1938 Beer Tasting and Pit Barbecue
The Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles, today called the Wine and Food Society of Southern California, held its first event in 1935 at a luxury French restaurant in Beverly Hills, the Victor Hugo. The group had a well-established program of dinners and tastings by late 1938.
Dr. Marcus Crahan, in his 1957 compilation The Wine and Food Society of Southern California: A History, etc. (via HathiTrust), described these formative years. He mentioned the 1938 beer tasting briefly, stating the classes of beers served but not individual names or details of a meal.
The full menu, a copy of which George Ronay of the Society has generously shared with me, lists each beer in the five classes – 40 in all. It also describes the scoring system used, and the banquet.
The event was held at Walter J. Wallace’s estate in the Alhambra section of Los Angeles. Alhambra’s origins are described in this Wikipedia entry:
The original inhabitants of the land where Alhambra now sits are the Tongva.
The San Gabriel Mission was founded nearby on September 8, 1771, as part of the Spanish conquest and occupation of Alta California. The land that would later become Alhambra was part of a 300,000 acre land grant given to Manuel Nieto, a soldier from the Los Angeles Presidio. In 1820 Mexico won its independence from the Spanish crown and lands once ruled by them became part of the Mexican Republic. These lands then transferred into the hands of the United States following the defeat in the Mexican–American War. A wealthy developer, Benjamin Davis Wilson, married Ramona Yorba, daughter of Bernardo Yorba, who owned the land which would become Alhambra.
The event was called “A Tasting of Domestic and Imported Beers Together with an Old-Time Spanish-California Pit Barbecue”. The tasting was “under the personal direction of Mr. Frank J. Vitale” with “Barbecue by Mr. Don Adams”.
From the number of beers served, and considering nature of a traditional California barbecue, it seems likely the event attracted, with members’ guests, a couple of hundred attendees or more.
The event was more informal or “down-home” in style than the group’s typical sorties, usually held at upmarket restaurants or private clubs, although as the ambit of its activities widened so did the venues.
While the group was clearly comprised to a good degree by a well-off Southern California coterie, Dr. Crahan in the book made clear its primary purpose:
.. . [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 and in turn to teach a better way of life.*
Hence, the members at the Wallace estate were there, not just to socialize with the aid of pleasant comestibles, but to taste and rate. It was not just a beer and barbecue night, in other words.
In fact likely there were two stages to the event, a tasting proper then the eating, albeit few probably got through all the beers. The Society was a student of food, wine, and occasionally other drinks, and beer was now in the syllabus.
The Beer Rating Method
It 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.
Most of the beers in any class were blonde pilsener-style but some classes had both ale and stout, or ale and lager. The term beer in the listings meant blonde pilsener type usually, but there was the odd Munich (dark) style, Rio Grande Bavarian, say.
It seems price was the main determinant for the classifications.
Therefore, the rating method is quite different to those used today certainly by professional judging organizations.
Nonetheless it has an appealing simplicity and a certain logic. Class II was draft Budweiser, Michelob, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Schlitz. These were “Eastern” beers in the California terminology of the day, moreover of premium class, hence of a type even though Michelob was all-barley malt and the others were not.
(Today, we would consider an all-malt beer different in class to a so-called “adjunct” beer that uses corn, rice or another adjunct to the base barley malt).
Treating draft beers together made sense in that all American draft beer then was unpasteurized, while almost all bottled or canned beer was pasteurized. Draft might be expected to differ in taste from bottled/canned for that reason alone.
“Imported” with its price range was considered enough of a unifier to rate together, say, Bass Ale and Heineken.
Anyway that’s how they did it, and at day’s end, and considering the time, not inapposite, considering too the audience was an enthusiastic but general one.
This is where Frank Vitale came in. He was a member of the Society’s Wine Committee and a co-principal of Bohemian Distributing Company, which carried a wide range of beers, wine, and liquors. It evolved out of a grocery store founded by J.S. Foto in the early 1920s. Vitale became his long-time business partner in Bohemian Distributing.
Bohemian was associated closely with Acme Brewery, in particular the Los Angeles plant which was 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 fundamentals and finer points, a subject he evidently knew well.
Before speaking further on the beer, a word on the food.
The dinner was described with engaging simplicity as:
Beef – Beans – Bread And What-Not
One should not think some random Southern or Southwestern barbecue type was chosen, paired with any old beans. An “Old-Time Spanish-California Pit Barbecue” meant something quite specific, and still does although the genre, by which I mean the original pit method, is rare on the ground today.
As the term “pit” indicated, the cooking followed the deep pit method used for centuries in the Southwest, derived from Indigenous cultures. It evolved over time including the use of large cuts of cattle raised on Spanish, later Mexican, finally California ranches, seasoned to European taste.
A variant emerged known as Santa Maria-style, which today is the commonly understood California barbecue style. However, the California pit method that preceded it differed in many 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 original pit method involved building a fire of coast oak in a deep pit 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. These 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”, essential reading to understand what was done, includes images of the apparatus used and cooked result, with a taste report.
The group was aided by its president, Charles Perry, an internationally known food historian. The blogpost stated 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 barbecue for the Wallace evening would have been similar to the 2007 recreation. The beans at the Wallace event almost certainly were the pinquito variety, a type native to California. It is a cross between a pink and the common white bean. It is commonly used for a side-dish at barbecue and other meals.
Pinquito beans are prepared in a wide variety of styles, some involving chiles but not all. The Wallace night may have presented any one or more of these styles. Tomato, vinegar, herbs, sugar, and more can figure.
The “whatnot” was probably salad, desserts, and a few other fixings. But as the laconic description makes clear, beef, beans, beer, and bread were the main event.
A Western “Beefsteak”
The Wallace pit barbecue reminds me in format of the Eastern “Beefsteak” tradition I reviewed 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 were quite different to California pit barbecue.
There is some irony here as the Society held a Beefsteak Dinner so termed, in Laurel Canyon in 1939. A toothsome dinner that was, but the Wallace barbecue more resembled an actual American “Beefsteak”, California style to be sure.
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 a California original.
I discussed steam beer in-depth in my Steaming Into the Thirties series. Suffice here to say by the 1930s the style had much withered in California, its birthplace, in favour of the ubiquitous pale lager.
By 1938, my research suggested that only tiny Anchor Brewery in San Francisco was left among steam beer producers. It made, at the time, only draft beer.
Steam beer then was “live” in the keg with residual yeast, and may have been 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 of the latter made an appearance, not a bad showing.
One California beer with an excellent reputation absent from the event was Brown Derby Beer, 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. It may be that the breweries contributed the beers. The term “shown”, now disused in promotion and hospitality practice, suggests this I think.
Small breweries like Anchor, and Humboldt, may not have been in a position to do it. Another possibility is, the apparent extra-high quality of Brown Derby was felt not to fit with Acme and other California lagers included, although it is hard to say at this juncture.
All non-draft California lagers at the tasting were listed at $1.95 per case. Probably guests could order, even take home in their Ford “woodies” or car trunks, beers shown at 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’ll explore the reasons for such a disparity, apart the obvious one of shipment costs.
Part IV follows.
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.
*I take the term haute cuisine broadly as the Society even by 1957 had engaged in a broad range of eating, of every class and many nationalities. A European tilt there was, at the time, but the group never restricted itself to French classical cuisine.