Truckee’s craft beer scene exploded way back in 1876 with opening of the massive Boca Brewery |

Truckee’s craft beer scene exploded way back in 1876 with opening of the massive Boca Brewery

Mark McLaughlin

The thirst for small batch local beer is seemingly unquenchable across the country these days. The trend is red hot in the Tahoe Sierra, with a new microbrewery opening up seemingly on a regular basis. California is best known for world-class wine, but it also has a history of thirst quenching brew dating back to the gold rush.

In 1849, tens of thousands of wealth seekers invaded San Francisco to find their fortune. Men — and comparatively fewer women — from around the world were hoping to get rich quick, any way they could.

Most headed into the primitive mining districts opening up in the Sierra foothills, while many others plied their trades in booming San Francisco. The bustling energy, lack of women, and the general social freedom in behavior gave young men away from their wives or families a chance to party.

Saloons were everywhere, but getting a cold beer was tough at first because any perishable steam or lager beer shipped from the East Coast spoiled before arriving on the Pacific Coast. Gold rush Argonauts were nothing if not resourceful, and it wasn’t long before Adam Schuppert built California’s first brewery in San Francisco.

It was quickly followed by others, but the quality of these first beers was marginal at best since the process was a quick-brew, made in 72 hours. Taste was sacrificed for speed and quantity to meet demand.

During the 1850s, beer crafters began to take more time to create a better product. Nearly all the hops used to make beer came from the Sacramento and Napa valleys.

The demand for locally grown barley skyrocketed and by 1854 more than 83,000 bushels were being produced in Placer County alone. The grain was hauled to mills in Sacramento by mule team. By the 1870s, there were more than 155 breweries in California using 18 million pounds of barley, producing 120,000 barrels of beer and ale.

On the Sierra west slope in Auburn, Sam and Frank Kaiser needed help opening the town’s first brewery and local miners were happy to pitch in. As they dug out the cellar, enough gold was discovered to purchase all of the equipment and run the brewing plant.

These early steam beer operations cooked up the brew from malt and hops without the use of refrigeration. The Kaisers’ beer was poured into used whiskey barrels and wheeled into mining camps where it sold for $3 a gallon. Sales were brisk and the beer never lasted long enough to spoil.

In 1859, a silver strike in Utah Territory (at what became the Comstock Lode of Nevada) generated a stampede of miners, businessmen and entrepreneurial women to Gold Hill and Virginia City. Within two years several German owned breweries opened near springs of good water.

The Carson Brewing Co. in Carson City featured a fine steam beer made with Sierra water and always sold out quickly on the Comstock. In 1912 its name was changed to “Tahoe Beer, Famous as the Lake.” In the deep, hard rock mines of California and Nevada, many workers brought half-gallon growlers of beer with them to help wash down their lunch.

Boca Brewery takes things to a whole new level

During the 1870s, breweries opened in nearly every Sierra town from Sonora to Downieville. Truckee’s small batch brewers were already well-experienced, but when the massive Boca Brewery opened in 1876, it took California beer making to a whole new level — both in volume and craftsmanship.

The Boca Brewing Co. established its $100,000 facility about six miles east of Truckee in the river canyon. At the time of construction, it was the costliest plant west of the Mississippi River.

Winters are cold in the Truckee River Canyon with less rain and snow, a perfect location for “growing ice.” For years enormous volumes of ice had been cultivated and cut on a commercial level in the region, by a multitude of companies.

The Boca Mill and Ice Company supplied large quantities of ice to cool railroad boxcars so California growers could ship perishable fruits and vegetables to lucrative markets in the eastern U.S. Tons of ice were also sold to Comstock mining companies to help cool and refresh workers suffering from stifling conditions deep in the tunnels below.

Boca ice was “of such an absolute purity” that San Francisco’s finest hotels and restaurants bought it to make expensive cocktails and shaved ice drinks. The Boca brewing process required at least 4,000 tons of ice per year.

The Boca brewery took advantage of the natural spring water and abundant ice to produce 30,000 barrels of superior lager beer each year, which became known the world over for its excellent taste and crispness.

The craftsmen at Boca put out a top-of-the-line product — Boca Beer won a variety of awards at the 1883 Paris World Fair and was one of the best known brews in the United States. The plant’s accessible location along the transcontinental railroad facilitated mass distribution.

Visitors to Truckee were encouraged to visit the famous brewery for a look at the huge operation that included a 100-barrel cooking kettle, a mill capable of grounding 3,000 pounds of malt per hour, and 25 fermenting tubs, each holding 60 barrels of liquid.

The plant employed up to 35 men, mostly German. The tour topped off with a glass of beer and a look at the three massive storage cellars, the smallest of which contained more than 50 casks holding 50 barrels of beer each. The casks were covered with 12 feet of ice for refrigeration and all beer was aged for five months before release.

Don’t drink and … operate a horse carriage

It was common for locals to make summer “pleasure trips” to visit the picturesque town of Boca and spend an afternoon at the brewery or one of the nearby taverns that poured the “nation’s finest beer.”

And it wasn’t uncommon for “Truckeeites” to drink too much and struggle to return home. On Sept. 6, 1883, the Truckee Republican reported the antics of Dave Nelson and Louis Kinz, who had hired a horse-drawn carriage from the Truckee livery stable for an excursion to Boca.

After a quick glance at the little hamlet and nearby logging operations, the pair headed straight for the brewery. Later that night Nelson and Kinz wanted to return home, but the team of horses seemed skittish and the men decided it best to find a sober driver to ensure their safe arrival back in Truckee. Boca resident Johnny Curran volunteered for the job.

The effort turned into a circus act. Before the men even got into the carriage, Kinz had disappeared. After searching 15 minutes, Nelson and Curran took off without him. For some reason the drunk Nelson had the reins and before long grew impatient and began to lash the horses for more speed. Soon the buggy was bouncing “over rocks, ditches, logs and gutters.”

Curran was terrified that the rig was going to crash and attempted to wrest the reins from Nelson. At that, Nelson brought the carriage to an abrupt halt that flung him to the ground. Curran held on and then tried to coax Nelson back into the rig, but Nelson turned to walk back to the brewery for more Boca Beer.

But as he watched Curran drive the team off to Truckee to return it to the stable, Nelson exploded in anger. He ran toward Boca and a mile and a half away found a horse grazing by the road that he commandeered to return to Truckee and file charges against Curran for stealing the rig and horses.

The “old nag” that he stole turned out to be a veritable race horse that tore back to Truckee at a fast clip. Nelson arrived “tired, footsore, with torn clothes and covered with dust.”

He woke Justice John Keiser and swore out a complaint for Curran’s arrest. Once he sobered up, the normally responsible Nelson paid all accrued costs and had the case dismissed. A sheepish Louis Kinz finally showed up in Truckee at 10 a.m. the next morning.

The unfortunate end of Boca Brewery

In January 1893, the legendary Boca Brewery burned to the ground. One month later, W. L. Cole, an Internal Revenue Collector, visited the ruins. A significant number of large barrels of the world famous lager stored in the cellar of the building had been saved from the flames by 5,000 tons of ice on the floor above.

Cole ordered the surviving casks of tasty suds destroyed because there was not a federal excise tax stamp on the alcohol. Cask after cask was tapped and spilled while a growing torrent of foaming beer flowed downhill into the Truckee River.

The Truckee Republican reported, “A mournful assemblage of Bocaites stood on the river’s bank and with tearful eyes watched the sorrowful waste of the delicious beverage.”

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