrow: 'you can't have a drink', I'd head straight to the bar and order up a big martini."

That pretty much sums up my feeling about this new law. The thought never occurred to me to text while riding a bike, until now. That all has changed. In fact at this minute, as I write this post on my smart phone, I'm riding my bike down Michigan Avenue, with Pete Seeger blasting on my iPod.

So arrest me.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Some sources on the Great Fire

Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O'Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over,
Then winked her eye and said,
"There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight!"

Today is the 140th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. I wrote a post about the event a couple of months ago which you can find here.

Here's a partial bibliography:
  • History of Chicago, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time by Alfred Theodore Andreas, 1886, in three volumes is as comprehensive a history of the city as you are likely to find, pre-1886 of course.
  • The Great Chicago Fire, by Robert Cromie, McGraw Hill, 1958, is a compelling narrative of the eponymous cataclysm.
  • Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, 1973, by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, University of Chicago Press, is the classic illustrated compendium of Chicago history that includes important pre and post fire panoramas taken from the Court House.
  • Lost Chicago, by David Lowe, Houghton, Mifflin, 1975, is an elegy for a bygone city.
  • The Great Chicago Fire, by David Lowe, Dover Publications, 1979, edited by the author of Lost Chicago, is a collection of first hand accounts of the event.
  • Smoldering City, Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874, by Karen Sawislak, University of Chicago Press, 1995, is a thorough examination and critique of the recovery from the fire and the re-building of Chicago.
And here are three excellent web sites about the Great Fire:
  • Chicagology is an independent web site dealing with many aspects on the city with an especially useful section devoted to the Great Fire. Its image Gallery contains an indispensable collection of photographs and engravings of pre-fire buildings.
  • The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory web site, the work of the Chicago History Museum, is the most comprehensive site devoted to the fire.
  • The PBS series The American Experience, devoted an episode to the Chicago Fire. Here is the accompanying site which features a chronology of the event.

Other than a good reading list, what would be the best way to commemorate the event? Well for my part, I'd like to remember an Englishman, one A.H. Burgess, who was so moved by the tragedy of the Great Fire that he proposed a donation not of money, or food, or supplies, but of books.

Said Mr. Burgess:

“I propose that England should present a Free Library to Chicago, to remain there as a mark of sympathy now, and a keepsake and a token of true brotherly kindness forever…”

The 8,000 plus books that made their way across the waters would become the foundation of the Chicago Public Library which was founded as a result of the donation in 1872, the year after the Fire.

One hundred forty years later the kindness of you and your great country has not been forgotten. Thank you Mr. Burgess, wherever you are.