The closing of the historic Pearl brewery has San Antonians crying in their beer.
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Here’s to the Pearl Brewery, a San Antonio institution right up there with the Alamo and cheese enchiladas. Although its namesake beer was never as memorable as its wedding cake of a building, the Texas brewery held on for 115 years. Finally, though, its historical charms could no longer compensate for its limited profits. With neither the trendy appeal of a microbrewery nor the streamlined efficiency of a macro-plant, this spring the Pearl Brewing Company went dry.Pearl drinkers need not fear: Only the brewery is closing. The brand will still be produced, albeit in Fort Worth, by contract with the Miller brewery there. Pearl represents less than one percent of the Texas market, but once upon a time it was the state’s best-seller and a biggie nationally as well. A look at Pearl’s past shows that its reputation was based on more than just suds. Early on, it opposed the state’s poll tax, wooed women as consumers, and championed aquifer protection to safeguard its springwater source. And its prime downtown location—eighteen-plus acres, including 1,600 feet on the San Antonio River and a gold-domed Victorian building—is attracting high-profile (but so far anonymous) wannabe buyers. Manager Ed Mueller, who has worked at the plant for 26 years, describes himself as “the most expensive tour guide in the world.”
Pearl’s story, like that of most Texas breweries, begins with thirsty German immigrants who set out to recreate the beloved lager of their homeland. San Antonio, an early Teutonic stronghold, was the industry’s Texas hub. The Menger Hotel still boasts a cellar of yard-thick stone walls used to chill the products of its brewery, built in 1855. But the industry really took off in 1883, when brew king Adolphus Busch came to town. With partners, including local businessman Otto Koehler, he built the original Lone Star Brewery, distinguished by twin crenellated towers and a variety of brands that included, inevitably, Alamo Beer. (Today the handsome complex houses the San Antonio Museum of Art.) Busch’s actions prompted the rival San Antonio Brewing Association to purchase the J. B. Behloradsky Brewery, a small concern on the river’s eastern bank. The group lured Koehler away from Lone Star to serve as president, added attractive stone structures, and in 1886 launched a new lager, purchasing the brand name from a brewery in Bremen, Germany, whose owner thought the bubbles in beer resembled tiny Perlen, or “pearls.”
For the next few decades, the world—or at least Texas—was Pearl’s oyster. It was sold all over the state, notably in Judge Roy Bean’s infamous courthouse, a.k.a. the Jersey Lilly Saloon, in the West Texas hamlet of Langtry. Pearl went on to capitalize on Bean’s notoriety, using pictures of his ramshackle headquarters in endless print ads. By 1916 Pearl was the best-selling beer in Texas, producing 110,000 barrels—some 36 million bottles—a year.
Unfortunately, Pearl’s success made it a target of the powerful temperance forces of the day. In 1902 the company had banded together with six other breweries to oppose the poll tax, the pay-to-vote fee the group vilified as “done for the purpose of destroying the rights of the poor man”; the common worker, the consortium reasoned, was likely to be a beer drinker who would oppose anti-alcohol bills if only he could cast a ballot for free. Caught up in the controversy, the Texas attorney general filed suit against the seven beermakers, charging them in 1915 with using funds to influence legislation. The case ended the following year with the brewers’ being assessed a fine of $281,000 and the Anti-Saloon League savoring an intoxicating victory.
But the temperance groups truly prevailed three years later with the onset of Prohibition. The Busch-backed Lone Star Brewery closed, but Pearl persevered under the aegis of Emma Koehler, Otto’s widow, who kept the company afloat by selling ice, dairy products, and soft drinks. One wonders if Emma was responsible for Pearl’s habitual pitches to San Antonio housewives; for example, a 1913 giveaway booklet proffered menu ideas for such “Dainty Home Lunches” as herring and anchovies—washed down with Pearl.
When Prohibition ended one minute after midnight on September 15, 1933, the redoubtable Emma was ready: Fifteen minutes later she dispatched a convoy of 100 trucks and 25 boxcars loaded with kegs and bottles of fresh brew. Even after her retirement, Pearl continued to tip its hat to female consumers. Its World War II-era print advertising included a paean to the home-based Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, accompanied by a picture of a pretty pilot hoisting a cold one. And according to plant manager Mueller, the twelve-pack, which Pearl started producing in the mid-eighties, became popular because women—who were more likely to be their household’s grocery shopper—found it easier to lift than a full case. Given Pearl’s history of appealing to female consumers, it’s easier to forgive the company’s seventies-era ads featuring voluptuous females in wet T-shirts or suggestive teaser lines like “We take nature’s best . . . and put a head on it.”
