An Historical Approach with the Brewseum's Liz Garibay

CHICAGO, IL

Through the Archives: An Historical Approach with the Brewseum's Liz Garibay

INTERVIEWED november, 2017
AT THE OLD TOWN ALE HOUSE - OLD TOWN, CHICAGO

The Old Town Ale House. Any respectable Chicago pub-goer is well aware of it's smoke stained interior, portrait-laden walls & history as neighbors to The Second City. And it's here, where you're most likely to find historian Liz Garibay. You might have even spotted her sitting in the bar during Anthony Bourdain's most recent Chicago 'Parts Unknown' episode. Liz considers the 'Ale House' her regular haunt–she's even traveled to Europe with the bar's owner, Bruce Elliott. So it was only fitting that we caught up with her there, to chat Chicago pubs, among other things. And as a pub historian, she is well aware of the story behind several other watering holes around town, as well as in Boston and even the UK.

Garibay's interest in history began as a teen growing up in Chicago, and working at acclaimed Field Museum. It continued through college, post-graduation, and into and past graduate school. Nearly every major Chicago cultural museum rests on her resume, and she's even spent time abroad on several architectural digs. But, it wasn't until the late 90s that her passions for drinking culture and history collided, when she began documenting pub histories, through her site, History on Tap. Now, her efforts are on starting the country's first museum dedicated to the history of beer with a national focus, through The Chicago Brewseum.

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We arrive to 'The Ale House'–Owner, Bruce Elliot, unlocks doors to let us in. As Bruce continues toward the bar to offer us a beer, he immediately admits he doesn't know what cans they have–nor does he know his way around, behind the bar. He's been here since 1961. Three or four regulars are dispersed around the bar stools. Jeopardy hums on a small TV at the far end of the pub. Liz and I order two Daisy Cutters and find a spot in one of two window nook-ed booths toward the front...


Here we are at the Old Town Ale House. Fittingly enough, you grew up in Old Town...

Yep, just west of here, on a small one block, one-way street called Meyer Court, next to Cleveland Ave. My family lived on Cleveland on the south side of North Avenue, then we moved to Wells Street here, and then eventually back over near Cleveland. So, from fetus to age 16, I lived in Old Town.

The Ale House has to be one of only a few spots still open in the neighborhood from when you were a kid.

Yep, this...and Twin Anchors. And...Marge's Still. Those are my staples. The neighborhood has changed so much, especially in the last few years. There are family businesses that have been around for decades that are now closing, just to make way for new condos. It's bullshit. So, I like to stick to my little nooks and crannies of Old Town. The classics.

Chicagoans are familiar with 'the Ale House.' Describe this bar to someone not from Chicago, who has never been here.

I always say, to me, it's like walking back into the 1960s if you come at the right time of day. Like right now, it's 3PM, but come 4:00, you'll see like four or five regulars who've been coming here for years. This is a spot that's been here since 1958, so you get a really good slice of the local flavor–the local color. And it's been a haven for the neighborhood's creative types, bohemians, all the way back to the 60s. And of course, with Second City across the street... It's historic. It's no nonsense. I mean, people got upset when they added the ATM in here, like, "What!?" But nothing in here has ever really changed that much. It's a special place.

Not much it seems.

Well, actually, thanks to the persistence of myself and of a few other regulars, they finally have good beer. Thank God. So they actually have a really good selection now. 

It’s a good place to come and drink, when you think you should have another...

And let's not forget these paintings...

Yea, the mural is from 1971, done by another regular, Maureen [Munson]. She just wanted to paint the folks that she drank with, fellow regulars. You can see it's nice and yellowed–a nice smoked tint. So when Bruce took over the bar, he thought it would be a cool idea to sort of take from Maureen's approach to documenting the bar's history–that's when he decided to start painting portraits of the regulars. Then he started painting all kinds of portraits. A lot of them on the south and west walls are people from the neighborhood who came in often, people you likely wouldn't recognize. The political painting additions have been more recent. And then of course, on the east wall, you have a lot of the famous people who would come in after Second City and spend time here.

