Old Style: The Chicago Beer That Isn’tWhet Moseron August 31, 2021 at 8:32 pm

I am addicted to Old Style beer.

My passion for Chicago’s self-appointed hometown brew began last summer, when I was working as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. Every day, I walked the streets for seven or eight hours in 85 degree heat, ringing doorbells, climbing stuffy stairwells to the top floors of three flats, badgering building engineers for the identities of missing tenants. Toward the end of a shift, the only thing that kept me staggering to the next address was the thought of a cold tall boy in my refrigerator.

When I came home, hot and thirsty, I wanted an uncomplicated, unchallenging lager I could pour down my throat as fast as possible. No extra hops. No floral aroma. Let the Hopleaf crowd sip a $12 glass of Brasserie Dupont, with its “touch of honey sweetness, grassiness, a bit of hop bitterness, some of the distinctive Dupont yeasty funk & a nearly perfect amount of spritz.” 

Old Style got me through a tough job, so I’ve remained loyal. I still drink it almost every day. I even bought an Old Style t-shirt from Etsy. But even as I’m drinking more Old Style, Chicagoans are drinking less. Despite its reputation as a Chicago beer—some people have joked that an Old Style sign outside a neighborhood tavern is the civic flag—Old Style is far from the city’s most popular brew. That title now belongs to Modelo Especial, which in 2019 surpassed Miller Lite in dollar sales as a result of marketing itself to the city’s burgeoning Latino population. (As of 2019, Chicago was the fifth U.S market it had conquered, after Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Las Vegas.) According to the website BeerBoard, Old Style doesn’t even rank among the city’s 10 favorite beers.

Given all that, does Old Style deserve to call itself Chicago’s beer? Did it ever? Old Style’s identification with Chicago has always been more a matter of marketing than any real connection with the city. The beer was originally produced by the G. Heileman Brewing Co. of La Crosse, Wis., and poured throughout the Midwest. Old Style began a sponsorship deal with the Chicago Cubs in 1950, making it the beer of choice at Wrigley Field. In the 1970s, Old Style salesmen began offering free signs to taverns, with the beer’s emblem above the words “COLD BEER,” “CERVEZA FRIA,” or “ZIMNY PIWO,” depending on the neighborhood’s native language. In 1991, Old Style aired a series of ads starring professional Chicagoan Dennis Farina, in full cop mode, trying to stop New Yorkers and Angelenos from drinking Old Style. “It’s our great beer and they can’t have it,” he declared.

They didn’t need it. This was before the craft beer era, when every city had its own sex-in-a-canoe local lager. Narragansett in Boston. Genesee Cream Ale in Rochester. National Bohemian in Baltimore. Iron City in Pittsburgh. Stroh’s in Detroit. Hamm’s in Minneapolis. Rainier in Seattle. Old Milwaukee in… you know. Cheap, summer cookout beers with very little body, they were regional variations on the same recipe, and as a result, they all tasted pretty much the same.

There were, in those days, other beers more deserving of calling themselves Chicago’s Very Own. Sadly, they didn’t survive into the modern marketplace, which, as Salon once put it, “seems increasingly divided between corporate behemoths and twee craft brews.” Meister Brau was produced in Chicago, by the Peter Hand Brewery, at 1000 W. North Ave. It actually still exists, sort of. In 1967, Meister Brau introduced one of the first low-calorie beers, Meister Brau Lite, “the light and lusty beer.” When the Miller Brewing Company bought out Peter Hand in 1972, it used the Meister Brau Lite recipe as the template for its monstrously popular Miller Lite. Meister Brau staggered on as a legacy budget brand until 2005, when Miller canned it, preferring to peddle Milwaukee’s Best in that niche.

And then there was Falstaff. While actually a St. Louis beer, Falstaff operated a malting plant on the Southeast Side of Chicago. Grain silos painted to look like Falstaff cans were visible from the Skyway. Falstaff was best bottled, though: it was sold in yellow plastic crates that held a dozen bottles, each with a rebus under the cap. (The rebuses became progressively more difficult to decipher as the crate emptied.) Falstaff, once the nation’s third-largest brewery, suffered a decline similar to Meister Brau’s, eventually becoming a subsidiary of Pabst, which also stopped brewing it in 2005.

Beer blogger Jay Theriot theorized that Meister Brau and Falstaff failed because they were neither good enough to be craft beers, nor bad enough to be corporate.

I found Meister Brau to be a solid and delicious beer. On the other hand, this was somewhat of a throwback beer, with its formidable bite, roasty taste profile, and hoppy finish. At the time, with bland being the style of the day, and with Meister Brau not fitting the craft beer niche, it was destined, like Falstaff, to die on the vine. One wonders what could have happened to it (and Falstaff, for that matter), if the brand could have held on just a few more years until the hugely successful retro/hipster beer movement swept the nation. Had that occurred, Meister Brau (and Falstaff as well) may have been brought back to a prominent position. But, it’s gone (and probably forever).

So Old Style survived the corporate/craft beer shakeout not because it was Chicago’s best beer, but because it was the blandest. Even Old Style is now becoming an atavism, as the type of drinker with whom it’s associated—white, ethnic, blue collar—is replaced by Modelo-drinking Latinos and Goose Island-drinking professionals. In 2013, Old Style lost its Wrigley Field sponsorship to Budweiser. The brand is now owned by Pabst, as part of its Local Legends portfolio, which also includes Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Olympia, Lone Star, Stroh’s, and Schmidt’s. Chicago beer historian Liz Garibay once told WBEZ that “Old Style signs are a relic of 1970s industry. They hearken back to a time when neighborhood bars like Frank & Mary’s opened at 7 a.m. to serve drinks to factory workers coming off overnight shifts.” 

Old Style could, at this point, change its motto to “it’s our mediocre beer and they don’t want it.” The older I get, though, the less I want to drink craft beer, and the more I want to be Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, drinking PBR out of a cooler on my porch. At $4.69 a six pack, I can drink all the Old Style I want.

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