SHAKEN UP: SAN FRANCISCO BEER & THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE

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One hundred and ten years ago today, what was likely an earthquake of approximately 7.8 on the Richter Scale struck the San Francisco Bay Area. Although the temblor was actually centered in the San Francisco suburbs—with geological studies suggesting the exact epicenter was off the shore of adjacent San Mateo County’s rocky beaches—the quake was strong enough to be felt as far away as Oregon and Southern California.

Even more devastating than the earthquake were the many fires that broke out as the result of, among other causes, ruptured gas mains and the haphazard post-disaster cooking of survivors among the ruins. Even many architecturally “earthquake-proof” steel buildings, like the one housing the San Francisco Call newspaper, survived the natural disaster only to succumb to the manmade hazard of flames that burned for four straight days. At least 3,000 people died from causes ranging from collapsing buildings to burns and smoke inhalation.

jackson_brewery_1906_photo_capAs the preeminent center of shipping, banking, and trade in the entire Western United States, San Francisco had a robust brewing industry in 1906. And like many other local industries the makers of beer and suppliers of beer equipment and ingredients were dealt a jaw-breaking blow.

Theodore Rueger, a brewery employee and self-confessed “camera fiend” from the nearby city of Benicia, California, grabbed his photo gear and took a ferry into San Francisco proper immediately following the disaster. He wandered a 16-mile route all around the city, snapping pictures and taking notes to assess the state of his brewing industry comrades.

“Words cannot describe or picture show half the ruin and desolation wrought by the flames and earthquake,” was the shocked first impression recorded by the employee of the Benicia Brewery and Soda Works.

Breweries old and new, big and small, sustained harrowing damage. In North Beach, where many breweries were located, the Claus Wreden Brewery at Lombard and Taylor Streets—a newcomer to the city—was “a mass of wreckage and a total loss.”

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The giant St. Louis Brewery at San Francisco and Powell was also badly damaged. And to add insult to injury, opportunistic looters would, in the weeks after, be caught attempting to spirit away a cartful of the St. Louis’s brewery’s expensive brass fittings.

The city’s Jackson Brewing Co. had been planning to move into a new facility. But in the aftermath, its principals were to discover that both the old facility and the new, under-construction upgrade had both been completely flattened.

The storied Anchor Brewery, whose later history and leading role in the Craft Brewing Movement are well chronicled in The Comic Book Story of Beer, was not among the lucky few spared by the earthquake and fire.

Rueger, after leaving the lowlands on San Francisco’s northeastern outskirts and plying into its central districts of steep elevation, wrote,

“…we saw a kettle standing on the side of a hill, the only thing to indicate that the Anchor Brewery had been there.”

All in all, 19 breweries and two malt houses were reported completely destroyed in April 1906 (including the Albion Brewery, later to serve as partial inspiration for Jack McAuliffe’s groundbreaking New Albion Brewing Company 70 years later). Only five—Jacob Adams’ Broadway Brewery, the California Brewing Company, Enterprise Brewing Company, North Star Brewing Company, and Willows Brewery, were left in functional condition. But even they were destined to serve an unsteady beer market in the immediate future, since tens of thousands had fled San Francisco for other parts of the state.

san_francisco_undauntedSome legitimate industry bigwigs also happened to be on hand to witness the earthquake and fire. This included Adolphus Busch himself, who had been visiting the city at the time in the comfort of his private rail car, and who evidently experienced “a narrow escape from death.” (Busch and his family lost all their personal luggage in the disaster, a loss reported to value at $20,000).

This jewel of the Golden State, however, would quickly rebound. By 1908, for example, the brand new, state of the art (and fireproof!) Bauer-Schweitzer malting plant—with a 1,000,000 bushel capacity—would be up and running on the site of the ruins of its predecessor. In fact, San Francisco rebounded so quickly and so fully from its setback that it proudly hosted the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition—with the city proudly calling itself “Undaunted.” The popular Rainier Beer, with quite the sizable production plant in San Francisco, was a key sponsor of the event.

sources:

“In Stricken Frisco: Description and Illustration of the Horror of Earthquake and Fire.” American Brewers Review, Vol. XX, 1906. pp. 280-284

“Stole Brewery, Brass.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 1906.

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