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Tapping into Beer’s Past

A new beer exhibit at the McHenry County Historical Society spotlights historic breweries and taverns.

“Bottles, Barrels & Brews: McHenry County on Tap” explores the history of local brewing, celebrates current craft beer scene. 

The recent rise of craft breweries in McHenry County is part of a long tradition of local beer-making. The “Bottles, Barrels & Brews: McHenry County on Tap” exhibit, open through December 2016 at McHenry County Historical Society in Union, spotlights breweries and taverns between 1860 and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

The exhibit includes historic photographs, old beer bottles, beer crates, barrels and other items related to McHenry County’s historic breweries; recreation of the Bubbling Over speakeasy tavern; interactive smell station with brewing ingredients; local craft brewery memorabilia and souvenirs; and a root beer section where kids can try a bottle-capper and learn about the history of root beer.

Beer Here 

Beer is an important beverage on the tables of American families, and has been since the 1840s when large numbers of German and Alsatian immigrants flooded into McHenry County.

Many of these immigrants settled in Woodstock. So it should come as no surprise that the city soon housed a relatively large brewery, the Woodstock Brewing and Bottling Co., on the north side of Washington Street, west of Wicker Street. The first brewery, established about 1858, was destroyed or damaged by fire several times prior to 1900. But it always was rebuilt, and each time on a more elaborate scale.

By 1885 the Zimmer, Herman & Co. brewery boasted three immense icehouses, fermenting rooms, cooling and bottling rooms. The brewery also owned several stables and sheds to house a large number of horses and wagons to move grain and beer to and from the surrounding areas.

When fire destroyed the brewery, Jacob Zimmer, Henry Herman, and Emil Arnold built a new facility on the same 5-acre site. The complex included a malt house, malt kiln, brew house, boiler house and bottling and ice houses. Near the brewery was an artificial lake useful for the brewing process. In the winter it provided ice for cooling the beer barrels during the hot summer months. The brewery produced 60,000 barrels a year.

Beer is an important beverage on the tables of American families, and has been since the 1840s when large numbers of German and Alsatian immigrants flooded into McHenry County.

The original McHenry Brewery was built in 1868 by George Gribbler on the southeast corner of Pearl and Green streets. Since its establishment, the brewery was operated by a number of different parties. The time in which it was operated by Gottlieb Boley – and later by his son, Patsy, and son-in-law, Michael Worts – is perhaps the most noteworthy.

It consisted of a frame and brick building complex that today houses the Chain O’ Lakes Brewery. The initial operations in the manufacture of beer were carried out in the frame building. The main brewery equipment – boiler, mash tub, kettle, fermenting vats, refrigeration machinery and well pump – all were located in this structure. The fermenting vats were located in the basement. The equipment for washing and filling the barrels was on the first floor, as was the cooler for warehousing the finished product. The brick building may have been used for bottling and possibly the upper floor was used as the malt house, where barley was allowed to germinate for a short period to produce the malt from which beer was made.

Following Gottlieb Boley’s death, his son, Patsy, and Michael Worts acquired the brewery in 1906. Whether the brewery operated until the beginning of Prohibition is uncertain. There is some evidence to suggest that beer was being made in 1914. The brewery began producing malt extract in 1927 and continued to do so on and off until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

That is the time the Huntley Brewing Co. got started.Established in 1934 by George Druggan and his uncle, Edward Riggs, in the old Cornell Brothers’ Creamery on East Coral Street. Beer ran in the famiy’s veins. George’s brother, Terry, was the head of the Chicago based Druggan-Lake gang during Prohibition time, and produced beer that was used throughout the area.

Bottle label from Bel Boy Beer, a product of the Huntley Brewing Co.

The Huntley Brewing Company manufactured a few types of beer, including Bel Boy [sic] beer, Huntley “Maid” beer, Copperhead, and Indian Maid beer. The brewery had to file for bankruptcy just one year after opening. The company remained in operation however until the late 1930s. By that time the brewery was known as Copperhead Brewing Co. Around 1937, the brewery finally shut down.

Toasting our Brewing Heritage 

The historical society’s beer exhibit both celebrates the return of breweries to the county and chronicles the history of brewing and taverns here. The exhibit will feature current local craft breweries, as well as historic breweries from the county’s past.

Learn about a number of infamous taverns, such as the Bubbling Over, and respectable watering holes such as Jacob C. Bickler’s McHenry House. Prior to 1920, the McHenry House hotel was a major outlet for the wares of the McHenry Brewery located just west on Pearl Street.

The building currently standing on the northwest corner of Pearl Street and Riverside Drive in McHenry was built in 1838. The core of the building was originally erected about where McHenry’s Veterans Park is located. For a short time before Woodstock became the county seat, the building served as the county’s first courthouse. Once the county seat was relocated to Woodstock (Centerville) in 1844, the building was moved to the west side of the original natural ford of the Fox River. Horace Long, the new owner, remodeled the building into a hotel in the 1860s and called it the “Mansion House.”

It is probable that the bar at the McHenry House continued to serve liquor throughout the 1920s based on the fact that Bickler was arrested for Prohibition violations by federal officials on Sept. 3, 1927, along with numerous other individuals. The charges against Bickler were later dismissed after the prosecution’s case was tainted by the disappearance of Alford Pouse, then McHenry County state’s attorney. Bickler retired from managing the McHenry House in 1939. The building still functions as a tavern under the name of the Town Club.

Small Breweries, Big Taste

The Colorado-based Brewers Association trade group that represents small and independent craft brewers, credited innovation with helping boost popularity of the product. While traditional ingredients like malted barley are used, it is the non-traditional elements – from nuts to nutmeg – that give craft beers their distinctive flavor and have allowed those brewers to capture 11 percent of the American market.

In 2014, craft brewers produced 22.2 million barrels, and saw an 18 percent rise in volume and a 22 percent increase in retail dollar value up to $19.6 billion.

“This steady growth shows that craft brewing is part of a profound shift in American beer culture – a shift that will help craft brewers achieve their ambitious goal of 20 percent market share by 2020,” said association economist Bart Watson in a written statement. “Small and independent brewers are deepening their connection to local beer lovers while continuing to create excitement and attract even more appreciators.”

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