BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
After almost 90 years, Seipp’s beer is coming back to Chicago. Conrad Seipp, a prominent 19th-century Chicago beer baron, founded one of the city’s first breweries in 1854, just one of a handful that survived the Great Chicago Fire. By the mid-1870s, the Conrad Seipp Brewing Company dominated the Chicago beer market and was, for a time, among the largest breweries in the United States.
Laurin Mack, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Conrad Seipp, is reviving her family’s brewing company and bringing Seipp’s beer back to Chicago. In collaboration with Metropolitan Brewing, a Chicago brewery specializing in German-style lagers, Mack is re-introducing Seipp’s Extra Pale, a pre-prohibition pilsner which was one of Seipp’s most popular brands. Mack says the beer’s revival is not only a tribute to Conrad Seipp but to Chicago as a great beer-brewing city: “Chicago has so many fantastic craft breweries. But what I think we are missing is a connection to our rich brewing history.”
A Sip of Seipp party previewed Seipp’s Extra Pale for family and close friends in December and, according to Dianne Campbell, it is not only historic but also delicious.
We visited Mack to see Seipp memorabilia, hear about the beer’s launch, and learn more about the family’s history. In her collection are trays, bottles, and framed ads, all a part of the brewing industry’s history. Mack also has several of Seipp’s personal items, which were passed down to her, including library chairs designed by Adolf Cuddell, who was also the architect of Seipp’s Chicago home at 3300 South Michigan Avenue.
According to Mack, Seipp was a prolific marketer, so there is plenty of antique Seipp beer memorabilia to collect. “A few times, my husband has been bidding for a Seipp item on eBay and realized that he was bidding against another family member!” Mack shares.
Particularly appropriate in 2020 is a Seipp advertisement from 1884. The caption reads, “We may differ in politics but all agree that Conrad Seipp’s beer is the best,” which likely references the contentious presidential race of that same year between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine.
In 1888 Conrad Seipp built a summer home for his family on the shores of Lake Geneva. The lakefront estate was originally named Villa Lorelei after a spot overlooking the Rhine River in his native Germany. The estate remained in the Seipp family until 2005 when Mack’s great uncle, Bill Petersen, donated the house and property to the State of Wisconsin. Now called the Black Point Estate and Gardens, the house and grounds are open for tours from May through November. Mack, like so many of her family members and generations before, spent summers visiting Black Point. “I would stay with my grandparents who lived in a house that they built on the grounds of Seipp’s original property and would spend the night in ‘the Big House,’ as we all call it, as a special treat,” she remembers.
“Black Point is a very special place. Conrad and his wife, Catharine, very much valued family and friends and time spent in nature, which is clearly evident when you are there,” Mack continues. “These are values which were passed down through the generations of our family.”
And the story of the company begins in 1849, when Seipp, a German immigrant from Hessen, near Frankfort, came to the US. Arriving in Chicago, he held several different jobs, which included managing a hotel and driving a beer wagon. He opened his first brewery in 1854, which burned down, and built a second one—this time out of brick, at 27th and Cottage Grove. Frederick Lehman joined as a partner in 1858, which helped Seipp continue to expand his operations. Lehman died in a tragic accident leaving Seipp as the sole owner of the brewery. Seipp’s first wife, Maria, died 1866 leaving him with their three children. He married, Catharine Orb and had 5 more children.
Mack explains the brewery’s miraculous luck during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871: “The Seipp brewery was outside of the fire line and was one of the few breweries that survived. The fire literally destroyed Seipp’s competition. As workers rebuilt the city, they were likely drinking Seipp’s beer.”
She continues, “Seipp was a pioneer of modern brewing in Chicago. While I am sure he made good beer, his success was in large part due to his business sense. He was one of the only brewers of his time to export beer outside of Chicago. In fact, Seipp was sold as far away as California.”
When he died in 1890, his son William Conrad continued to run the company. Grain and coal shortages during World War I impacted Seipp’s production before the enactment of Prohibition in 1919 devastated the beer industry. Seipp operations shut down in 1933, just before Prohibition was lifted. The brewery was destroyed to make room for Michael Reese Hospital.
“From what I understand, Conrad was a generous man and civically minded, a trait that he passed on to his descendants who have since been involved with many of Chicago’s cultural and civic institutions,” Mack says.
When asked to comment on Conrad Seipp, Michael Rehberg of the Wisconsin Historical Society said, “What’s most striking to me, and I think speaks to his character most strongly, is that when he died, his generous bequests went to hospitals, orphanages, and old peoples homes—not to the opera, the symphony, or the art centers. He cared about people and social agencies. During early brewery union organizing efforts and strikes, most of his employees stayed on the job.”
“Another insight into the man is the story about when he discovered that one of his employees, Peter Schoenhofen, who went on to much success with Edelweiss Brand Beer in Chicago, was to be married that day, Conrad took the reins of the horse drawn beer wagon and delivered the barrels for Peter on Peter’s route!” he added.
“I knew about Conrad Seipp in the context of our family, but I learned about the role that he and the other brewers of his time played in Chicago’s history from my friend and beer history guru, Liz Garibay” Mack explains. Garibay is founder of the Chicago Brewseum, the nation’s first museum dedicated to the history of beer, that currently has an exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum called, “Brewing Up Chicago: How Beer Transformed A City,” which will be up until July 2020.
In reviving Seipp’s brand, Mack is sticking close to history. She is using a drawing from a promotional booklet that the Conrad Seipp Brewing Company created as a souvenir for the 1893 World’s Fair as a model for designing the modern beer label: “I love history and think that it is so important to communities to connect to their past. It is my hope that when people have a sip of Seipp’s beer, they will get a taste of Chicago’s history.”
Seipp’s Extra Pale will be available this spring at select Chicago locations as well as in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. To learn more about the Conrad Seipp Brewing Company launch, visit seippbrewing.com or follow the company on Instragram and Twitter @seippbeer.