A Steam Brewer Powers into the Thirties – Sans Steam
This series commenced with Part I which showed how the regulatory environment for newly-legal beer in California in 1933-1934 dampened the prospects for steam beer’s return.
Steam beer did reappear post-Volstead, but the élan it had before Woodrow Wilson’s war measures and National Prohibition had gone.
El Rey Brewing and Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, Garden City in San Jose, with its Old Joe brand from the disappeared Eagle Brewery, and Grace Bros in Santa Rosa brought steam back but soon only Anchor was left. Post-Prohibition California brewers focused on lager with a sub-specialty of undifferentiated ale.
In the intervening seven essays, Parts II to VIII inclusive, I examined different aspects of steam beer history and production. I will end again in the 1930s, to show how a former steam beer champion positioned itself in the restored brewing environment.
Past Recalls the Present
In today’s (American) beer world, with over 7,000 breweries at the end of 2019, brewers must stretch their imagination to devise distinctive brand names. Yet as so often, the past is hard to beat. If you can think of a name cooler than Cream Steam Lager, let me know.
Cream Steam was the main brand of the Palace Brewery in Alamada, California and it also made a XXX Porter. The brewery was founded by Henry Schuler, a Prussian immigrant who ran it with his son Lawrence, as memorialized in the book Alameda County: Eden of California, a commercial and historical survey printed in 1898.
But memories are – can be – long in brewing. A modern California brewery, Faction Brewing in Alameda, issued its Palace XXX Porter to commemorate the long-disappeared Palace. A residential nook in the City of Alameda is called Palace Court, also named for the old brewery, see this account by local historian Karen Bey.
Geo. F. Goerl, Steam Brewer and Golden West Brewery
In 1910 George F. Goerl was associated with the Palace brewery. He was the brewer, and apparently purchased the brewery from the Schuler family in 1905. Goerl’s father Fritz had a long run as owner of a brewery in San Rafael, Marin County. Father sold out to English investors in about 1905 and retired, dying not long after in an accident.
See some details on San Rafael Brewery and Fritz (or Fred) Goerl as reported two years ago in the Marin Independent Journal.
It seems likely that the sale proceeds helped fund son George’s entry into brewing in another California county, Alamada, east of the Bay across from San Francisco.
Press reports attested in 1910 and early 1911, for example the San Francisco Call, that the Palace and four other breweries in Alameda County merged to form the Golden West Brewery Co. Like San Francisco County, Alameda County had an active steam beer market, supplied by its own breweries.
The other four in the merger were Washington Brewery in Oakland, headed by George White, Anchor Brewery also in Oakland (not connected to the better-known one across the Bay), Raspiller Brewery in Berkeley, and the Lion in Hayward. Some dated from the 1850s, the first decade of commercial brewing in California.
The squad of five, as this story in Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat explained, had excess production; in today’s terminology, rationalization was the answer:
There has been a combination formed among the brewers of steam beer in Alameda county for the purpose of saving themselves from the unnecessary expenditure of money in the transaction of their business, limiting the cost of their product, minimizing the cost of handling … their output, abolishing disastrous competition and in a word making more money for themselves than they claim to have been making for a number of years past. The new organization is known as the Golden West Brewing Association…
Steam beer was losing popularity to conventional lager, but also, as the Call’s story explained, saloonkeepers were careless how to serve the beer. Steam beer required nicety of technique due to the unusually high pressure and tendency to cloud from its element of krausen, or young fermenting beer. An analogy to the ever-fragile status of cask-conditioned beer in the U.K. may be noted.
The merged five intended to improve the standard of beer service in saloons by educating barkeeps on proper service of the beer. They weren’t, that is, giving up on steam beer, as many California breweries had or were in process of doing; rather, they wanted it served in best condition so customers could appreciate its merits.
While the merger included most breweries in the county, two didn’t join. These were the Co-Operative Brewing Company in Oakland, and Oakland Brewing and Malting (OBM). OBM, established only in 1907, was designed to the highest modern standards. It brewed only conventional lager, its Blue and Gold brand.
This portrait of OBM, in the 1911 book Greater Oakland, suggests the kind of operation older, less efficient brewers needed to emulate to stay alive in the market. They had to become, like OBM, brewers of a “scientific” and “pure” lager. Steam beer didn’t exactly have that image but Golden West would try to keep it alive, while starting to brew lager as well.
Golden West wasted no time. Two breweries in the group were shut. And a brand-new facility was built that rivalled OBM in modernity and style. It was located at Seventh and Kirkham streets in Oakland.
A profile of Golden West Brewery in 1911 can be obtained from E. Blake’s Greater Oakland:
While George Goerl is not mentioned, he was very much involved, as the brewer. The merged business grew in succeeding years but as we have seen, war measures and then Prohibition caused all brewing in California to cease by 1920. Beer brewing, that is. We have seen how Golden West stayed in business to make a steam version of near beer.
