(Circa-1900 image of Grace Brothers Brewery, Santa Rosa, CA. From Sonoma Heritage Collections, http://heritage.sonomalibrary.org/).
This melancholic account of the history and passing of Grace Brothers Brewery of Santa Rosa, CA appeared in 1977 in The Press Democrat, the small city’s newspaper.
I’ve been to Santa Rosa, a few times in fact. Most of the visits were not beer-related but rather bourbon-related! The major domo of www. straightbourbon. com, the world’s largest online bourbon club, used to live there and occasionally held a party for the members of which I’m one. It’s one of the nicest parts of the world I’ve ever been to, the “North Bay” as it’s called.
Santa Rosa is not a large place of course and in the 1970’s, it had to be smaller, not just in the obvious sense, but in a time when society was less mobile both physically and electronically. Yet, as Gaye LeBaron wrote in her memorial piece, there were people in town who didn’t remember or never knew that Grace Bros Brewery operated there a mere 10 years earlier. Even in a smaller place where memories, actual and handed down, tend to last longer than in the megalopolis, people forget about such things fairly quickly.
Ironically, just a year before, 1976, not far away in the same Sonoma County, a brewery started up which, while it lasted under 10 years, helped shake the foundations of brewing not just in America but most everywhere. New Albion Brewing Company, which emerged from the homebrewing hobby of founder Jack McAuliffe, started to produce unfiltered hoppy pale ale and stout. North American breweries had once produced these styles in their thousands of examples but they died out with the consolidation of brewing and imposition of a virtually single standard of beer flavour (bland, corny). While recalled by Gaye LeBaron as a supermarket brand, it is unlikely that Happy Hops, former star brand of Grace Brothers Brewery, tasted the same in the 60’s as in 1940, say, much less 1910. But in any case, people didn’t have the chance to judge that in the 70’s, or to compare the brand to the crafted brews being issued by new boutiques. It was too late, the brand and brewery were gone, never to return.
The pattern of small brewery closures was repeated a thousand times around North America and perhaps is an inevitable cycle.
After the nadir of the mid-70’s, the phoenix arose. Today brewing is a vibrant scene in Santa Rosa and in California in general. I’d like to think that in ways not always easy to trace, the earlier existence of small breweries in the state and the long history of hop-growing in the north – ever heard of Hopland, CA? – did influence the rebirth of local brewing. Older history can reverberate through the generations but not always in ways easy to explicate and document. Despite the paucity of memory in Santa Rosa a mere decade after the Grace Brothers brands faded away, I think beer and hops were rooted somehow in the collective memory, subconsciously perhaps. This smoothed the way for the new generation of brewers to emerge.
Russian River Brewery, as I mentioned yesterday, has issued a Happy Hops in recent years to salute the old local favorite. Good for them to honour the history in their own town – certainly there is no one more appropriate. And the beer is pretty terrific judging by these reviews at Beer Advocate. A purist would want the beer to be a close copy of the original, but if it isn’t, that’s not really important: what’s important is that people remembered.
Note to readers: I wanted to learn more about Gaye LeBaron given the uncommonly good article her 1977 piece was. A little googling revealed that she is still with us and not only that, still on the staff of The Press Democrat; she has been a staff writer there for 56 years! Here is a sample column from – yesterday. Ms. LeBaron is a noted local historian and co-authored a two-volume history of Santa Rosa.