Lill Street. Diversey Avenue. Both of these well-known Chicago thoroughfares were named for early Chicago beer brewers. Although they were not the first brewers to settle in Chicago, Lill and Diversey did have one of the most successful early breweries in the city.
The history of Chicago brewing begins almost with the very origins of the city. Prior to 1833, though Chicago had a population of barely 200, settlers already had their choice of no less than two taverns. Both of these establishments brewed their own ale to supplement the infrequent shipments from the East Coast.
Then, 1833 saw the arrival of William Haas and Conrad Sulzer to Chicago from New York. Haas and Sulzer (for whom Sulzer Library is named), established the city's first commercial brewery, bringing with them from New York enough equipment and supplies to produce nearly 600 barrels of ale in their first year of business. William Lill, an immigrant from England, settled in Chicago in 1835 after famously walking to the city from Louisville, Kentucky and bought a large share of the Haas & Sulzer Brewery in 1839.
Michael Diversey, on the other hand, had landed in Chicago several years before. An immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine, Diversey shared the ice stored on the premises of the Haas brewery, operating a dairy from the same building. Haas and Sulzer both eventually left the brewing business, and Diversey went in to partnership with Lill around 1841. The company changed its name and became the Lill & Diversey Brewery, also known simply as The Chicago Brewery.
According to beer historian Bob Skilnik, by 1857 the Lill & Diversey Brewery was "the largest brewery west of the Atlantic seaboard." By 1861 the business was producing nearly 45,000 barrels a year of beer, porter, stout and their most popular drink, Lill's Cream Ale. In 1866 the brewery expanded, sprawling over two acres on the corner of Pine Street (later N. Michigan Ave., if you recall) and Chicago Avenue and employing up to 75 men. In fact, the four-story structure towered over the Water Tower Pumping Station completed just across the street a year later.
Michael Diversey died in 1869, leaving Lill to continue the operation alone. Unfortunately, this story, like so many stories from this period in Chicago's history, ends with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Lill & Diversey Brewery burned to the ground and never reopened. William Lill lost an estimated $500,000 in damages with the destruction of the brewery. He passed away four years later in 1875.
Butler, Patrick. "Chicago a city built on beer."
Skilnik, Bob. The History of Beer and Brewing in Chicago, 1833-1978. St. Paul, Minn.: Pogo Press, 1999.
Smith, Gregg. "Early Chicago brewing."
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