The History of California Beer: LA’s First Brewery

Leave it to a historian to analyze a beloved subject ad nauseum. Admittedly writing a thesis on California brewing has proven to be a slow process; the twin difficulties of little oversight from faculty advisors and lack of inertia equals many nights staring at the word processor with glazed eyes, hoping for that magic moment of inspiration to hit. Rather than twiddle my thumbs I’d like to share some of my research findings that are part of the bigger tale that is Los Angeles brewing. And what better time to look at a Los Angeles Beer History than with LA Beer Week #6 right around the corner!  That said, let’s do a little digging in the sands of time…

LA’s First Brewery

The location of the New York Brewery, 1887 LA Survey Map

The location of the New York Brewery, 1887 LA Survey Map

Finding the first brewing facility in Los Angeles proved to be slightly difficult; but several sources cite the New York Brewery as the first in the city. Hubert Howe Bancroft, an early historian of the American west, cites in his Works: History of California, Vol. 24 [published in 1890]:

The difficulty in introducing malt liquor in good condition gave zest to the business, and breweries spread in all directions, from Stockton and Marysville in 1851 and 1852 to Plumas and Los Angeles in 1854, and to all larger towns.” (Works, Vol. 24, p. 85-86)

The name of the brewery and its potential owner is shown in another book, published in Oakland in 1880, covering the broad history of Los Angeles. In it, Christopher Kuhn is listed as the owner of the first established brewery in the city, and specifically it mentions “lager beer” as the object of his manufacture. By the year of the book’s publishing, it appears that New York Brewery changed ownership to a gentleman by the name of Philip Lauth. By 1881 there were approximately 350 breweries on the west coast, with a capital value of 3.7 million dollars and a production value of over 4.5 million dollars, ninety percent of which was attributable to California. Whereas early Californians had to have their beer shipped to them from out of state, or the nation, by the 1880s we exported over 4,000 barrels of beer, out of the Golden State; a drop in the proverbial bucket today, but impressive considering the lack of efficient transport systems and refrigeration. San Francisco reigned supreme as the California brewing city, hosting only 38 breweries altogether, but produced nearly half of the state’s beer at 280,000 BBLs. The price of a barrel in 1881? Seven dollars and fifty cents.

Memories and Statistics
Harris Newmark lived in California for over six decades. In that time he recorded a massive memoir that is regarded as a gold mine of historic information of Southern Californian cities. In 1859 he recalls;

About 1859, John Murat, following in the wake of Henry [possibly Christopher] Kuhn, proprietor of the New York Brewery, established the Gambrinus in the block bounded by Los Angeles, San Pedro and First and what has become Second streets. The brewery, notwithstanding its spacious yard, was anything but an extensive institution, and the quality of the product dispensed to the public left much to be desired; but it was beer, and Murat has the distinction of having been one of the first Los Angeles brewers. The New York’s spigot, a suggestive souvenir of those convivial days picked up by George W. Hazard, now enriches a local museum.” (Sixty Years in Southern California, p. 258-259)

California Barley Varietals, 1933 Study

“But it was beer” stands out in his reminiscence, what quality could have Los Angeles beer had in the mid-19th century? Imagine an uncarbonated lager produced without the assurances of strict temperature control or a dedicated brewer’s yeast. Other ingredients appear to have been plentiful though, in 1859 California produced over 100,000 tons of barley. Los Angeles County alone had a fairly healthy hops industry as well; by 1879 an acre of land produced 1,600 lbs of hops in Los Angeles County, with 75 acres dedicated to humulus lupis production. Though much smaller in comparison to barley production, it is important to remember that barley, as far back as the 18th century, was the most common grain cultivated in California. It’s a coincidence of history that the strains brought to California by Spanish settlers as early as 1771 were well suited to malting purposes, according to two studies conducted by cereal crops experts in 1933 and 1939, printed in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. (Vol. 39, Issue. 3 / Vol. 46, Issue. 1 respectively)


1864SFMechCon Whatever New York Brewing was doing by 1864, it must have been doing it well. In San Francisco, a yearly industrial exhibition by the Mechanics Institute played host to businesses throughout the state to showcase their wares and products. In 1864, the LA based New York Brewery is listed as the winner of a “Premium” award for the Best Lager Beer. (Report of the Fourth Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics Institute, p. 17) What’s noteworthy is not that New York won for their lager, but no brewery is listed as having won for their ale or porter; the First Industrial Exhibition in 1857 list’s several winners for beer varietals such as porter, ale, cider, and lager. (Report of the First Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics Institute, p. 79-81) Why is it these other beer styles stopped being recorded as early as 1864? And why is it that the 1880 Los Angeles history felt it important to list lager brewing as the first in Los Angeles? In the scope of American brewing history overall, it fits quite conveniently with the mass migration of Germans to the Americas and the first generation of lager brewers. But California’s climate is, if anything, inhospitable to brewing without refrigeration or natural cooling. The advent of Steam Beer in the Gold Rush days is now part of our common (pun) beer lore, but one imagines the climate of San Francisco Bay being more agreeable to the production of beer; Los Angeles on the other hand…

NewYorkBrewModernLocation

Modern map of Los Angeles, west of the river. Red circle indicates where the New York Brewery once stood.

…lets just say I’d much rather drink a 21st century Los Angeles beer than a 19th century one. As for the New York Brewery, admittedly I do not know its final fate; although, by 1916 it was no longer listed as a production facility in the city of Los Angeles. It likely shuttered its doors far before that, like many other brewing companies in the city. Further details, and more of Southern California’s storied brewing history will follow in the weeks to come.

Cheers,

EO

About Eric Ortega

Historian of brewing in California at the California State University, Fullerton. - A Fullerton resident, Eric can be found scouring the bars and tap rooms of Orange County and Los Angeles, observing as much as imbibing. - If you ever have a question about beer history, shoot me an email at EricOrtega722@gmail.com or you can follow me on Instagram @ http://instagram.com/erico357

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1 Comment

  1. Eric Ortega:

    Made a goof, turns out that “New York Brewery” winning an award in the Mechanic’s exhibition was actually based in San Francisco, not Los Angeles. Turns out there were [at least] two “New York” Breweries in California at the same time in 1864.

    They should have been better about their naming, and I should have been better in my research.

    Live and Learn.

    Cheers,

    EO

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