1938 Beer Tasting by California Epicures. Part IV.

1938 Beer Tasting and BBQ, Cont’d.

Having set out Classes V and VI in Part III, here are the remaining classes for the 1938 beer tasting of the (former) Los Angeles Wine and Food Society:



The Big California Guns

In the California section are names that proved solid sellers through the Thirties and beyond including Aztec, Rainier, Los Angeles Brewing, and Maier. A full discussion of their history and brands, or of other breweries in the program, is beyond my scope here, but a good way to appreciate their relative market position is from this chart, in The American Brewer in 1939 (via Hagley Digital Archives):



Remarks on Selected Breweries

A Tavern Trove page confirms that Regal Brewery in San Francisco, which had pre-Prohibition roots, endured until 1960. A YouTube clip features a late-era, of-its-period commercial, a last gasp.

I discussed Golden Glow Beer of Golden West Brewery in this post. It is an interesting case of a brewery that shed its pre-Prohibition steam beer persona for a pale lager future, by the 1930s “the” beer of America.

The famed Czech Pilsner Urquell was available on draft, and in bottle, in California in the 1930s, an impressive export achievement. While Urquell had long been exported to distant places, the West Coast then was still an emerging region, one whose climate did not always favour a “heavy” European brew, but still Urquell made its way to the Pacific coast.

Certainly on the East Coast, and in beer circles generally, Urquell had an unconquerable reputation, as still today. Author and critic Henry L. Mencken rendered a supercharged tribute in his 1920s Book of Preferences. Sample quote: “stupendously grateful to the palate”.

The condition of draft Pilsner Urquell in hot southern California, so far from its home in Central Europe, is impossible to know at this stage, but presumably it delivered something of the authentic experience, meaning rich malt and flowery, resinous hops.

In Los Angeles PIlsner Urquell was four times more expensive than standard California lager. This was due, first, to the inherent quality. Second, the long shipping distance. Third, a customs duty of $1.00/gal. was applied in that period, quite heavy. Finally a $500 license charge was required of firms importing beer to California.

Stylistic Variety

Most California beers at the tasting were blonde lagers but Los Angeles Brewing also featured an ale. A 1930s Eastside ale label may be seen in this collector’s webpage. The typical American ale of that period was a lager-like, palish brew, made to please the palate of a nation that had taken to heart the light, international style of pilsner.

Perhaps the neither fish nor fowl nature of these ales condemned them to relative insignificance in the U.S. beer market after Prohibition, except in pockets where ale still enjoyed its historic reputation, mainly on the East Coast.

Although, Rainier Ale was a hearty drink then, and would remain so for decades after World War II. It had something of a connoisseur’s image, in fact. Those who appreciated, say, Bass Ale from Britain, available at the Wallace gala, might buy Rainier Ale as a local option.

Draft Rainier was at the 1938 event but this was not the ale, it seems. A late postwar incarnation of Rainier ale may be seen in “bomber” form in this site, devoted to the “malt liquor” style. While a Rainier Beer (pale lager) is still sold – Pabst owns the label – no Rainier-branded ale is currently marketed, to my knowledge.

Humboldt Brewery, Eureka

Reader Arnold Moodenbaugh, in a comment yesterday to Part III, noted (see his source) that in 1933-1934 sizeable Los Angeles Brewing, which made Eastside Beer, was “aka” Humboldt Brewery. I had noted that Humboldt’s Brown Derby beer, seemingly of high repute, was absent from the 1938 tasting, and we discussed why that might be.

Eureka is a small town well north even of the Bay Area albeit a port city, hence with shipping facilities. An excerpt of a 1915 history of Humboldt County, via Online Biographies, shows that the same family owned both breweries, the Zobeleins.

A story on June 24, 1933 in the Blue Lake Advocate stated Humboldt signed an agreement with Safeway and affiliated stores to supply 75,000 bbl of beer annually. Clearly supply from Eureka was not a problem once the brewery was up and running, but as the press item noted, the plant had to be upgraded for the commitment.

A June 16, 1933 story in the Oakland Tribune forecast the first delivery on August 1 that year. In 2011 in KCET, a content channel of Public Media Group of Southern California, Nathan Masters sketched history of both Los Angeles Brewing and its rival Maier Brewing. He stated the former had beer ready on April 7, 1933, when 3.2% abw beer was newly legalized.

Even if Humboldt’s projected first delivery date was met, there was a gap before it could supply its important new customer, Safeway. This likely explains why Los Angeles Brewery assumed the persona of Humboldt in 1933-1934, to make Brown Derby for Safeway until its affiliate was fully operational.

The connection between the two is at any rate clearer, although still one wonders why Brown Derby was not at the tasting. Maybe Safeway demurred, not wanting to see a beer for which it planned wide distribution possibly not show well against beers in the classes judged it viewed as lesser.

As we saw too, Humboldt/Safeway had publicized in California their own taste test three years earlier, but the tasters shown were oldsters with pre-Prohibition, old-school tastes.  A post-1933 modern audience might not appreciate a full-flavoured, Czech-type beer as much as old-time drinkers,

To his credit Frank Vitale, director of the tasting, set Acme beer, the marquee product of his Bohemian Distributing Company, against the competition. Unfortunately it seems a tabulation of the voting results does not survive.

Final Thoughts

The 1938 event reflected its time in that light blonde lager represented the great majority of beers tasted. Still, we must remember in that period breweries had greater individuality than by the 1970s, when consolidation and mass production had rendered most American beer similarly pale in colour and blandish in taste.*

In the 1930s East Side Beer likely tasted different to Lucky Lager, say, and both likely were quite different to a premium lager such as Michelob or Miller High Life.

On top of this, a few ales and stouts were included in the 1938 tasting and at least one dark lager, Rio Grande Bavarian. Images of the Rio Grande appear in Keith Kerschner’s article on Albuquerque Brewery (from the webpage of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America).

The label detail shown makes it clear this was a rich, old-time Bavarian beer, possibly even a bock. The Ballantine listed in Class V almost certainly was an ale, possibly the famous, in advised circles again, Ballantine India Pale Ale.

Taking all with all the 1938 tasting event was a full-scale attempt to glean the palate of contemporary domestic and imported beers. It preceded similar tastings by the New York branch of the International Food and Wine Society, which I chronicled earlier, by some four or five years.

I doubt any consumer tasting was as comprehensive possibly anywhere. And the Los Angeles epicureans did not give up on beer after the tasting at the Wallace estate. They would re-visit the subject regularly, in years to come, for the next twenty years.

This series will continue to show examples.

Part V follows.

Note re copyright: menu extract is 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 second image is identified and linked in text, with all intellectual property therein belonging solely to lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes, all feedback welcomed.


*The craft revival ongoing since the late 1970s has introduced a high degree of choice and variety to the market, returning it to something like the status quo in 1900 and then some.













1 thought on “1938 Beer Tasting by California Epicures. Part IV.”

  1. Original version of post mentioned “3.2” beer by volume (abv), of course it’s by weight (abw). Post-Prohibition “3.2” beer was 4 per cent by volume. Now mended.


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