Yea. I mean a quick glance–Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, Gilda Radner...

Yea, Bruce has told me Gilda used to sit right here. Aykroyd and Belushi would sit right there, in front of the jukebox... 

A who's who of comedy. It's crazy to think of all the folks who've passed through the doors at Second City, and then into here.

Yea, it helps being right across the street. This was their hangout. Here, and the Earle of Old Town, which is now Corcoran's. It also doesn't hurt that the Ale House has a 5AM license. So, it's a good place to come and drink, when you think you should have another.

So, the Ale House, in the upper echelon of Liz Garibay's favorite bars. I think anything that's written about you mentions the Old Town Ale House in the same sentence. But, you're a pub historian. So, where else can we find you around town?

The bars I frequent are certainly the older ones that have some sort of character. I love Simon's, in Andersonville. Bernice's in Bridgeport. Resi's in Northcenter. And even Rose's, in Lincoln Park–these great neighborhood bars. I think every neighborhood, if you look hard enough, has one of these sort of bars. Places where people have been congregating for 30 or 40 years...

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As you mentioned, you grew up in Old Town. But, you were the first in your family to be born in the U.S., is that right?

Yes. I have three siblings. And all three of them were born in Mexico City. My dad moved here in '68. And my uncle was already up here in Chicago, working at a leather factory–Horween Leather. He was able to get my dad a job here, and he saved up some money for an operation my brother needed in Mexico, and sent the money back there. But, my dad ended up staying in Chicago, because it was better than they were doing back there. So, my parents lived apart for about two years. The plan was always for him to move back to Mexico, but he just couldn't give it up here. So, my mom and three older siblings moved here in 1970. Then, I was born in 1973.

Do you get back to Mexico City often?

Always, I love it. My parents always made it a point to make sure we got back every year growing up. And I still try to get back as often as possible. It's one of those places where the people who live there are just unbelievable in love with it–the culture, the history, the food, the people...

And I read that you actually began your career in Mexico, as an archeologist.

Yea, my focus then was a site just outside of Mexico City called Teotihuacan. I try to go there as much as I can still, I feel very connected to it.

So, long before being a pub historian–you interned at The Field Museum, got your Anthropology degree at the University of Illinois, then went back to the Field Museum... How did you get started working there?

I got this internship at The Field Museum when I was a sophomore in high school. I was in the right place at the right time. I met a curator, there, through my brother. And he noticed I was interested in history, so he suggested I submit an application. It turned out he was the chair of the Anthropology Department. I've always been really interested in ancient history, particularly ancient Aztec history. So, I got the internship, a bit serendipitously, and they kept letting me come back to work all through college. So, I was there a total of seven years. 

What exactly did you do there?

In high school it was a bit boring. They had these giant, massive books–these ledgers. Each line in the books was dedicated to a single item in the museum's collection. These went back to when they started collecting items in the late 1800s. So, my job was to go through these books, line by line, and make sure each item was listed in the card catalog. It was really tedious. And boring as hell. But, I owe a lot to Ben Bronson–the Chair of the Anthropology Department. He always really wanted to keep me engaged and excited about learning. He always seemed to come in at the right time–the peak of my boredom. He succeeded at keeping me interested and I owe a lot to him. 

How cool is that?

Amazing. I still think about it... Like there's this teeeeny little book, from the 1500s. It was from the Inca. They'd take these pieces of cloth and paste them into these little books, because they were translating the names of the textiles into Spanish, for the Spaniards. Just little things like that in there... You'd always find these little charmers in the archives. It's an amazing place.

And you made it back there after you graduated from U of I?

