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About Us: San Francisco’s El Rey Brewing Company opened its doors during the final year of prohibition, resurrecting what had once been the mission district’s popular Eagle Brewing Company. It wasn’t long before Los Angeles entrepreneur, Big George Niotta, learned they were having a bit of financial trouble. After just six months as El Rey’s SoCal distributor, Big George headed north and bought the brewery. Less than two years later beer was no longer only available on tap or in a bottle—the year 1935 ushered in the coming of the cone top can. More than eight decades later, El Rey Beer cans are still one of the most sought after by collectors. Big George’s great grandson, author and breweriana collector, J. Michael Niotta, founded the ERBH with fellow brewing buddy, Chris Calton, to share their love of all things beer with the rest of the world.

  Big George Niotta’s El Rey Beer  

It Began as Eagle

The San Francisco brewery Big George Niotta purchased shortly before the repeal of prohibition, got its start prior to the turn of the century. Famed Brew Master Carl A. Tornberg opened the Eagle Brewing Company way back in 1899. Although Anchor Steam got its start a few years before Eagle, by that time Tornberg was already a bit of a local legend. Residents believed the famed Swedish beer man to be the creator of the Bay Area's staple beverage—steam beer. With his newest endeavor—Eagle—Tornberg partnered with the Claasen family, holding sites at 1329 Guerrero and 2213 Harrison. In 1902, they incorporated, and come 1904 the Claasen’s bought Carl Tornberg out. But Tornberg’s famed Old German lager would remain a staple on the Eagle menu for decades to come.  

Under the Claasens, the Eagle brewery got off to a rough start that never quite lifted. Although Bad Luck Brewing wasn’t on the list of titles the brewery wore, it certainly would have been the most fitting. Miraculously, Eagle survived the fires and quakes of 1906, but 1911 delivered a devastating scorcher they just couldn’t escape. Relocating to Mission Terrace the year after the blaze, they began anew on a half-acre plot on Mission St. between Mohawk and Amazon. Folks now know Mohawk as Seneca. Prior to the change, Eagle added Mohawk Beer to its list of brewery products. But once World War II got brewing overseas, Eagle had to make a little change to its Mohawk logo. On each side of the tribal Chief’s head rested the Native American symbol for peace; an image which looked a little too much like the swastika.  

Eagle Brewing impacted by WWII; circa 1942

Less than a decade later the Clausens faced the 18th Amendment. John Claasen Sr. had passed by then but Claasen’s widow, Mary J., was far from helpless. The avid buyer and seller of properties had been controlling Eagle Brewing ever since the fire; perhaps she blamed her husband for the accident. Thrown up against the new legislation, Mary J. Clausen decided to let Eagle sit. Two years would pass before her son John Jr. proposed a satisfactory use for the premises. The younger Claasen leased the property and opened a coffee concern. Beer delivery had gone from horse drawn carriage to car then ceased altogether, and now as Eagle Packing Company, those brewery vehicles were allegedly hauling coffee.

John Claasen Jr. eventually took over the business, and come 1929, Eagle flew into some legal troubles. Federal agents had linked a number of high ranking law enforcers to illicit bootlegging activities. The affair marched through the Bay Area papers as “The Eastbay Liquor Scandal.”

Bye, Bye Eagle, 
Oakland Tribune

The mass arrest snared an Alameda Police Judge. And out of Oakland they hauled in a Captain, a Deputy Constable, three Sergeants, and a handful of the city’s patrolmen. The authorities came after Eagle’s Claasen as well, charging him with selling and transporting illegal beer, and “furnishing the malts used in the Eastbay breweries.” Claasen’s legal counsel argued that his client held a permit to legally manufacture and sell the malt beverage in question, and that “the liquid malt” couldn’t “make beer by itself.” Addressing the jury, he remarked “something has to be done to it.” Driving his point home, he added that the man who provided tanks of carbonated gas to the brewery wasn’t being indicted. So why was his client being held “responsible for what might be done with his product after it leaves his plant?” The effort may have kept Clausen out of the slammer but it sure didn’t ward off the $3,000 fine he faced in August of 1929. He met with a far worse consequence though; the judge revoked his permit to run the brewery.

And Then Came El Rey

 

“It was too lively to get into a bottle”—Oakland Tribune

For the second time, Eagle Brewing at 5050 Mission sat. And the cobwebs would have likely continued to gather if a man named Edward J. Preston hadn’t been stirred to action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signature on the Cullen-Harrison Act no doubt served as catalyst. In March of ‘33 it pushed the legal cap on “near beer” all the way up to a whopping 3.2%—more than three times the original limit. Shortly after, Preston secured a U-Permit then purchased Eagle Brewing. With the repeal so near, he made plans for success the legitimate way.

Steam Beer is Back! Thank you Mr. President!

