Beer Making in San Jose (Part 2)

Part 2

Prohibition brought chaos. There was no longer any control over alcohol quality or purity. Bootleggers flourished, sometimes killing their customers with bad hooch. If you knew the password, usually “Joe sent me,” and could afford it, then you could get a shot of “bathtub gin” at George’s on South First Street, out at the Hoo-Hoo House on Stevens Creek Road, or at many other local “blind pigs.”

It was legal to make wine or beer for home consumption, and many locals did. I had a cousin who lived in the top flat of a four-story apartment house. Before the days of refrigerators, each flat had a cooler—a vertical cupboard where families kept perishables. Air circulation was important, so the shelves were separated by screens and laths. My cousin made his beer, stored it in the cooler, and the bottles exploded while fermenting (a very common occurrence all over America). Then he incurred the wrath of all the neighbors below when the beer ran down four stories through the interconnected coolers and spoiled their food. Cousin Jack Vogtman was not “Flavor of the Month!”

It took a long and somewhat dry thirteen years to make the country realize that Prohibition did not work and, in 1933, it was repealed. All of the local breweries had been closed, most never to reopen. The buildings of the Fredericksburg Brewery were still intact, but the Eagle Brewery was torn down to make way for the sumptuous St. Claire Hotel. (The demolitionist made a small fortune from the 500,000 bricks he reclaimed.) A small brewery known as the Saint Claire Brewery opened in 1934, but was a small player. (A few years ago, a man told me that he had purchased an empty Saint Claire Brewery can for $1,500.)

The Pacific Brewing Co. reopened under the name of John Weiland’s Brewery and became a thriving institution after the repeal of prohibition, aided by a generous public relations program. Any local organization could come to their Beer Garden where delicious tap beer was given freely, usually accompanying a paid barbecue. This was a regular for Junior Chamber of Commerce get-togethers, the Rod and Gun Club, and many fraternities. If the evening needed a bit more spice, local exotic dancer and stripper “Sexy Rexy” was hired. The Beer Garden was not miserly about serving its beer: old pictures show the patrons each holding a pitcher of Weiland’s best. But, by 1955, competition and national advertising from the big, out-of-town beer makers was becoming too much for any local company, and the aging brewery was sold to the Griesdieick family of St. Louis. Beer now appeared under their Falstaff label and the last of the locally-owned breweries was gone. By 1971, parts of the brewery were a century old and the Falstaff Brewery was abandoned, closing the door on the era of local breweries until the reappearance of micro breweries in the late 1980s.

Gordon Biersch opened in 1990 and continued to expand with a large new brewery and bottling plant on East Taylor Street—with a capacity of 50,000 barrels annually—producing Mertzen, Pilsner and Dunkles German-style brew. Their downtown brewery and restaurant at Second and San Fernando Streets continues to flourish. On San Pedro Square, the local Tied House brews more than 12 varieties, varying from Dry Stout to Strawberry Amber. In 1997, two other San Jose breweries, the Hoppy Brewing Company and the Rock Bottom Brewery, joined the growing trend of locally made brews.

As an old artilleryman and spotter pilot during World War II, I was under orders never to destroy or hit a German brewery. Of course these were not official orders, but while whole cities were leveled, miraculously all the breweries seemed to emerge intact. As occupying forces we planned for the future, and beer drinking was definitely in our occupation future. However, if I had ever been advised that a German brewery was making strawberry beer (sacrilege of all sacrileges), it might not have survived.

Well, good luck and “prosit”—I wish all good health!

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