On Tap NOW!!
El Rey Beer Club President
J. Michael Niotta
has collaborated with
Citizen Brewers to brew
a 7% imperial steam beer.
On tap now at Citizen Brewers,
5837 Mission Gorge Rd,
San Diego, CA 92120!
President: J. Michael Niotta
Vice President: Chris Calton
Treasurer: David Vazquez
Secretary: Domi Policastro
Mission Statement: To bring together lovers of all things beer in an inclusive social environment, to pay homage to the history and tradition of California beer, and to embrace the D.I.Y. roots of homebrewing.
We Brew, We Bottle, We Can!
El Rey Beer Club.
Est. January 2019.
About the Club: San Francisco's El Rey Brewing Co. opened early in the final year of Prohibition. In October of 1933, after just six months as El Rey’s SoCal distributor, Los Angeles entrepreneur Big George Niotta headed north and bought the brewery. Eighty-five years later, Big George's great grandson, author J. Michael Niotta, paid homage to his family history by founding the El Rey Beer Club with fellow beer buddy Chris Calton. Their original intent was to one day revive El Rey and brew its Bay Area staple, steam beer, for the public.
Although COVID and two overseas active duty deployments got in the way, Niotta eventually reached out to Calton again about their shared dream. In August of 2021, the pair brought together a handful of close friends and relatives for their first official meeting. The club began brewing later that year at Citizen Brewers.
About Steam Beer, El Rey, &
the Tornberg Family: Although El Rey Brewing Co opened in April 1933, the facility at 5050 Mission Street already had a long history. Prior to Prohibition, the establishment served as home to the Eagle Brewing Co. But the story goes back even further and begins with famed Bay Area brewer Carl Tornberg. In 1894, his North Star Bottling sold 5 gallons of steam beer for just a dollar. And in 1899, Tornberg's newly introduced Eagle offered steam for a nickel a pound. Though off to a good start, the brewery faced adversity. When fire destroyed the Harrison Street facility in 1911, Eagle reemerged at 5050 Mission St. Then thanks to the 18th Amendment, the business went dark.
And Then Came El Rey
“It was too lively to get into a bottle”—Oakland Tribune
The cobwebs would have likely continued to gather at the Mission Street brewery if a Los Angeles oil man named E. J. Preston hadn’t been stirred to action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signature on the Cullen-Harrison Act served as the perfect motivator. In March of ‘33, the act pushed the legal cap on “near beer” up to a whopping 3.2% and drove Preston to secure himself a U-Permit. He reopened Eagle as the El Rey Brewing Company and even revived some old Bay Area favorites--beers like Eagle and Tornberg’s Original Old German. After six months as the brewery's SoCal distributor, another Los Angeles entrepreneur bought into the fold. As V.P. and General Manager, Big George Niotta furthered the Tornberg’s San Francisco legacy. Collaborating with Carl Tornberg's son, Gunnar, El Rey now brewed Old Vienna and newer delights for the Tornberg family's Consumers Bottling Company. Gunnar felt so pleased with the arrangement he even named one of his show horses accordingly--El Rey.
Budweiser became famous as “the king of beers,” but during the 1930’s, West Coast newspapers called El Rey the reigning “King of Beer” and even the "King of All Beers." Like Eagle before it, El Rey specialized in steam, yet many felt this type of beer couldn't be made at the new legal limit. Alleviating worries, Gunnar Tornberg assured the press it could and the El Rey Brewery Co. proved it. Melding a little of the old with a little of the new, El Rey tried something different. "Every advantage is taken of modern science and laboratory methods." While the competing Anchor Steam continued with the practice of krausening to naturally carbonate, El Rey embraced the newer technology. And during her reign in the second half of the 1930s, she sold roughly three times as many gallons as Anchor annually.
Today steam beer sits in the microbrewery realm, but it originally held a raw, working class vibe. This likely accounts for why all but Anchor Steam now refers to this kind of beer as "California Common."
Oakland Tribune, October 20, 1933
El Rey Beer ad,
Santa Cruz Sentinel,
July 1, 1937
Big George Niotta, circa 1936
Big George's entrance 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.
According to the press, the El Reys were “Rated as one of the best semi-pro teams in the bay district.” And their sponsor Big George was anything but fair weather. San Franciscans quickly learned that L.A. transplant “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. George was certainly invested, and was quickly “rated the best bush baseball sponsor since the death of Jack Blum.”
El Rey Beer Club President
J. Michael Niotta and his cousin George Niotta (1934 - 2018).
We miss your stories already!
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.
And Then Beer Came 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. But this wasn't to be the end of El Rey Beer!
El Rey Beer Resurgence & Legacy
In 1956, El Rey Brewing Company's former competitor, Grace Bros, ran into some financial issues. Their Los Angeles brewery was bought out of bankruptcy by Bohemian Distributing and renamed the Southern Brewing Co.
The family run Grace Bros, continued into the 60's and signed contracts to brew Bull Dog malt for Bohemian. Right around this time, some former El Rey Brewing Co products began to reemerge. Grace Bros even brought back El Rey Beer in the flat top can! It's possible that the relationship with Bohemian led to this revival. Big George Niotta was involved in the LA-based startup of fellow Italians, J.S. Foto and Frank Vitale. He helped fund their Bohemian Distributing Co.
Bohemian's Bull Dog brewed by Grace Bros
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. One Club El Rey greeted patrons in Los Angeles' Southgate and another in Searchlight, NV. And 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!
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.
Big George Niotta with his daughters Marion and Celie and son Stevie.
Big George and his son Stevie watching their race horse run down in Mexico.
A Few Fine El Rey Products of the Past
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, 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 brewed Dutch Mill and Old Stock Ale.