Saturday, March 14, 2009

BYO Follow-up Edition: Know Your Liquor Control Act

So there author Jean Iversen was, giving us the rundown on BYOB logistics on Thursday, when someone asked the question I had in mind: Why? Why is Chicago one of the only major cities in the US to allow people to bring their own wine or other hooch into a restaurant? The answer, most likely, is beer.

Jean didn't really know. Liquor control is a state-level jurisdiction, so all of Illinois is allowed to have BYOB restaurants, should the establishments choose, according to the Liquor Control Act of 1934. Being a big geek, I decided to dig further to hopefully discover the Founding Father of BYOB in Illinois. I didn't. But here's what I did find out:

1. Two-thirds of Chicago was dry in the early 1900s due to the temperance movement, which advocated for wards to vote taverns and saloons out of town. Chicago was a wild place back then, and utterly shocking deeds - even by today's standards - went down in the city's much maligned Levee district nightly. (For a thorough read on this, see Sin in the Second City. Crazy. Stuff.) The idea was that affluent, white Protestants loved Jesus too much to drink or least not at home. That's what the Levee was for.

2. At that same time, Chicago was a beer capital of the country, with over 60 breweries in town. The huge Irish and German immigrant populations brought with them the tricks of the trade, and business was great. Chicagoans couldn't buy beer retail because large amounts of ice were necessary to keep it cold, so they had to go to a tavern to enjoy it or buy it off a huge beer wagon. Retail sale didn't really begin until the 1930s, when refrigeration became commercially viable - an invention that was underwritten by Chicago's largest brewers like Charles Wacker.

3. In 1934, Illinois passed what still serves as its liquor act. Although portions of it have been amended heavily, its hallmark is known as the Local Option law. In a nod to the still highly charged temperance movement then, the Local Option allows wards and other municipalities to vote themselves dry or control liquor sales as much as they want. Some wards in Chicago have been dry for decades, places where you're sure to find BYO restaurants operating since they can't get a license. Tre Kroner on Foster is an example.

4. The act, however, explicitly allows for recreational establishments to permit their patrons to bring in alcohol, should the business choose. Huh. This strikes me as an amusing loophole in the dry clause. The lawmakers knew that plenty of wards would go dry, but they allowed businesses in those places to let patrons enjoy alcohol on premises if they brought it in from elsewhere. It's entirely up to the business to set the rules for how much can be consumed on site. A commerce-friendly decision, indeed.

5. The other thing that strikes me about the act is that "recreational establishments" term. So...we can have BYOB movie theatres? Yes, in fact, the 3 Penny Cinema in Lincoln Park was a BYO until it closed in 2006. Bowling alleys? Yep, although all of the ones I've checked in Chicago have their own liquor license. I'd imagine that pool halls and anything else you can legally make a case for as recreational could work too. Spas? Bookstores? Imagine the possibilities...

6. I couldn't write anything about this topic without mentioning Prohibition. Naturally, the Mob presence in Chicago during the 1920s "underwrote" shall we say a lot of illegal production that went underground for a while. While the lore is legendary, Prohibition did a huge amount of damage to legit business. Among the casualties were of course those 60 breweries. It's very possible that we owe the BYOB clause to a lawmaker hoping that the breweries would recover in Chicago post-Prohibition, but all of the large-scale operations died out. Micro-breweries and brewpubs keep the city's beer making tradition alive.

So here's to beer, Chicago. As we celebrate St. Patty's Day today all over the city, it's a fitting reminder that it has always run through her veins...and sometimes the streets.

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