Pearl also exploited Texas pride (in fact, Texas Pride was the name of one long-popular spin-off brand manufactured for more than half a century). A 1930 newspaper ad asserted that “93 cents of every Pearl dollar stays permanently in Texas.” And though the brand was at one time marketed in as many as 45 states, it has long retained the slogan “From the Country of 1100 Springs.” The San Antonio brewery has always drawn its water—which company hucksters variously venerate as “icy,” “fresh,” “clear,” “rare,” “pure,” and “naturally perfect”—from two 1,200-foot-deep wells on the property (“There’s a little bit of Texas in every drop of Pearl!”). Pearl’s dependence on springwater made it an early proponent of protection for the Hill Country’s Edwards Aquifer; in 1987, for example, Pearl undertook water recycling measures to reduce its aquifer draw from 1.1 million gallons a year to 800,000. The “1100 Springs” line could be a bit misleading, however, given that the beer will now hail from Fort Worth.
Foresight aside, Pearl’s most lasting legacy is its architecture. Although ugly warehouse additions crowd the brewery grounds—one, Ed Mueller notes, replaced a garden with a gazebo and cobblestone walks—the nineteenth-century buildings display beautiful, lavish details; no wonder the City of San Antonio is intent on preserving the site. Tile decorates the brewhouse interior (terra-cotta on the floor, pale green on the walls), and ornate cast-iron staircases spiral up to the second story, where most of the so-called cellars are found. Nearby, what employees call “the round house” was, starting in 1894, the stable (complete with upstairs hayloft) for the dozens of beer-wagon horses. It was converted into a hospitality room in 1950, and many visitors—including celebrities like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Johnny Weissmuller—refreshed themselves with free samples of cold Pearl while surveying the collections of beer steins and such faux Roy Bean memorabilia as theater posters featuring English actress Lillie Langtry, Bean’s lifelong crush (in the color replicas, she’s a dead ringer for Ava Gardner, who played her in a 1972 movie). Other tourists were rail buffs who came to see Pearl’s very own railroad, the Texas Transportation Company, two electric locomotives that hauled carloads of beer across a river trestle to the Union Pacific yard.
The enthusiastic Mueller, who likes to pat his paunch in testament to his love of his product, almost pops his top as he negotiates and explains the vast (and now largely abandoned) inner workings of the brewery. A native of St. Joseph, Missouri, another great beer town, Mueller has worked for breweries since 1956, and he can fill a listener’s ear with statistics faster than the number-two line filled longnecks (gallons in a barrel, 31; height of the smokestack, 197 feet; cans on a pallet, 7,770). He loves the business, wort and all, and he grows more and more animated as he shows off the pristine vintage equipment: massive mash vats, cavernous fermenting tanks, mysterious gleaming pods and pipes of copper and stainless steel. He ticks off a long list of brews besides Pearl that have, at one time or another, been produced here, including classics like Jax, Falstaff, and Hamm’s and specialty brands like Billy Beer (named after Jimmy Carter’s brother), the Dallas-spawned J. R. Ewing Beer, and even a non-alcoholic Desert Storm variety. He can recite, off the top of his head, the succession of buyouts and mergers that have made American brewing an almost incestuous industry. Pearl, for example, is now operated by Pabst, which is owned by the S&P Company; Lone Star, Pearl’s longtime rival and the onetime property of Olympia and Stroh’s, was, until recently, distributed by Pearl.
Mueller ends every tour with a quick peek at the laboratory, where a giant chart describes the flavors and aromas of various (not necessarily successful) brews: astringent, resinous, leathery, sweet. He waxes especially nostalgic about the trio of tastings that Pearl used to hold every day, a ritual considerably different from wine tasting: “You think I’m going to spit it out?” he asks, staggering in feigned shock. The very idea makes him check his watch. For Ed Mueller, as for Pearl, it’s quitting time.