Early Beer Tasting and Pit Barbecue
On February 7, 1935 The Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles, today the Wine and Food Society of Southern California (WFSSC), debuted its programs with a dinner at Victor Hugo, a luxury French restaurant in Beverly Hills. By 1939 the Society had conducted a wide range of dinners and wine tastings.
An early key member of the Society, Dr. Marcus Crahan, wrote an early (1957) history/compilation, The Wine and Food Society of Southern California: A History, etc. He mentioned the 1938 beer tasting I will discuss, stating the categories of beer judged but did not note individual brands, or discuss the rather off-piste meal event.
The full menu, for both beer and food, has been generously shared with me by George Ronay of the WFSSC. It lists all beers in each of six classes, 40 in all. It also sets out the scoring system used, and full details of the banquet served.
The event, held at Walter J. Wallace’s estate in the Alhambra section of Los Angeles, was titled “A Tasting of Domestic and Imported Beers Together with an Old-Time Spanish-California Pit Barbecue”. The tasting was conducted “under the personal direction of Mr. Frank J. Vitale” with “Barbecue by Mr. Don Adams”.
Given the number of beers served and nature of a traditional California barbecue, with guests, the event probably attracted a couple of hundred attendees or more. This tasting event was more informal, or “down-home”, than most sorties of the group at the time, typically held in upscale restaurants or private clubs.
While the group was comprised to a good degree of a well-off Southern Californian coterie, Dr. Crahan also noted:
.. . [we are not] mere monied socialites who… banded together in fashionable snobbery; [our] hard core was a nucleus of high-minded, temperate advocates of haute cuisine as the highest expression of civilization and culture… united to learn and in turn to teach a better way of life.
The guests therefore did not attend at the Wallace estate just to socialize with aid of pleasant things to eat and drink, but also to appraise and judge. It was not just a “beer and barbecue” night, in other words; it remained in essence a gastronomic event.
It seems there were two stages: a beer tasting proper, although few probably got through all the beers, and then the eating. Theretofore focused on wine, now at any rate the Society included beer in its syllabus.
The Beer Rating Method
Scoring ran this way:
Members and guests are requested to rate beers on this sheet and leave it, when completed, with the Secretary or the Steward. Beers should be rated in their classes and not as against beers in other classes. It will be remembered that 0 is “Bad”; 25 is “Fair”; 50 is “Good”; 75 is “excellent”; and 100 is “Superb”. You need not sign this!
The six classes were: Class I California Beers on Draught, Class II Other Domestic Beers on Draught, Class III Imported Beers on Draught, Class IV California Beers in Package, Class V Other Domestic Beers, Ales and Stouts in Package, and Class VI Imported Beers, Ales and Stouts.
Below in the menu we see Classes V and VI.
Most beers of any class were blonde, pilsener-style but some classes included ale and stout, or ale and lager. The term “beer” in the listings meant blonde pilsener type usually, but there was the odd Munich, or dark lager, as well, Rio Grande Bavarian was one (a grand name indeed).
It seems price was the main determinant to fashion these classes, which is not the system used today for classifying beers in a tasting context at least. Therefore, the judging results also differed from those seen today, certainly in professional judging competitions.
Nonetheless the 1938 categories have an appealing simplicity, and in truth are not without a certain logic. Class II were draft Budweiser, Michelob, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Schlitz, all “Eastern” beers in the California terminology of the day. Moreover each was premium-class, pale lager, hence of a feather even though Michelob was all-barley malt and the others were not.
Treating beers served on draft together made sense in that American draft beer then was unpasteurized, while almost all bottled and canned beer was pasteurized. Draft might be expected to differ in taste from bottled or canned for that reason alone.
“Imported” with its price range was considered enough of a unifier to rate together, say, Bass Ale and Heineken. In one sense not so illogical, as some people buy by price, so this class comprised a representative group.
Enter now Frank Vitale. He was a member of the Society’s Wine Committee and a co-principal of L.A.-based Bohemian Distributing Company, which wholesaled a range of beers, wine, and liquors. The business evolved out of a grocery store founded by J.S. Foto in the early 1920s. Vitale became his long-time partner in Bohemian Distributing.
Bohemian was associated closely with San Francisco-based Acme Brewery, in particular its Los Angeles plant built in 1935. For a good history of Acme, see this page in the Brewery Gems site. As the tasting was under Vitale’s personal direction, one can assume he instructed the members on beer fine points.
Before examining further the beer, a word on the food.
The dinner was described in the menu with engaging simplicity as follows:
Beef – Beans – Bread And What-Not
One should not think a random Southern or Southwestern barbecue method was chosen, paired with any old beans. It was anything but, as an “Old-Time Spanish-California Pit Barbecue” denoted something quite specific, and still does, deep-pit cooking, although the genre is rare on, or rather in, the ground today.
The method had been used for centuries in the Southwest and was derived from Indigenous cultures. It evolved over time including the use finally of choice cuts of cattle raised on Spanish, later Mexican, finally California ranches, seasoned to European taste.
A variant emerged called Santa Maria-style, which today is the commonly understood, traditional form of California barbecue. However, the California pit system that preceded it differed in important respects. A Wikipedia essay neatly explains the arc:
Santa Maria-style barbecue originated in the mid-19th century when local ranchers hosted Spanish-style feasts each spring for their vaqueros. They barbecued meat over earthen pits filled with hot coals of local coast live oak. The meal was served with pinquitos, small pink beans that are considered indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley.
