JOLIET (AP) – Like many people in the 1970s, John Bittermann of Joliet collected beer cans.
But when a friend offered Bittermann a mug that the Fred Sehring Brewing Company in Joliet released in 1906, a stunned Bittermann asked, “There were breweries in Joliet?”
Bittermann then embarked on a decades-long fascination with Joliet’s brewery history, one that has produced an extensive collection of beer-related paraphernalia and a comprehensive look at an industry that helped shape Joliet, as well as the entire country, he said.
“Everyone can relate to beer. Unlike wine, it’s the common man’s drink, the working man’s drink,” Bittermann said. “Adams was a brewer; Washington was a brewer; Jefferson was a brewer. It goes back to the Mayflower; you can look it up – ‘our victuals being much spent, especially our beere.’ The Pilgrims headed toward the coast because they were out of food and beer.”
On July 17, Bittermann will give a presentation at the Joliet Area Historical Museum on “The Architecture & History of the Joliet Brewery Buildings.” Bittermann will discuss the layouts and plans of the brewery buildings; the growth of the brewery buildings throughout the years; when the breweries were built, by who, and at what cost; what happened to the brewery buildings after they closed; and what exists at the locations today.
What made beer so attractive to Joliet residents of the 19th and early 20th? The processing of beer made it especially desirable as a beverage, a way to prevent dysentery and cholera, consequences of contaminated water, Bittermann said.
“It was served at dinner to children,” Bittermann said. “People had heavy stouts at breakfast to nourish them. Nursing mothers were encouraged to drink it. Breweries were among the first industries to be set up, not just in Joliet, but in the nation. Just about any place you had water and could grow grain, you could make beer.”
And in Joliet, people did. Porter’s ale, stouts and porters were popular with the Irish, Bittermann said, while Joliet’s German and Slavic population were fans of Fred Sehring beer. Prohibition was actually beneficial to Joliet breweries.
“We were just far enough of out Chicago to be ignored,” Bittermann said, “but not so far that we could send things and not be noticed.”
Most of Bittermann’s information about Joliet’s brewing history came from old local newspapers archived at the Joliet Public Library, he said.
“I would go there every Monday night for 3 to 4 hours, just scrolling through microfilm,” Bittermann said. “I have read through 70 percent of them.”
An 1862 advertisement for Porter Ale promotes the idea that his stock ale – delivered in 2-, 3- and 5- gallon demijohns – is expressly for family use and guaranteed to be kept “fresh and nice.”
In a second advertisement – from Aug. 30, 1862 – Porter promised to pay the highest price for prime barley delivered to his Bluff Street Brewery. One mystery brewer, known as G. Simpson Phoenix, has no address except a Joliet P.O. Box, Bittermann said.
Yet, Bittermann deduced, that company advertised home delivery in a Joliet newspaper, so it obviously was a Joliet brewery. In the days before refrigeration and pasteurization, beer was a highly perishable product, so most brewers were located within a few blocks of their customers and delivered their beer fresh each day, he said.
“All we know is the name, the P.O. Box and the fact he made deliveries in Joliet,” Bittermann said. “The rest is lost to time.”