Liz Garibay explores world history and culture through the lens of beer. She launched the website www.historyontap.com in 2002 and helped create the country’s first beer museum, The Chicago Brewseum. Recently, Garibay collaborated with Chicago’s Illuminated Brew Works and New Orleans’ Urban South Brewery on a limited-release farmhouse ale called Two Levees to celebrate New Orleans’ tricentennial and Illinois’ bicentennial. Garibay speaks at a launch party for the beer at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum July 14. Garibay spoke with Gambit about beer.
Gambit: What inspired you to study history through beer?
Garibay: I’m a historian born and raised in Chicago. About 18 years ago, I started to look at how bars were a unique place to learn about history, really just from the environment but also from the old timers that were sitting there. I became a regular at a lot of these bars, and I found myself fascinated by the stories they were telling me. But the academic in me wanted to fact check, so I would go do research at libraries and museums. I started collecting the oral histories and combined that with my research to create this sort of overall picture of a bar. I did it for fun for a while, but then I started using it as a vehicle to talk about history. That’s when I [became] a historian that looked at history from the lens of alcohol. The next thing I knew, I had one foot in the history world and one foot in the brewery world.
I also dreamed up this idea that the country needed a beer museum. Chicago is a great place for it because we’re kind of the quintessential American city that grew during the 19th century and was built by immigrants, where there was a lot of industry and innovation. The Southern Food & Beverage Museum has been a great partner for us. I reached out to Liz (Williams, the museum’s founder) when I started to research the concept of this kind of museum. She has been a fantastic resource and a big advocate of what we’re trying to do.
Gambit: What was the impetus behind Two Levees beer?
Garibay: I was sitting at the bar one day and I realized that it was the bicentennial for Illinois and also the tricentennial for New Orleans. I thought we should do something together with the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. I thought (brewing a collaborative beer) was a fun celebration between the two cities. Illuminated Brew Works had started making farmhouse ale, and that sort of a saison was a perfect match because of the French connection.
Looking at the history of our cities, the first thing is that we had the French-Canadian explorers coming through both areas, and we had explorers looking for waterways to get to the Mississippi River. The importance of the way our cities were first connected was rooted in that exploration for water routes. … During the 1860s, you start to get the growth of the train and railroad industry. Between the water and the trains, we start being able to exchange culture, food and people. Of course, we both have great music history and great food culture, and I think the most fun part is that we both have very strong histories and reputations of having a really good time — of being (cities) of drinkers.
Gambit: Why the name Two Levees?
Garibay: I came up with the name Two Levees because we are two cities on major bodies of water, and levees have always been a significant component of our past. The other thing is that during the 1800s, Chicago had this reputation for being kind of seedy and sinister, and Chicago’s red-light district was called the Levee.