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