According to local barbecue historian R. H. Tesene, “The Santa Maria Barbecue grew out of this tradition and achieved its ‘style’ when local residents began to string cuts of beef on skewers or rods and cook the meat over the hot coals of a red oak fire.” …. 
The original cut was top sirloin. Then, as today, the meat was rolled in a mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic salt before being barbecued over the red oak coals, which contribute a smoky, hearty flavor.
In the 1950s, a local butcher named Bob Schutz (Santa Maria Market) perfected the tri-tip, a triangular bottom sirloin cut that quickly joined top sirloin as a staple of Santa Maria-style barbecue.
The pit method involved building a fire of coastal oak in a deep hole using hundreds of pounds of wood. As recreated in 2007 by the Culinary Historians of Southern California, the meat, marinated top round and clods of shoulder, was wrapped in cotton and burlap. The packages were placed on the superheated embers. The pit was then covered with earth, and the meat left to cook and soften overnight, an ancient method in use long before Europeans arrived.
A webpage of the Culinary Historians of Southern California describes the recreation. The embedded blogpost of “Professor Salt” is essential reading to understand the steps in true pit BBQ. Images are included of the apparatus used and cooked results, capped by a toothsome taste report.
The group was guided by its president Charles Perry, an internationally known food historian. The blogpost states in part:
The Culinary Historians of Southern California recently threw a picnic for their members at the Palomares Adobe in Pomona that recreated the mostly lost art of earth pit cooking. Californios brought this technique from northern Mexico, where it is still practiced today, but in America, it’s a rarity to see people cooking this way. Charles Perry, the Historians’ President and an LA Times food writer, invited me to help tend the fire the night before the picnic.
The Wallace evening barbeque would have been similar to the 2007 recreation. The beans for the 1938 event were almost certainly the pinquito variety, which is native to California. It is a cross between a pink bean and common white bean. The pinquito is commonly served as a side-dish for modern barbecues and other meals.
Pinquito is prepared in a wide variety of styles, some involving chiles but not all. Tomato, vinegar, herbs, sugar, and more often figure. The Wallace BBQ may have presented any one or more of these styles.
The nonchalant “whatnot” was probably salad, desserts, and maybe other simple fixings. But clearly beef, beans, beer, and bread were the main event.
A Western “Beefsteak”
The Wallace pit barbecue is reminiscent in its essentials of the Eastern “beefsteak” tradition I discussed in an earlier series, see e.g. here. That communal meal involved mainly beef, beer, and bread, although the cuts of beef and cooking method for the typical “beefsteak” differed certainly from pit barbecue.
There is some irony here as the Society held a Beefsteak dinner so termed, in Laurel Canyon in 1939. A deluxe dinner it was but in the generic, modern American way with steak.
The Wallace barbecue, in contrast, resembled more the literal American beefsteak event given the resolute focus of both on meat, a starch, and beer (vs. the select wines served in Laurel Canyon).
Beers Tasted and Omitted
In the next post I will discuss some of the beers tasted, but a word here on some California beers not included. There was no steam beer, one of America’s few indigenous beer styles and certainly a California original, one revived in our current craft culture.
I discussed steam beer in-depth in my Steaming Into the Thirties series. Suffice to say by the 1930s the style had withered in California, in favour of the ubiquitous pale lager.
By 1938, my research suggests only tiny Anchor Brewery in San Francisco was left among the steam beer producers. It made, at that time, only draft beer.
Steam beer then was “live” in the keg from residual yeast. Perhaps such beer was felt too unstable to ship down south.
In the mid-1930s California counted over 30 breweries. This tasting, encompassing as it did other American beers, and imports, could not in any case cover all the Californian brewers. Still, nine or 10 made an appearance, not a bad showing.
Another California beer absent from the event, with an excellent reputation to boot, was Brown Derby, distributed by Safeway stores. As confirmed by a Tavern Trove webpage, the beer was made by a small brewery in Eureka, Humboldt Malt and Brewing Co.
A charming ad in 1935 in the San Pedro News Pilot attested to seeming high quality. It is difficult to know why it, at any rate, didn’t appear at the Wallace estate for the Society’s event. It may be that all the breweries participating donated the beers.
The term “shown”, now disused in promotions and hospitality practice, suggests this. Small breweries like Anchor and Humboldt may not have been in a position to donate beer.
All non-draft California lager at the tasting was listed at $1.95 per case. Probably guests could order, even take home in their Ford “woodies” or car trunks, beer from the event.
Hence probably the reason to list prices, which could range significantly. Pilsener Urquell, famed for quality then as now, was the most expensive, at $8.00 per case. In the next post I will explore the reasons for the large disparity, apart the obvious one of extra shipment and handling costs.
Part IV follows, setting out the remaining beer classes.
Note re copyright: menu extracts are copyright of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California, reproduced with its kind permission. No further reproduction or use is authorized without its prior written consent. Source of the last image above, linked in the text, is California Digital Newspapers, and all intellectual property therein belongs solely to lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes, all feedback welcomed.