Lost landmark: Peter Hand Brewery

March 2, 2012

Chicago has many micro-breweries to quench the discerning thirst. Our subject here is the city's last "macro-brewery."

Peter Hand was a Prussian-born Civil War veteran who came to Chicago to work in the brewing industry. In 1891 he opened a small brewery of his own at North and Sheffield. His leading brand was called Meister Bräu--"master brew."

Hand died in 1899, but his brewery survived. Between 1920 and 1933 it was officially closed because of Prohibition. After repeal the plant was expanded several times. Meanwhile, dozens of other Chicago breweries came and went.

In 1965 a group of investors purchased the brewery and changed the name to Meister Bräu Inc., with the intention of going national. In Chicago, they launched an aggressive advertising campaign.

Meister Bräu sponsored Sox, Hawks and Bulls broadcasts. Franklyn MacCormack's "All Night Meister Bräu Showcase" became a popular radio program. Bottle openers, coasters, beer steins, and posters were given away. The number of Meister Bräu billboards around town was exceded only by those reading "Daley for Mayor."

All was well for a while. The brewery was producing over 1 million barrels of brew a year, with the new Lite Beer a big seller. But management had over-reached. The company started losing serious money. In 1972 the Meister Bräu brands were sold to Miller Brewing of Milwaukee.

The North Avenue plant went back to the Peter Hand name and rolled out a new beer called Old Chicago. The slide continued. Early in 1973 the company declared bankruptcy. The brewery was sold at auction to a new partnership led by an experienced brewer.

That lasted five years. Old Chicago Dark won a few blind-taste tests, yet never caught on. In 1978 the Peter Hand Brewery closed. Today the property at North and Sheffield is a strip mall.