Yep, after I graduated from college, The Field Museum actually gave me a paying job. I was in Anthropology, working under the South American curator. And I actually got to go to Bolivia to do a dig with him, at this place called Island of the Sun, in Lake Titicaca. Then, the money ran out on that dig, so I went to graduate school–per the curator's suggestion, too. I also worked in exhibitions there for a period, in '97, '98. But I actually left in the end, because I got a senior position at the Museum of Science & Industry, where I helped work on an exhibition for the Titanic.

So, you just worked at every museum in Chicago, yea?

Haha, I was a museum junkie. Part of what I did for the Titanic exhibit was curate a portion within that was dedicated to the Eastland Disaster, here in Chicago. It's the Great Lakes' worst maritime disaster, 844 people perished, just down in the Chicago River near Lasalle Street.

Then, I left to go to grad school on the East Coast. I did a joint program with Boston University, MIT and Harvard, where I studied the role that women played at the site of Teotihuacan in Mexico City. And after all that, I came back to Chicago to work at the History Museum, in 2006.

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It’s not just about alcohol or dumbing down history. Truly, I promise people will learn from this...

And it was while you were at the History Museum, that you started the History Pub Crawl series there. How did you initiate a new program like that at the museum?

I started researching the history of local taverns, in maybe '99–in Chicago and Boston... It was purely for hobby. I would come to the bar and chit chat with the old guys at the pubs, listening to them all tell stories, correcting each other, "Nah nah, it didn't happen that way, it was like this..." And just sharing laughs about old times. And I thought it was really interesting, so I started jotting down these stories. But, ya know these guys have been drinking for 30, 40 years in the same spot–so, how much of these stories are fact? How much is fiction? So, then I started doing research in libraries and museums to see what I could find. And I'd talk to staff or owners, and really just get the whole picture of that bar, as far back as I could.

But, I'd just do that for my own pleasure, and I started this thing, a 'blog', it was back in 2002 [History on Tap].

Ahead of your time, you were a bit of a digital pioneer.

Haha, yea blogs weren't exactly a 'thing' back then. But, so when I started worked at the History Museum, I had about 100 bar histories in my back pocket.

So, I thought, I'd really like to start a program at the museum called 'History Pub Crawls.' At the time, the museum had just changed its name from the Chicago Historical Society, and they were really looking for ways to bring in a new demographic. And that was partly my job to help change. At first, with the pub crawls, they were really averse to it. I had to sell them on it for a long time and tell them it's not just about alcohol or dumbing down history, "Truly, I promise people will learn from them." So when we announced the first three...they sold out in a week. It was unheard of for the History Museum.

What was the very first tour?

It was one I still do every year, themed, "Erin go Beer," around Irish Pubs. And it wasn't until the end of 2007, when every month's tour had sold out, that they decided to let me keep on doing them. So, I did that every single month until I left working there, in 2013. And it was everything from trolleys, to boats, to kayaks–just different kinds of experiences, events, talks and tours, that were rooted in history and had some sort of alcohol socialization component.

I always say, ’Humans have been drinking ever since we could walk.’ Alcohol has always been a catalyst for civilization.

So, this really opened the gates for you.

It certainly was a mutually beneficial situation. I brought in exposure and new people to the museum...and dollars. At the same time, I was allowing myself to research new things, and get really into it. I was always researching stuff, even in my own time. And over the years, these events around alcohol just kinda became a 'thing.' And a few colleagues who worked at the zoo, and the Architecture Foundation called me and asked to meet and discuss my approach to drinking and learning. They said they wanted to try and introduce it in their organizations but weren’t sure how to go about it and were really nervous about presenting the idea to their bosses and Boards. I gave them my insight and told them to go for it. And I’m glad they did!

You're interest is rooted in history and research in general. But, what do you say to people who ask, "Why put so much importance on the history of drinking culture?"

I always say, "Humans have been drinking ever since we could walk." Alcohol has always been a catalyst for civilization.

Do you think pub/alcoholic history gets overlooked as far as its place in overall history?

