California’s first lager: Boca Beer
Special to the Sierra Sun
David Burkhart, historian for Anchor Brewing, is coming to the Donner Memorial Park Speaker Series, June 15, the third Saturday of each month during the summer. David will be bringing samples for attendees over 21 years of age. The doors open at 5 p.m. and the presentation begins at 5:30 p.m. Parking fees are waived but a $5 donation is appreciated. Visitor Center, Donner Memorial State Park, 12593 Donner Pass Road, Truckee.
To learn more on this topic, join a June 15 historical talk on the history of the Boca Brewery, 5:30 p.m. (doors open at 5 p.m.), Visitor Center, Donner Memorial State Park, 12593 Donner Pass Road, Truckee. Interpretive walking tour of the Town of Boca site, 10 am, exit 194 off Interstate 80.
For more information and a list of summer activities going on in Truckee to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad go to https://goldspike.org or the Facebook page: Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration.
Today, Boca and its reservoir is known for being a small exit on Interstate 80 Hirshdale’s exit, but it once was a vibrant town next to the brand-new Transcontinental Railroad.
The town was built at the confluence of the Truckee River and the Little Truckee River. Where the railroad passes over the Little Truckee River, it emulates a mouth. So the town was named “Boca”, the word for “mouth” in Spanish by Judge Edwin Bryant Crocker, older brother of the Charles Crocker, one of the Big Four for the Central Pacific Railroad.
Boca was important for 50 years from approximately 1870 to 1930 for three reasons:
1. It was a major lumber depot as it joined a significant narrow gauge spur and lumber mills with the Transcontinental Railroad.
2. The Little Truckee River could be easily diverted onto the relatively flat terrain near Boca. Into the man-made ponds, ice could be made, sawn, and stored through the summer. This ice was much cheaper than the ice imported from Alaska and could be used to cool fruits and vegetables from California’s central valley heading to eastern cities. The ice was also sent to bars and hotels in San Francisco on the rails.
3. Boca had access to all of the important ingredients to make a top-notch beer in an old-world style for a thirsty new-world setting. And it could export beer via rail throughout California, the United States and beyond.
Not All Beer Is The Same
There are two major types of beer: ales and lagers. Ales do not require the same amount of refrigeration as lagers and they use a different strain of yeast. That said, in the late 1800s, lagers were highly appreciated.
When the idea was conceived to make a brewery in Boca, it was decided to use the delicious mountain water and the readily available ice to make a lager which many beer drinkers think have a smoother, mellower flavor. Lager uses a fermentation process that requires a cold environment for the yeast. The other major type of fermentation, ales, do not require expensive refrigeration while being made. It should be noted that the other significant advantage of beers made in the tradition of ales is that they can be produced much quicker than lagers.
Boca Had The Right Stuff
To make a great lager, the major ingredients are: a knowledgeable brew master, investors, barley, hops, yeast, water, and ice.
Due to the Gold Rush started in 1849, there were many immigrants that had come from other countries to California, including a former brew master, Leonhard Friedrich from Baden, Germany. He knew how to make a delicious lager beer. To get the barley, he used a two-row barley grown in the Sacramento Valley.
The cluster hops were also from California’s Central Valley. The water came either from the Truckee river or from the five springs in the hillside above the brewery on the hillside (just below where the Meadows residential development of Truckee stands today).
In 1876, the Boca Brewing Company produced California’s first lager. It was a major success and production soon rose to 25 to 30 thousand barrels of beer per year. It employed approximately 40 people from a wide range of countries, especially beer drinking countries.
To the brewery’s credit, they were well located on the rail line. From here, they could quickly ship beer west to the California markets in a few hours or to the large eastern cities in less than a week. They could even export the beer internationally. Boca’s brew was so delicious that it was served to great acclaim at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878.
Fire, or was it Arson?
Unfortunately, in 1893, a fire on Jan. 9 destroyed the brewery. Damage was especially large because much of the fire fighting equipment was frozen due to the cold weather.
There was speculation of arson for the 1893 fire. In part this came from an earlier, 1886, complaint. In the complaint filed in San Francisco, the firm of London, Liverpool and Globe Insurance Company, it stated that William Hesse, Jr. secretary for the Boca Brewery Company asked E. L. McLellan of Boca to set fire to the mountain brewery. However, the accusations and facts of 1886 did not warrant an arrest in 1893. No one was ever convicted of arson as a result of the 1893 event.
Although there are many reasons why the brewery was never rebuilt, one reason could be that by the 1890s the cost to produce ice was rapidly falling so the brewery’s lager monopoly was likely to be broken soon. Additionally, the fire corresponded to the start of a large recession. It would have been difficult to raise funds in the face of high unemployment. Lastly, in the mid-1890s a consortium of breweries was becoming stronger controlling distribution and Boca was not invited to join.
Fortunately for us, there has been a renewed interest in California lager. Anchor Brewing Company has recently released their own California Lager as part of its Zymaster series. Using the recipe of Boca Beer, the California Lager is maltier, hopier, and stronger than most of today’s lager. That said, the brew has a very smooth creamy finish and is drawing a significant following. Anchor’s California Lager is available in many fine bars, restaurants and stores including the Truckee Safeway refrigerated section.
In summary, without the Transcontinental Railroad, California would have been deprived of its first lager.
Dave DePuy is a retired electrical engineer, marketer and a volunteer for the Truckee-Donner Historical and Railroad Societies. Dave is also a board member of Tahoe Silicon Mountain.