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L.A. SCENE / The City Then and Now

L.A. Brewery Was the Toast of Its Times

September 07, 1997|Cecilia Rasmussen

Today, when trendy restaurants from Pasadena to Santa Monica feel obliged to offer patrons the products of several chic American microbreweries and at least one of Belgium's newly fashionable Trappist ales, it's easy to forget that not long ago Los Angeles was home to what many considered the quintessential workingman's beer.

For more than 80 years, the city's Eastside Brewery percolated with the smell of hops and malt. And for nearly three decades, its 40-foot-high "Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer" sign proclaimed the company's best-known product to commuters on the Golden State Freeway.

In the years after the Civil War, waves of new immigrants and the national craze for German-style "beer gardens" created such a demand for malted spirits that beer replaced hard cider as America's most popular alcoholic drink. In response to that booming demand, the Los Angeles Brewing Co. opened in 1897 on the banks of the Los Angeles River, whose then cool and flowing waters were a key ingredient of the beer.

Within two decades, the immigrant son of a German brew master would purchase the brewery and turn it into a local institution and the country's fifth-largest beer producer. It became widely known as the Eastside Brewery.

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In 1869, 24-year-old George Zobelein arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria and opened a grocery store at 6th and Spring streets. A year later, he married Brigida Alvarez Graf, a 23-year-old widow with two children who lived on a 350-acre ranch at 38th and Figueroa streets. After trying his hand at various jobs, Zobelein set about learning his father's craft--brewing--by taking a job at the New York Brewery on Main Street.

By 1882, Zobelein had learned enough to join another German immigrant, Joseph Maier, in acquiring a small brewery, which they renamed Maier and Zobelein. Twenty-five years later, Zobelein struck out on his own, purchasing the 10-year-old Los Angeles Brewing Co.

Ambitious from the start, Zobelein combined his own recipes with state-of-the-art technology to brew a line of beers, including a pilsener called Eastside, Old Mission Malt, a potent bock and, later, Old Tap Lager.

The plant conjured up the vision of a quaint Bavarian-style brewery, embracing 20 acres between the river and the railroad tracks. Over the years, the tap room known as the Old Mission Room became a landmark for tourists.

It was an attractive environment for other reasons, as well. In an era when Los Angeles was characterized by bad relations between workers and management, the Eastside Brewery was a happy exception. Brewery workers--unionized from the day the plant opened--always were among the city's best-paid and had excellent working conditions. Until Zobelein's death in 1936, most of the union meetings were conducted in German. As the years went on, the workers' benefits mounted. Lunch periods at Eastside were paid--a rarity at the time--and vacation benefits were among the most liberal available, ranging to eight weeks annually after 20 years. But to some, the most important perks were the guaranteed seven-minute beer breaks every hour (beer was free and unlimited) and employee rights to buy take-home beer at 40% to 50% off retail.

After ratification of the 18th Amendment closed the city's saloons, created the speak-easy and gave rise to the cocktail hour, the Eastside Brewery survived the dry years by producing near-beer and soft drinks.

At midnight on April 7, 1933, before most Angelenos awoke from the 13 years of fitful abstinence called Prohibition, cars stood bumper-to-bumper and hundreds of the city's night owls lined Main Street sidewalks to watch actress Jean Harlow break a bottle of beer on a delivery truck ready to roll with the Eastside Brewery's first new batch of legal real beer.

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But even Zobelein couldn't make this first batch of beer--with its anemic 3.2% alcohol--palatable. One local columnist compared the brew's introduction to "getting a pass to a new amusement park and ending up in the tunnel of love with a maiden aunt."

Marketers anxious to put some fizz into business during the Depression promoted the brewery's renewed production with the catchy phrase, "Put Eastside Inside."

With the dry years behind it, not even the rubber tire shortage during World War II could keep Eastside from reaching its customers; in 1942, the brewery brought back giant Belgian draft horses to pull its beer wagons around town.

The tradition of labor-management harmony that helped make Eastside "the workingman's beer" also continued. At the time, few companies would hire young men with a 1-A draft status because they would soon be off fighting. As a patriotic gesture, Eastside hired local youths regardless of their draft status.

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