Yea, sure. People who get it, get it. There's a whole group of archeologists that carry the theory that people became civilized and sedentary, because people had to grow crops to make bread and make food. And there's a whole other group who says, yes, it was for food, but was it also for beer, alcohol?

And where is it considered to have begun?

With the Sumerians. Well, it depends if you're just talking about beer or otherwise. Because we've had wine for eons, too... The Fertile Crescent, the Middle East. The beginnings of civilizations as we know it, have always had a relationship with alcohol. And the United States, being so young, has always had alcohol present. 

You can't deny it's importance.

It's all about the context, too, right?

I have a saying, "Alcohol is the lubricant for history." Because that's kind of how you just get people in the door, and interested–because we can all relate to alcohol. No matter who you are, where you live, how much you make–we can all relate to it, personally–and that can be good or badI mean, one of the best things to do is this: sitting at a bar, sharing a conversation.

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I have a saying, ’Alcohol is the lubricant for history.’

I read that you're the only American to join the Pub History Society of the United Kingdom.

Haha, yes. That's actually an awesome relationship, because I learn from them, and they learn from me, too. We get to share different cultural perspectives. English, Scottish and Welsh are gonna have a very different perspective than Americans on such topics. For example, I wrote, 'An American Perspective of the Pub,' for their quarterly publication and just asked, "Are people really gonna care about this?" And they're saying, "Yes, they definitely will!" Or I've been able to write about the history of a bar here in Chicago, and relate it to one of the pubs in the UK–just different perspectives. I get to be their one ambassador that gets to do different things here to bring back to them, to try and add value to what they are trying to do in the UK.

How did you first get connected with them?

I met them just over the Internet initially, sharing pub stories. Then, they invited me to London to do a talk, in 2013. I left the History Museum then, and two weeks later got on a plane to London. I've always had this thing for England, I've always been an Anglophile.

Well, a great place for pub history.

Absolutely. So, when I went for to give this talk, I told them it was under one condition: that they take me on their version of a 'History Pub Crawl.' And they did, and that evening, they asked me if I would like to be a part of 'the society.' And I was thinking, "Of course, this is so amazing!" I don't know if something like that means anything to anybody–that these folks have this pub history society of the UK–but to me, it was a big deal in my head. [UPDATE: Since this interview, Liz is now also a member of the Drinking Studies Network, a UK-based organization that is an interdisciplinary network connecting scholars and researchers of drink and drinking culture of different societies and time periods.]

Of course it is. That's the land of 'the pub.' Where it all came from. Well, or Ireland...

Uhhhh...

The oldest pub in the world–it's in Ireland.

Really? Which is it, is it in Dublin?

No, it's in a little village somewhere in central Ireland [Athlone]. It's called "Sean's."

See, how do you know that?

I went down an Internet rabbit hole the last time I was in London, looking for London's oldest pub, and it led me to that... I love finding stuff like that, like 'What is the oldest, X or Y?" And there's actually a discrepancy in London as to what is considered their oldest pub. There are two or three places that claim to be. But, the reason for the disagreement, was because of how the London Fire changed things.

See, I always say that the Chicago Fire (1871), kinda screwed us, and our pub history. London had a fire in 1666, a couple years before us, too, and it forced them to have a clean slate. Pubs like Cittie of Yorke, have been on a specific site that's housed a bar for hundreds and hundreds of years. Pub historians are always clear to point out whether the site is the oldest, or the structure itself–and what has been a newer addition.

So, where in London did the society folks take you?

Cittie of Yorke, Cheshire Cheese... this old bank from the Gilded Age, that they've since converted to this huge pub–the 'Old Bank of England'. They filmed parts of the DaVinci Code there. The Black Friar...

You also do history tours overseas, correct? You've done them in the UK?

