Boca Beer: The solution to a hot summer day
August 3, 2007
A cold beer on a hot day was the drink of refreshment for western working men in the late 1800s. Some of their favorite brews were the beers brewed at the Boca Brewery. This business brought fame to the Truckee River and made Boca a household name across the West.The idea of brewing beer along the Truckee River came to Latimer Doan quite soon after he founded the Boca Mill & Ice Company at Boca in 1868. It wasnt until August of 1875 that Doan was able to complete plans and financial arrangements, and start construction. Doan had the perfect location staked out across the Truckee River. The site is now under Interstate 80.Doan had all the lumber he needed at his sawmill across the river, clear mountain water from a spring on the hill to the south, a large quantity of firewood to fuel the furnace, and ice to cool the beer after brewing. The Central Pacific Railroad transported the hops, barley and other ingredients to Boca, and hauled the beer kegs off to the thirsty public.When the five-story brewery opened in February of 1876, it had a capacity of 120 barrels a day, but work was soon underway to double the output. Well over a million board feet of lumber was used in the initial construction, and much more in the subsequent additions. Dozens of carloads of brick and stone were shipped in for the foundation, interior walls, and furnaces.
The railcars full of grain were shuttled across the river on a trestle right into the belly of the massive plant. At the start, over 10,000 pounds of barley and 200 pounds of hops were used daily, and the volumes only went up from there.Once the grains had been transferred to small trolley cars, they were lifted four stories by a steam elevator to the storeroom. Here, the raw hops and barley were cleaned and then soaked in clear cold spring water for three days, creating malt.Moving down the brewery, the soaked malt was spread out and sprouted in a series of huge cellars with brick floors. From there the sprouts were raised back up to one of two large dry kilns that sat directly over the wood-fired furnace, where they were dried. As the mix dried, it was dropped down successive levels to the basement, then raised to the top again, to have the sprouts removed and the malt cleaned again.The malt was then placed into 12-foot diameter vats, where it was mixed up, then allowed to start fermenting. Once the sugars rose to the top, it was drawn off to the copper double-boiler kettle. Once expanded, the kettle could hold 120 barrels of hot mash.After that, the liquid was very quickly pumped through a tubular cooler, then poured into a series of 21 copper vats that were set up over a basement pool of ice-filled water where it was cooled further. The key was to ferment the beer for up to six months at a temperature just above freezing, which required hundreds of tons of ice for each batch. Only then could the Boca Beer be put into 31-gallon wooden kegs and into iced railcars for shipment to saloons. The style first brewed was called Milwaukee Lager Beer, which was one of the most popular of the time. Until 1876, you could only get that style of beer from back east at a high price.
The first master brewer, Leonard Freidrichs, and the superintendent, William Hesse, were from Baden, Germany, as were many of the brewery workers. Freidrichs and most of the crew lived in very comfortable quarters right in the brewery complex.When the first kegs were shipped in June, the demand was more than the owners could have hoped for. More than 70 kegs a day went out and the stockroom was soon empty again. Production was increased further to meet the demand.To supply the ice, they built a small pond on the edge of the Truckee River right below the plant. This went a long way to supply the 8,000 tons of clear ice used every year. A cooperage was also on the site to make the custom copper kettles and vats. For local consumption, beer was bottled on the site and drunk in the saloons of Truckee by thirsty loggers and lumbermen. Since the quality of the Truckee drinking water was suspect, beer was drunk commonly, and cheaply too the nickel beer being a Truckee custom until after 1915. By 1878 the popularity of Boca Beer had spread to the point that it was shipped overseas to Germany, Australia, China, Peru, Hawaii, and other Pacific ports. They added another line, a Bock beer, in 1880.Latimer Doan was the driving force behind the construction and operation of this awesome brewery. He was also running the Boca Mill & Ice Company across the river. This included a large sawmill, ice ponds, a large hotel, and a company-controlled town. Doan was also the postmaster for a time until turning the position over to his brother. Indeed, the Doan family had control of most of the business ventures in the Boca area during the 1870s.The effects of the potent brew could occasionally get out of hand. One day a passing gang of 20 railroad tramps pilfered two kegs of beer and proceeded to empty it as fast as possible. Soon the men were fighting and punching each other in a wild frenzy, in a bout that lasted a full hour.They even demanded the brewery provide them with a third keg, chanting beer or blood, as they were getting dry. Only when the eastbound freight came along did the beer tasters move on down the line.
By 1883 the capacity of the brewery had expanded to include huge mash tubs, the mammoth kettle of 100-barrel capacity, the three malt floors each 60 feet by 80 feet and containing 200 bushels of malt, the mill capable of grinding 3,000 pounds an hour, the 25 fermenting tubs each containing 60 barrels, which produced 75,000 gallons a month.A boardinghouse was added to house the 40 to 80 employees. That didnt include the dozens of woodcutters needed to cut firewood in the hills to feed the massive furnace. Nor did it include more at Salt Lake City and San Francisco bottling plants. Wages were good, and turnover was rare.To transport the valuable cargo on the U.S. rail system, they had special white refrigerator cars built, complete with the grizzly bear trademark and the Boca Beer label.In 1885, a series of very strange incidents involving Superintendent Hesse led to a new superintendent. Edward Kurtzyea, a Vienna-born brewer, renovated and modernized the brewery process. He disdained Nevada-grown hops, instead preferring to import his hops directly from Bohemia or Germany.1887 saw a labor strike that resulted in the workday being reduced from 12 to 10 hours, which then required the hiring of a second shift. Boca beer demand skyrocketed when other breweries in San Francisco suffered from a long strike. Kurtzyea introduced yet another Bohemian hop beer that was a great brew. That year they installed a water-powered electric turbine and switched to electric lighting. For the next five years the brewery was constantly being improved, and the recipes perfected, and so production and demand increased.
On a sub-zero January night in 1893, the crew of a passing freight train saw the brewery in flames from across the river. Blowing the whistle frantically, they raised the alarm and steamed to the Boca telegraph office where they wired Truckee for help.The fire had started in the bottling room, and once the inferno got into the wood structure, it was hopeless. There was no hydrant system, and the Truckee SP fire train could do little from the other side of the river.As was the case with many Sierra business ventures, fire meant the end of years of hard work. It also meant the end of a great beer.More on the Boca Brewery next time.Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at http://www.sierrasun.com in the archives. The e-mail address is email@example.com.