Early Beer Tasting by California Epicures. Part IV.

The 1938 Beer Tasting, Cont’d.

I discussed Classes V and VI in Part III. The remaining Classes for the beer tasting are set out, and discussed below.



The Big California Guns

In the California section, we see 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 for other breweries in the program, is beyond my scope here.

However, a good way to appreciate the relative position is this chart from The American Brewer in 1939 (via Hagley Digital Archives):



Remarks on Selected Breweries

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

I discussed Golden Glow, of the Golden West Brewery, in this post, an interesting case of a pre-Prohibition steam beer brewery that shed its carapace for a stylish light lager future.

The famed Czech Pilsner Urquell was available on draft (and bottle) in California in the 1930s, an impressive export achievement. Pilsner Urquell had an unconquerable reputation in American beer circles then, one that largely endures to this day.

Indeed that was largely an international phenomenon, as I documented recently for Polish brewing ca. 1900. The author and critic Henry L. Mencken rendered a supercharged tribute to Urquell in his 1920s Book of Preferences (“stupendously grateful to the palate”).

The condition of draft Pilsner Urquell so far from home is impossible to know at this stage, but one hopes it delivered something close to the authentic experience of rich malt and flowery Saaz hops.

The price differential mentioned earlier – Urquell was four times more expensive than standard California lager – was down, first, to the inherent quality. Second, the long shipping distance. Third, a customs duty of $1.00/gal., quite heavy, and last, a $500 license charge on firms importing beer to California.

The links are to contemporary press stories that confirm these burdens.

Stylistic Variety

Most California beers at the tasting were blonde lagers but Los Angeles Brewing also featured an ale. A 1930s Eastside ale label can be seen in this collector’s webpage.

The typical American ale of that period was a lager-like 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 brews condemned them to relative insignificance, except in pockets where ale still enjoyed its historic reputation. These were mainly on the East Coast.

Rainier had a hearty ale though, and would for decades after WW II. It had something of a connoisseur image, in fact. Those who appreciated, say, Bass Ale from Britain, available at the Wallace gala, might buy Rainier Ale as a local version.

Draft Rainier was at the 1938 event but not the ale, it seems. A late postwar incarnation of Rainier ale may be seen in “bomber” form in this link, devoted to the “malt liquor” style.

While a Rainier Beer is still sold – Pabst owns the label – no Rainier-branded ale is currently brewed, 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 discussion ensued 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 indicates 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 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 August 1 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 breweries 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 in the Society’s ratings.

And as we saw, Humboldt/Safeway had publicized its own taste test three years earlier, but those tasters were oldsters with evident old-school leanings. A modern audience might not appreciate full-flavoured, Czech-type beer as much.

To his credit, Frank Vitale, who directed the tasting, set Acme beer against the main competition, despite that is his close association with Acme via Bohemian Distributing Company. It would be interesting to see a tabulation of the voting results, but this does not survive, I believe.

Final Thoughts

The 1938 tasting reflected its time in that blonde lager represented the great majority of beers tabled. Still, we must remember that in that period, breweries had greater individuality than was evident by the 1970s, when consolidation and big business had rendered most American beer similarly pale in colour, and bland in taste.*

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

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

The additional label detail makes it evident this was a rich old-time Bavarian beer, possibly a bock.

The Ballantine beer listed in Class V almost certainly was an ale, possibly the famous – in advised circles – Ballantine India Pale Ale.

Taking all with all, the 1938 tasting was a daring, full-scale attempt to understand the palate of contemporary domestic and imported beer. It preceded similar forays by the New York branch of the Society by four or five years, to my knowledge.

I doubt any consumer tasting group held such a comprehensive exercise earlier. Nor did the Los Angeles epicureans give up on beer after the Wallace tasting. They would visit the subject regularly, in different ways, for the next twenty years.

We will see the proof, in time.

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.


*Of course the craft revival since the late 1970s has returned a high degree of choice and taste variety to the market, rather akin in fact to the late 1800s.













1 thought on “Early 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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