Correct. I did my first public international tour because of a fellow regular at the Ale House, [and Pulitzer prize winning author], Hawkeye. He’d lived in Scotland and knew it well and thought we could put together something fun. I knew London well so I thought doing something in Scotland would be the right next move and something that could challenge me. So with his help I created a 10-day journey through Scotland and ended up taking 15 people through the country.  Immediately after, I wanted to do it again, both in Scotland and in a different country. The next year I did Austria (with an end in Munich for Oktoberfest) and then I started planning Spain. In the meantime, I’ve also taken private groups to these countries. It’s one of my favorite things to do because it’s learning and experiencing in a very different way than we’re used to.

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Okay, the Chicago Brewseum. Tell us about this.

It's still my volunteer gig at the moment. It's a really hard balance between making a living and having a dream come true. I never went into it thinking that I wanted to run the Brewseum, and that that would be my full-time job. I just want to make it happen. And it's challenging, because it's a big project.

Where did the impotence for the 'beer museum' idea start?

I started thinking about it when I left the History Museum in 2013. It started as an idea for an exhibit, but it never found a slot in their schedule and it wasn’t the right fit. But I already had a lot of research for the concept done. So, I started thinking, "Who might actually want a brewing history exhibition?" And oddly, the Elmhurst History Museum had called me at the time, asking if I would Curate a Chicago beer exhibition for them. I thought, "Yes, it's already done...in my head at least." And that opened in 2015, before moving downtown to the Harold Washington Library, here in Chicago.

Yea, we went to that, in Elmhurst. That was a great curation.

Thanks, yea it was good timing. At the time, I had already had all these ideas, and the craft beer industry was growing, and stats were changing... So I said, "Fuck it, this needs a museum." I started having conversations with some of my really close friends from different museum boards, asking if it was a fund-able idea, and if they might support it. And everyone's just like, "Do it. We'll support it"

So, I started building my dream [advisory] board. That was 2014. And it was at least a year and a half of just doing that, and crafting our mission and vision, and overall plan.

That's a serious test of patience.

I know. But, I never wanted to force it, just 'because.' It has to be slow, and organic. And everyone is busy, and I'm trying to make a living while working on it. But, we're still just working on it, and planning. There's a lot of excitement behind it, but it's a lot of moving parts. It's a balancing act still.

How do you approach finding a location for such a large project?

We've had some potential real estate partners approach us, but we're still looking for a location. I really want it to be a place for locals, too, who would be able to go to the Brewseum just as they would any other brewery or bar. But, I know it will also be a tourist destination. I want it first and foremost to be a cultural institution, just like any other museum in town. It's not, "I want to open a taproom, and just attach some history exhibit off to the side."

In an ideal world, where is the museum located? What neighborhood?

We’re open to all Chicago neighborhoods, but we know that we want it to be centrally located and near public transportation so that it’s accessible to everyone. We also know it will be a tourist destination and cater to people on 'beercations,' so we want to make it accessible to visitors who don’t really know the city. Our big vision is 20-, 25,000 square feet. That's huge. So, pie in the sky, we get something at that size because we're a 501(C)(3). But if that works or not, it's gonna require a lot of capital. It's all about finding the right space.

Is part of the concept that there will be a house brewery on-site?

Yes, so the concept is that there is a brewpub on the first floor, a 'Brewseum Brews,' of sorts. That would be the point of entry into the space. So, we'd have a few staples available on the menu. But it would really be in a collaborative approach, like the project is altogether. So, we would always have Brewseum beers, but then also some guest brewery beers on tap, too. The idea is to be local, regional, national and international in everything we do. Expect to see that in the exhibitions, educational programs and beers you’re drinking.

So, the brewpub, then two to three floors of exhibition and event space, and then a rooftop beer garden. That's the goal.

I definitely want it to be a place that, no matter the size of your brewery or how old your brewery is, we’ll be sharing the story of ‘beer.’

2018 is the year...

I think it might be. I feel really confident in where we're at and the direction we're heading. But at the same time, I don't like to say anything, or share any updates if there aren't any. I like to just keep my head down and work, and share updates as they're really ready.