While the papers in the Bay Area celebrated the return of steam beer, the reports in Los Angeles tallied up the damage of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. A month after the destruction, Preston reopened Eagle as El Rey Brewing Company. Honoring the brewery's heritage, he kept Eagle Beer and Tornberg's Old German Lager on the menu.

Translated from Spanish, “El Rey”—like Elvis—is “The King.” Budweiser may have become famous as “the king of beers,” but during the 1930’s, El Rey reigned as “King of Beer” (singular). It even says so on the can! Like Eagle before it, El Rey specialized in steam, yet, when the legal limit was initially raised, Bay Area drinkers doubted the stuff could be brewed at such a low alcohol level. Addressing the public’s concern, Carl A. Tornberg’s son, Gunnar C. Tornberg, stepped up and assured the masses, “We’re all set.”

Today steam beer ranks high and sits in the microbrewery realm. Despite modern opinion, the odd flavored brew didn’t always sport such a gleaming elitist appeal. Originally, steam held a raw, working class vibe that some considered low class. It was distinctly blue collar. And in truth, the process of producing steam may have come more out of necessity than art. Some say it dates back to the California and Nevada gold rushes. Others believe they crafted it that way even earlier. Without access to ice or coolers, beer makers had to get creative in order to chill the hot sugary mash of grounded malt known as wort. One popular method involved pumping the hot brew up through the ceiling into open-topped-bins. High overhead on the roof, the blowing winds cooled the liquid radiator style. The steam wafting off the building top gave the brewery the appearance of a ship’s smoke stack sending out billowy clouds, which is what likely spawned the name steam beer. A good number of breweries went this route, but others tried a different approach—use of a yeast that fermented at higher temperatures. This special yeast gave the beer a very distinct flavor . . . and it wasn’t a taste suited for everyone. Some call it a mixture of lager and ale. Others refuse to comment. In reference to El Rey’s potion during its 1933 release, The Santa Cruz Sentinel labeled the odd pairing “colloquially peculiar to SF’s taste.”​

El Rey Beer ad,

Santa Cruz Sentinel,

July 1, 1937

Under the Eagle name, the brewery gained fame slinging beer for a nickel a pound. Smartly, Preston brought the popular product back just how the drinkers liked it. That summer, El Rey Beer reached north into southern Oregon. Further south, from the Tijuana border past the far reaches of the Southland, Preston looked to Big George Niotta for distribution. 

On the surface, everything appeared to be going well, which encouraged Preston to keep pushing. At the end of the next month, he announced plans for a $59,000 expansion, an addition expected to double production. But Preston bit off more than he could handle. Learning about El Rey's financial troubles, the Niotta family patriarch gathered some cash and set out for San Francisco for a sit down. Despite the recent large investment—$59,000 in the expansion alone—and despite standing on the cusp of what looked to be a rocket ship of continuing success, E. J. Preston sold El Rey Brewing. The transaction went public a month and a half before prohibition’s official repeal.

Big George Niotta, circa 1936

Oakland Tribune, October 20, 1933

In theme with the brewery’s history, bad luck followed. Less than two weeks after signing the contract, a leak from an ammonia tank triggered an explosion. Steam beer is an exceedingly high pressure beverage, which accounts for why it was originally only sold on draught—“it was too lively to get into a bottle.” The explosion was massive. “The blast shook the neighborhood, shattering windows in the brewery building. Swiftly the fumes spread through the corridors, and the workers fled, gasping for breath.” Twenty-five workers “were driven coughing and reeling into the streets,” and once the firemen arrived on scene, “equipped with gas masks,” they “fumbled their way through fog like fumes and dragged three stupefied workers to the street.”

 

El Rey managed to keep its doors open and a month later prohibition lifted. Although the event changed the world of the bootlegger beyond what anyone could have ever imagined, on the legitimate side of the house, nothing too drastic took place—at least not on the inside of a bottle. The stuff El Rey put out went from 3.2, to what ads began to call “full strength” 4%. Defunct breweries quickly resurfaced, and newer competition sprouted. Despite the challenge, El Rey looked pretty solid. According to records from the defunct California Brewers Association, El Rey outsold the local outfit, Globe Brewing, moved more product than nearby Salinas Brewing, and even managed to outsell Grace Brothers all the way down in Los Angeles. Like Eagle, El Rey had grown quite popular, but the brewery as a whole remained one of the smaller operations in California.

Over more than four decades and several name changes, the brewery that eventually became Big George’s El Rey, brewed and bottled quite an assortment. In addition to a steam and ale version of their signature El Rey Beer, they also put out varieties of Albion, Steinbrau, Mohawk, plus Tornberg’s Old German Lager, Gold Age Beer, and of course, Eagle. The plant brewed and bottled under private label as well, producing signature products for independent stores like Rocca’s Market. For the chain of Leidig’s stores they made Dutch Mill Brand.

