Ghost of brewing past

Illinois was a dry state 70 years before Al Capone made his fortune off of prohibition. The state legislature capitulated to the early temperance movement and in 1853 all booze production and sales were outlawed.

Anyone who’s been to Springfield on St. Patrick’s Day knows the flatland people enjoy their drink and it’s a wonder that the temperance movement hit so heavy, so quickly in a state composed of German and Irish immigrants. Though many point to those two groups as the reason the WASPs passed prohibition.

The state decided two years of sobriety was enough and rolled back prohibition in 1855.

It was welcomed news for Franz Reisch who arrived in Springfield two decades earlier. By 1849 he opened Reisch Brewing Company. The Springfield brewery became a midwest beer powerhouse under the Reisch family, despite having to shut down two years after first opening.

Just 15 years after Illinois’ prohibition, Reisch Brewing was up to 5,000 barrels a year. By 1880 that number jumped to 15,000. By the companies peak in 1912, it was shipping out 100,000 barrels of beer. That’s 16,500,000 beers, or like 670,000 cases. That’s a lot of beer.

From people’s accounts the beer from Reisch was pretty good, which helps to explain its quick rise to the top. Reisch also got so big so fast because it controlled the brewery and a ton of taverns. Reisch was able to cut out the middle man and sell beer directly to the customer, almost like a brewpub, only a brewpub that produces more than 16 million beers a year.

Then came the reckoning of temperance and once again, Illinois, along with the rest of the country, went dry. Reisch, following the immortal words of Wu-Tang, diversified and was able to come back and upgrade his brewery in 1934 once the nation came to its senses. Reisch Brewing hummed along until 1967 when it was faced with the cost of modernizing the facility to compete with the ever-growing Anheuser-Busch to the south. The fourth generation Reischs decided to scrap the brewery and sell the land. Southern Illinois University’s Medical School now occupies the area where Springfield’s proud beer history began. Ironically, a fifth-generation Reisch, George, works for Anheuser-Busch.

Springfield’s biggest brewery has faded from local memory for the most part, just like the long list of other small breweries around the state.

In the small Mississippi town of Warsaw, the Warsaw Brewing Company has a similar storyline to Reisch Brewing. The Warsaw brewery opened in 1860. A lot of partners came and went, and it too survived the dry years of the early 20th century. Just like Reisch, it was able to hold a steady business until times called for upgrading equipment, something a small brewery only 170 miles north of Anheuser-Busch decided it couldn’t do.

A couple of decades of tasteless beer has created a thirst for local beer, and there is a new generation willing to step in and satisfy that appetite . Springfield has Rolling Meadows Brewery that just opened and seems to be doing a good business. Their beer is sold out a lot, and for good reason. It’s delicious. Warsaw Brewing Company has found new life as a restaurant and reception hall, though it would be a lot cooler if they brewed some beer on the grounds. And other towns have local brews being brewed for the first time. Bloomington has Illinois Brewing Company, one of its first alcohol producers. I haven’t tried either the Normal or Champaign locations of Destihl, but its descriptions sound tasty. And there is the ever favorite, Blind Pig in Champaign.

We raise our glasses to those pioneers of beers, who paved the meandering way for a new generation of craft brewers. Prost!

  1. Destihl is AWESOME. You should make it a point to try some of their beer.

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