And in the meantime?

Let's just say there are a lot of irons in the fire. We've got some great partnerships in the works And a really really great advisory board.. We'll keep doing events to stay on people's mind. And when we've got something big to say...we'll say it.

I'm sure you're well aware of a similar effort happening in Pittsburgh as well?

Yes. And they [Brew: The Museum of Beer] announced after us. Also, further investigation shows that they're for-profit.

One of the major highlights for us in 2017 was that we were a part of the American Alliance of Museums annual conference in St. Louis (AAM is the umbrella organization for all American museums–if you are a museum, you should be accredited by AAM). I wrote a session proposal for the conference that focused on how alcohol is playing a critical role in museums. Fantastically, the session was accepted–not an easy feat. Our session was packed to the gills with about 300 museum professionals and that night (in History on Tap and Brewseum fashion) we hosted a social and educational event at the original Budweiser brewery to drink, discuss history, and tell people about the Chicago Brewseum. Having this exposure and recognition at this conference, on this level, was a major step for us as it provided us with some national attention in a very highly respected forum. 

Our affiliation with AAM, our partnerships with cultural organizations around the world, our strong relationships with local, national and international breweries, and our amazing team in the Board of Directors, National Advisory Board and Auxiliary Board–it’s these crucial elements that sets us apart. We’re not just building a museum about beer because it’s cool. There’s lots of thought, strategy, experience and passion behind what we’re doing.

So, while I think we have a similar vision, we have completely different goals and completely different teams.

Are there 'beer museums' in existence anywhere around the globe, already?

There are beer museums around the world. But, most of them are focused around a single brand, or around a city/region. For example, there is a terrible one in Brussels...

Haha, I've been there actually. I forgot–this little spot down in a basement. It was... disappointing to say the least. And clearly, forgettable.

Yea, so there are small spots like that. And there are museums like the one within Guinness, but it's obviously focused on their own story. There's a great museum in England, in Burton-on-Trent, called the National Brewery Centre. And their focus is on the story of the pale ale, but through the lens of Bass. But, there is nothing that has a focus on a national or international scope.

I definitely want it to be a place that, no matter the size of your brewery or how old your brewery is, we'll be sharing the story of 'beer.'

Well, I think people can get behind that...

Ok, so you spend plenty of time around beer. What are you typically drinking?

I drink wine at home, and beer at the bar. I drink everything. As much as I try, I’m not a fan of boozy barrel-aged beers. I don’t drink liquor so that’s a factor. And I’m only 5’0. I do like Lambics, and sours, however. I'll take those out of a barrel. But, I don't like most Belgian beers, I don't like the Belgian yeast strains. Not for me...

A Chicago brewery you admire?

I like 5 Rabbit. I really like their approach and the fact that they are incredibly thoughtful about what they do with beer. Their political and social activism is impressive. And as a Latina woman who once studied ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, they create beverages that immediately offer me a personal connection. I think that’s what a lot of breweries are after and it’s what some are missing. Great beer matters, but making a connection is important.

But my go-to where I would always enjoy a beer at the brewpub, is Piece. Always. But there are so many specific beers I could drink all day long. Krankshaft [Metropolitan]–I’m dying to get my lips back on some Jet Stream. I’m not a huge drinker of general wheat beers so I’ve always felt that wheat beers weren’t for me. What Logan did over at Metro with Jet Stream, that was a real eye-opener. He proved me and my palate wrong and it’s this sort of thing that makes beer so exciting–the learning never ends. Also, Fist City from Revolution. Greenwood Beach from Temperance. Lolita [Goose Island]...

A little bit of everything.

 

–THR–


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Photography by Matt Tanaka of MTMCo.

Thanks to Liz Garibay of History on Tap & the Chicago Brewseum for taking time out of her busy schedule to share her story with us. And also thanks to Bruce Elliott of the Old Town Ale House for his stories and hospitality.