El Rey Beer ad, circa 1936

Taking on Big George as an owner wasn’t the only change at El Rey. As George’s grandson (also a George) explained, “Breweries owned baseball teams” and “George Niotta had a baseball club with the brewery.” The younger George even bragged a bit, stating one of the star players was none other than Dom DiMaggio, kid brother to the slugger, Joe.

Whether or not DiMaggio played for the El Reys, they were “Rated as one of the best semi-pro teams in the bay district,” and Big George was thought of as anything but fair weather. He even got situated in a second home in the city, and began bouncing back and forth between the Bay Area and LA. As the local papers announced, San Franciscans quickly learned that “George Niotta, sporty sponsor of El Rey Beer team, believes in doing things first class.” In addition to arranging games at Catalina Island and Los Angeles, he made frequent gestures of good will, such as purchasing large amounts of benefit tickets. George was certainly invested, and was quickly “rated the best bush baseball sponsor since the death of Jack Blum.”

And Then Beer Was In a Can

In 1935, when the brewery team was actively playing—and winning—the world of beer got turned for a gigantic loop. Beer was no longer exclusive to a bottle! Collecting beer and alcohol memorabilia is a popular and profitable industry. Depending on condition and scarcity, the early artifacts go for top dollar, and among the hardest to come by can-wise are the cone tops. During the 1930’s, El Rey Brewing put out “one of the most colorful groups of low profile cone tops” on the market.

Before the close of the 1930’s, Big George left the El Rey fold. But that wasn’t the only drastic change. By the summer of 1938, El Rey not only reintroduced an old San Francisco favorite—Albion Ale—they renamed the business! Unfortunately, the switch to the Albion title did little to save the corporation from financial woes. Early in 1941 Albion filed for bankruptcy. Delaying the inevitable, the proceedings were held up by a pending court case. In an effort to achieve industry wide uniformity, The Board of Equalization placed restrictions on beverage container sizing. Albion and the Colorado-based, Adolph Coors Brewery, each had smaller, signature eight ounce cans that the board targeted. Despite a courtroom victory the company folded. The resilient plant at 5050 Mission carried on once more though, reopening under its original Eagle title shortly after bankruptcy. But this too proved short-lived; Eagle closed shop for good in 1942.

After the plant stopped brewing, the nearly half acre lot on the corner of Mission and Seneca took on various identities. Staying longer than any other tenant, were Louis, Frank, and Bill Cresta, and their family run, Cresta Bros. Auto Parts. Later ventures included King of Furniture, and A & A Tops & Trim. In 1956, the Order of Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) moved into the building kitty-corner. OSIA’s State First Vice President, Arlene Nunziati, remembered the old furniture store, and indicated that the former brewery site had since been demolished and was slated to become a 6-story, 61-unit mix of condos and storefronts. But this wasn't to be the end of El Rey Beer!

George Niotta, 1934 - 2018

We miss your stories already!

J. Michael with his cousin, George Niotta, toasting to their grandfather Big George's brew.

The year before Big George bought El Rey, the 1932 Italian Olympic team took time out from competing in the games to have dinner with the Niotta family.

Big George Niotta with his daughters and grandaughter, in front of their Wilshire District home, circa, 1934.

El Rey Beer Resurgence & Legacy

El Rey’s former NorCal competitor, Grace Bros of Santa Rosa, CA, closed its doors in 1953. In ‘56, its Los Angeles brewery was bought out of bankruptcy by Bohemian Distributing and renamed the Southern Brewing Co.

This relationship allowed the family run, Grace Bros, to reopen in 1958 and continue until the mid-60's; they signed contracts to make Bull Dog malt for Bohemian. Perhaps this accounts for why El Rey Beer was soon being brewed again and made available to the public in a flat top can. In the early 1920's, Big George Niotta was involved in an LA-based startup with a pair of fellow Italians, Frank Foto and J. S. Vitale. The business he funded to help them get their start was the Bohemian Distributing Co.

Bohemian's Bull Dog brewed by Grace Bros

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El Rey Beer ceramic art

by Liz Crain

Grace Bros' El Rey Beer Flat Top, circa late 1950's 

El Rey Beer Spawned a Casino and Club?

Apparently Big George Niotta's brew had a big impact on another family, the Martellos. The brothers were so enamored by the taste of El Rey, they decided to name their clubs after the beer. A Club El Rey greeted patrons in Los Angeles' Southgate and in Searchlight, NV. The Nevada location was actually the setting for Francis Ford Copolla's first movie!!!

 

Read all about it in my pal Andy Martello's award winning book!

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To learn more about the history of

El Rey Brewing Company

and of the extraordinary life and accomplishments of

Big George Niotta, pick up a copy of

The Los Angeles Sugar Ring.

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A Few Other Fine El Rey Products of the Past