Grace Brothers Brewery and the Puzzle of Memory

Circa-1900 Image from Grace Bros Brewery

(Circa-1900 image of Grace Brothers Brewery, Santa Rosa, CA. From Sonoma Heritage Collections, at this link).

A melancholic account of the history and passing of Grace Brothers Brewery in Santa Rosa, CA appeared in 1977 in “The Press Democrat”, the town newspaper.

I’ve been to Santa Rosa, a few times, in fact. It’s one nice part of the world, in the “North Bay” as it is known.

Santa Rosa is not a large place and in the 1970s was smaller, not just in the obvious sense, but at a time when society was less mobile both physically and electronically. Yet, as journalist Gaye LeBaron wrote in her memorial account there were people in town who didn’t know that Grace Bros Brewery had operated there a mere 10 years earlier.

Even in a small place, where memories tend to be longer than in the megalopolis, people can forget a closed local business very quickly.

Ironically, just a year before, in 1976, and 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 worldwide.

New Albion Brewing Company had emerged from the homebrewing hobby of founder and ex-sailor (with a stint in U.K.) Jack McAuliffe. He started to produce unfiltered, hoppy pale ale and stout that diverged radically from the American norm. North American breweries had once produced these styles in quantity, but the beer types had died out with the consolidation of brewing and adoption (imposition?) of a single standard of beer (bland, corny).

While remembered by Gaye LeBaron as a supermarket brand it is unlikely that Grace Bros.’ Happy Hops, the star brand, tasted similar to modern mass market lager. It was probably more hoppy, as its name suggests, although one can only speculate. Perhaps it was as hoppy as nearby Anchor Brewing’s Steam Beer still is, which is not huge in character but certainly marked.

In any case, people didn’t have the chance to judge how Happy Hops stood up to the new hand-crafted brews because by 1967 Grace Brothers Brewery, after a short period of control by a conglomerate, was history.

This pattern of small brewery closures or acquisition by larger fish only to be subsequently closed was repeated countless times around North America and indeed elsewhere. The current craft boom is buoyant enough to have resisted the historic trend.

Certainly today artisan brewing is a vibrant activity in Sonoma County and California in general.

I’d like to think that in ways not always easy to trace the earlier existence in the state of small breweries as well as a notable barley and hop cultivation – ever heard of Hopland, CA? – did influence the rebirth of local brewing.

Older history can reverberate through the generations in ways not always easy to explicate and document. Despite Santa Rosa’s rapid memory fade for Grace Brothers Brewery I think beer and hops were embedded in folk memory, even subconsciously. This smoothed the way for a vibrant new generation of brewers to emerge.

Russian River Brewery, an iconic craft business in Santa Rosa, has issued a Happy Hops in recent years to salute the old local favorite. Good for them to honour the brewing history of their own town – certainly there is no one more appropriate to do so.

And the beer is pretty good judging by reviews at Beer Advocate. A purist would want it to be a close copy of the original, which it likely isn’t: for one thing it is an I.P.A. while the original was a lager. Still, what’s important is caring about the town’s brewing past and preserving the memory in some way.

N.B. I wanted to learn more about Gaye LeBaron, given that her 1977 article was uncommonly good. Happily, I can state she is still with us and not only that, still on staff at The Press Democrat – she has been a writer there in fact for 56 years! Here is a sample column, from only yesterday. Ms. LeBaron is a noted historian of the area and has co-authored a two-volume history of Santa Rosa.*

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from Sonoma Heritage Collections as noted in the caption and hyperlink given. The second image was sourced from the invaluable Tavern Trove label collection, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*See my Comment below added January 19, 2019.

3 thoughts on “Grace Brothers Brewery and the Puzzle of Memory

  1. I am adding this update at January 19, 2019. The text above is substantially what I wrote in August 2015 but is lightly edited to improve the focus and accuracy. I’m pleased to note as well that Gaye LeBaron is still active as a writer and journalist. Interested parties might consult her entry at Wikipedia which describes her most recent publications including a new local history. Further, I have since found an account of the brewery’s history penned in 2010 by a family descendant, Michael Grace, you can read it here. Mr. Grace indicates much of interest including that before its final closure in 1967 the brewery had been acquired by Paul Kalmanovitz’ brewery conglomerate via its Maier subsidiary in Los Angeles. This was a pattern that Mr. Kalmanovitz, the premier brewery “raider” of his day, had repeated many times. In addition, Michael Grace conveys a nugget of good interest to brewery historians beyond the precincts of Sonoma County and Northern California: after Fritz Maytag bought San Francisco’s Anchor Brewery in 1965, he had contacts with Grace Brothers Brewery and indeed obtained a fresh supply of yeast from them, which overflowed from his open-top sports car on the drive back to San Francisco! As Michael Grace implies, in some small way Grace Brothers’ beer perhaps continues to this day via its influence on Anchor Steam Beer. The implications go beyond California of course because of the iconic status of Anchor Brewery in craft brewing, in that the brewery, while dating from 1899, formed a bridge to the craft revival. This was due to the transformations effected by Fritz Maytag after his purchase, e.g., issuing new beers such as Liberty Ale and Anchor Porter. These certainly influenced New Albion and many other new breweries subsequently.

  2. I have a green, 12 oz Pepsi:Cola bottle with a color paper label which reads, “A Sparkling Bracing Beverage Pepsi:Cola Refreshing Healthful Grace Bros. Brewing Co. Santa Rosa, Calif.”. Can you tell me anything about it? Your time, expertise and assistance are greatly appreciated. V/ r RJD

    • Thanks for this note. Grace Bros. must have bottled, or distributed, soft drinks as a sideline to their brewing business, but more I cannot say unfortunately.

      Gary

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