Golden West After 1920
Such was its faith in steam beer, or at least the tradition implied by the name, that it marketed the near beer throughout the 1920s and until Prohibition ended. See for example this 1931 ad. This was not a case, therefore, of a brewery foundering with its near beer in the ’20s and leaving the market well before Prohibition ended, as happened with many.
On July 31, 1933 the Oakland Tribune covered Golden West’s re-entry to brewing in a splashy piece that took a full page and part of another. The officers and directors were pictured, mostly in their 60s and 50s judging appearances. Indeed the story stated George White had 43 years in the business and George Goerl, 40 years. The other men too mostly had long decades-long records in malting and/or brewing.
Charles W. Heyer, a key member of the old team, had died in 1932 according to this 1933 story in The American Brewer. We suspect new blood (in a manner of speaking) joined with White and Goerl to permit Golden West to re-equip and enter the newly legal brewing business.
The Tribune explained that in the long years of Prohibition White and Goerl had worked on the formulation of the beer to emerge when brewing was legal – Golden Glow. The stories in the feature reference the highly scientific and updated plant Golden West became in 1933, with new aging tanks, a restored brewery, and expanded stock house.
Bottling was characterized, said the piece, by an intensive sterilization and pasteurization program. (Seven waters to clean the glass, a temperature so hot it would scald your hands). Golden West once again re-invented itself, just as it had in 1910 when five pioneer breweries merged to live another day.
But one thing is missing from the Tribune’s lavish account. There is not a single mention of steam beer. Clearly, and as a review of its subsequent activities suggests, Golden West never again returned to steam beer. It was part of history, didn’t fit the super-modern image of the reborn brewery. True, steam beer was retained in 1910 during the first transformation, but that was 23 long years before: times had changed.
Whether Goerl was dissuaded by the need to ensure his kegged steam beer did not exceed 3.2% ABW is hard to say, but I incline that had he wanted to make such a beer, he could have. After all he made a near beer with the name steam on the label. Steam beer was, withal and in the end, something of the past for the Golden West executives, if not for all breweries starting up after Prohibition.
Adrienne Schell, a local historian in Oakland, depicted aspects of Golden West brewing history in her blog some years ago. She includes numerous labels for its beers in the 1930s and 1940s – not one is for steam beer. The beers were mostly lagers, but some ale was made, as mentioned below.
The American Brewer also gave good coverage in 1934 to Golden West’s rebirth – again no reference to steam beer. The only brands mentioned were Golden Glow Beer and Golden Glow Ale.
This 1934 ad for Golden Glow Ale, with its attempt to link the beer to old British traditions, may have been Golden West’s way to uphold the old steam beer heritage, as steam beer always had connections to ale-brewing as shown earlier.
As for most American brewers in the post-Volstead era, ale was never more than a minor category. Lager was the mainstay into the 1940s as this forthright 1944 ad for Golden Glow Beer would suggest, but it is just one of many similar ads that appeared since Prohibition’s end.
Golden West’s Position in the post-Volstead Market and Fate
Golden West found its place in the post-Prohibition beer business but it never rose to the topmost ranks of California brewers. Gallonage reports for 1939 in The American Brewer (sourced via Hagley Digital Journals) placed it among the leading brewers but well behind pacemakers Acme, Los Angeles Brewing, General Brewing, and Rainier. See here:
Acme, General (Lucky Lager), Rainier, and Los Angeles Brewery (Eastside) remained the major players for years. Inevitably, smaller breweries – there were about 35 brewers in total in California in the mid-30s – closed or were bought out. Golden West endured through the war but in 1950, was bought out by an expanding Midwestern brewer, Goebel in Detroit. See Peter Blum’s remarks in his book on Detroit brewing history.
For some years the brewery continued operating in Oakland under Midwestern direction, in the same building built in 1910-1911, but finally was demolished.
Numerous lessons can be learned from steam beer history and the arc of Golden West. One is the indomitable spirit of the brewer to stay in his trade, “a very old and honourable job”, as Oscar A. Mendelsohn called it in his The Earnest Drinker (1950). Men with graying hair waited 13 years to re-enter the brewing fray, keeping up with brewing technology to boot.
Yet, despite nearing their golden years when starting up again in 1933 the Golden West executives weren’t sentimental about beer history, even their own. They didn’t let romance potentially cloud a phoenix-like revival.
In the current vernacular, they didn’t “love a business” – but they did love brewing.
What we can learn from the saga of California steam beer is that even in California, even for many brewers who once specialized in “steam”, beer was more important than steam beer, finally.
Note: all images or quotations in this series were sourced from the historical newspaper, historical brewers’ journal, or other source as identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.