From Eastside Lager to Maier's Select Malt Tonic: A Brief History of L.A. Beer | KCET
From Eastside Lager to Maier's Select Malt Tonic: A Brief History of L.A. Beer
Like many American cities in the mid-twentieth century, Los Angeles once hosted its own regional breweries that supplied the city and its environs with light, affordable American pale lager. Before intense competition led to their decline, L.A's own Eastside Lager and Brew 102 battled in local and regional markets with such national brands as Budweiser, Schlitz, and Miller.
In 2009, Eagle Rock Brewery became the first brewery in years to open within L.A. city limits. Since then, two more—Nibble Bit Tabby and Angel City—have begun concocting new mixtures of barley, hops, water, and yeast inside the City of Los Angeles, joining a growing cohort of Southland craft brewers.
Though their focus is different—microbrewers typically hand-craft a wide range of ales and lagers, while the early L.A. brewers concentrated on one style of lager—these new breweries have tapped into long-dormant tradition of Los Angeles beer brewing.
One of L.A.'s first breweries, the Philadelphia Brew House, opened in 1874 near the present-day site of Union Station. It was one of the city's most historic locations; for hundreds of years, Tongva (Gabrieleño) tribal leaders gathered under the shade of an ancient sycamore tree—later dubbed El Aliso by L.A.'s first Spanish settlers—that came to be the center of the Indian village of Yangna. At first, the brewery's walls surrounded the expansive tree, but in the 1890s good business spelled a bad fate for El Aliso, which was felled and sold for lumber to make room for an expanded brewery facility.
In 1882, two German immigrants named Joseph Maier and George Zobelein purchased the Philadelphia Brew House, renaming it Maier & Zobelein.
The new L.A. brewers were part of a wave of German entrepreneurs, including the now-familiar names of Adolphus Busch and Frederick Miller, who began making a light, pilsener-style lager throughout the U.S. in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Their style of brew, which fermented at colder temperatures using a different type of yeast, was a relatively new arrival in North America, where beer drinkers were accustomed to ales brewed at room temperature in the British tradition. Greater availability of ice, better transport, and the advent of refrigeration made these new lagers possible, and thirsty European immigrants imported the demand.
The photos above from the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California and publicly accessible through the USC Digital Library shows a turn-of-the-century Maier & Zobelein bottle that excavators discovered during an 1989-1991 excavation at Union Station.
Maier died in 1904, leaving his share of the brewery to his sons. A legal dispute between Zobelein and his new partners ensued, and in 1907 Zobelein split with the Maier brothers and purchased the ten-year old Los Angeles Brewing Company, located on the L.A. River near Lincoln Park. Zobelein crafted a line of beers, ranging from a pale lager to a stronger, darker bock, and sold them under his new Eastside brand.
Maier Brewing Company, meanwhile, introduced a pseudo-medicinal Select Malt Tonic "rich in the elements that feed the tissues, restore nerve health, and make rich red blood." Autry National Center NHRPC Processing Archivist Holly Rose Larson recently discovered a series of advertisements for the brew in the papers of Charles Fletcher Lummis at the Braun Research Library. As the image above shows, the concoction—actually just simple beer with the addition of honey—was advertised as a "liquid food" for the treatment of various ailments, from insomnia to "old age" to "expectant motherhood."
Maier and Eastside both struggled during Prohibition. Like many American breweries, they survived the dry spell by producing soft drinks and "near beer"—beer that squeaked under the 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) limit imposed by the Volstead Act.
Some breweries supplemented their legal activities with illicit brewing. On March 30, 1932, federal agents raided the Maier Brewery and discovered what they called "unshakeable evidence" that the facility had been producing full strength, 4% ABV beer. Prohibition officers arrested Maier's sales manager and one of his employees. Owner Edward R. Maier denied knowledge of the illicit brew, but authorities seized the brewing equipment and bottling plant. Maier would not regain control of his business from a court-appointed receiver until 1940, seven years after Prohibition ended.
For Maier's rival, the end of Prohibition was a happier time. One minute past midnight on April 7, 1933, actress Jean Harlow smashed a bottle over an Eastside delivery truck to mark the legalization of 3.2% ABV beer. A full repeal of Prohibition came less than a year later with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment.
Both breweries prospered through the Second World War and in the years immediately after. Upon the advice of advertising executives, the Maier Brewing Company rebranded its original pale lager as Brew 102—advertisements suggested that the brewery had tried 101 unsuccessful recipes before settling on the "new" brew—and positioned it as a cheap beer for the working class. The marketing strategy worked. With demand surging, Maier replaced its old, brick brewery with a new, industrial complex.
Eventually, intense postwar competition with Anheuser-Busch and other national brewers led to the L.A. brewers' decline.
Zobelein's family sold the Los Angeles Brewing Company and its Eastside brand to Wisconsin-based Pabst in 1948. Pabst, in a race with other national brewers to expand first to the West Coast, opened a new plant next door to the old Eastside brewery and began making its Pabst Blue Ribbon lager in 1953. Rival brewers Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz both followed in 1954 by opening large industrial breweries in Van Nuys.
The Maier Brewing Company was sold to a San Francisco businessman in 1958. Under new ownership, the brewery located atop the historic Indian village continued to make Brew 102 until 1972, when the plant closed. Although it was finally demolished in 1985 for the construction of the El Monte Busway, its mammoth footprint is still evident in the sudden curve that northbound motorists negotiate on the 101 freeway just before Alameda Street.
At the Pabst facility, production continued on both the Eastside lager—by then marketed as a discount beer under the Eastside Old Tap brand—and PBR until 1979. That year, after losing the national beer wars of the 1970s to the well-capitalized Anheuser-Busch and Miller (owned then by tobacco giant Philip Morris), Pabst shut down its Los Angeles operations. While Anheuser-Busch and Miller today continue to make beer in their Southland breweries, the closure of the Pabst plant marked the end of an era and the death of the 72-year-old Eastside brand. For brewery workers, it also marked the end of an even longer tradition, dating back to the nineteenth-century Maier & Zobelein Brewery: guaranteed seven-minute beer breaks every hour.
Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.