Through the Viewfinder With a Photo of Zobelein’s Eastside Beer, Los Angeles Brewing Company, ca. 1910s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While there have been many posts on this blog about greater Los Angeles wine history, including one a couple of days ago on the wine and liquor dealer Henry J. Woollacott, very little has been offered about Angel City beer and brewing. We’re looking to tap more into some of that history with this post, so let’s hop to it with a circa 1910s photo from the Museum’s collection of a gent, apparently a bartender or restaurant server, holding a tray with two glasses and a bottle of Zobelein’s Eastside beer.

Because there is some very interesting history regarding George Zobelein, we’ll cover some of the history of this important figure in this post through 1907 and then return at a future date with another one that takes some of the story beyond that date and through the Prohibition years. The reason for choosing 1907 is because that year represented a seismic shift in his life and that of his business. First, however, let’s look at some of Zobelein’s earlier history in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles News, 31 January 1872.

He was born in 1845 in Gräfenburg, northeast of Nuremburg, in Bavaria, which a quarter century later became part of a united Germany and, while his father was a brewer, Zobelein, who was orphaned at five years of age, was raised by an uncle who operated a store and so he learned the line from early on in his life. When war broke out in 1866 between Bavaria and Prussia, he fought for his homeland and was captured and imprisoned by the latter, but, when the conflict soon ended. He then decided to emigrate to the United States, landing in New York and then taking the sea route to the isthmus at Panama and up the Pacific coast to San Francisco.

Zobelein worked several jobs in that bustling city, including as a dry-good store clerk, but, hearing of Los Angeles, he migrated south and arrived in 1869, just as the Angel City was undergoing its first boom, though much smaller than the ones that followed. He purchased a small grocery store at Spring and 6th streets (where Woollacott later resided), but, after a year, sold it and went to the Eastern California town of Lone Pine, in Inyo County, to operate a store there. During this period, in 1870, he married Brigida Alvarez Ortiz Graff, the widow of a friend, John Graff. Graff, in the 1850s when public lands were available, acquired about 100 acres south of Los Angeles and just east of today’s Exposition Park and the University of Southern California, and established a farm there and Zobelein and Brigida, who had two children with Graff and who were adopted by Zobelein, resided there.

Los Angeles Herald, 25 January 1874.

Another attempt was made at operating a Los Angeles store in 1872, but it proved to be another struggle, so Zobelein and his family headed back to Inyo County, where, at the mining boom towns of Swansea, Panamint and Darwin, he ran stores. During this period, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman invested heavily in mining and water development at nearby Cerro Gordo, as this region was tied closely to Los Angeles because silver ore was shipped through the Angel City from the mining region.

On 12 January 1876, the day prior to the closing of the Temple and Workman bank and during an economic panic, as well as a slowdown in mineral production in Inyo County, Zobelein returned to Los Angeles and settled in at the ranch. Rather than open his own business, he took a position as a clerk and then manager for the New York Brewery, one of the handful of such enterprises in town and which was operated by Philip Lauth at his facility on Third Street between Main and Spring streets.

Los Angeles Express, 27 May 1875.

Meanwhile, in late 1873, the Philadelphia Brewery was opened by Wattelet and Vogel and went through a succession of owners in sole and group partnerships over the next few years, including Edward A. Preuss (whose Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas much later became Beverly Hills), Henry Lemmert, Louis Schwarz, Louis Lichtenberger (a well-known carriage and wagon maker) and, finally, San Francisco brewer Diedrich Mahlstedt. The latter was, by far, the longest-serving proprietor, operating the brewery for about five years from 1877-1882.

The modest plant was on Aliso Street, a major route out of the Angel City for eastbound travelers and which got its name from the massive sycamore tree, known commonly as El Aliso, said to be up to 400 years old and sacred to the indigenous people of Los Angeles, on its north side. Previously located in this area was the important vineyard of Jean Louis Vignes, also named after the towering tree, and which was then owned by Vignes’ nephews, the brothers Jean Louis and Pierre Sainsevain. It is telling that this section, long given to grape growing and wine-making, then became a brewing hub in Los Angeles.

Herald, 4 February 1883.

The 27 May 1875 edition of the Los Angeles Express briefly noted the expansion of the Philadelphia Brewery by new owner Lemmert, including the acquisition of property that “now includes the large Aliso tree, one of the oldest landmarks in the city.” Lemmert was also readying to construct a large vault to age his product, so that it could “thus become real ‘lager’ beer,” though it was added that the proprietor’s beverage was already quite popular. Yet, soon after the economy turned south and Lemmert, who invested heavily to grow his business, lost Philadelphia by sheriff’s sale and Lichtenberger took over in 1876-1877 before Mahlstedt acquired it.

Meanwhile, over at New York Brewery, Zobelein kept the books and worked in management, while another employee was a recent arrival to town, Joseph Maier (1851-1905), also from Bavaria. Maier learned the trade in his home country and migrated to America at age 20, with much of his early years spent in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he made a name for himself as a brewer. After marriage there, he and his wife almost immediately headed to California, settling in San Francisco before coming to the Angel City in 1876. Maier also operated a Spring Street saloon during his first several years in town.

Herald, 26 August 1883.

In fall 1881, Zobelein, having left New York Brewery two years prior and taken up the same bookkeeping position at Philadelphia, purchased a half-interest in it and this was followed the next year by Maier taking the other 50%. An early reference to their new partnership was in the Los Angeles Herald of 4 February 1883, in which it was stated,

When Mr. Jos. Maier went into partnership with Mr. George Zobelein to carry on the Philadelphia Brewery, it may not have been expected that he would prove such a fit person for the business. About six weeks ago their brewer fell seriously sick . . . Maier would not allow any one else to attend to the not easy task of brewing. Ever since he has been working hard from 5 o’clock in the morning till late at night, producing a quality of beer which for brilliancy and good taste can not be excelled.

In the early years of their operation of the business, Maier and Zobelein were the primary work force, but the enterprise expanded as greater Los Angeles rapidly developed, including the famous Boom of the Eighties (which peaked during the mayoral administration of William H. Workman in 1887-1888). They spent $4,000 in spring 1883 on a new cellar, cooling and malting houses and a fermenting vat, allowing them to triple output and the Herald of 17 June went into some detail about the expanded facilities, observing that the proprietors “are young, energetic and reliable men, of good business qualifications.”

Herald, 7 July 1889.

Zobelein was described as having had “a first-class mercantile education,” which he obtained in his native Bavaria,” while Maier was said to be “a practical brewer” with skill as a salesperson. It noted that the latter took on the role of overseeing production for several months, though there was now a brewer employed with much experience in Europe and the East Coast. The article ended with the praise of, “with such a complete brewery, such management, owning as they do, their grounds and buildings, Maier & Zobelein can not fail to make the Philadelphia Brewery a great success. If integrity, industry and ability deserve recognition, then a great measure of success will be theirs.”

In July 1886, as reported by the Herald, Maier and Zobelein introduced a “pure lager” in time for the Independence Day celebration and, as the company wagon joined a parade, it was stated that it “was received with enthusiasm and there was a loud demand for the new brew which the proprietors good naturedly acceded to . . . no beer has ever before proved so popular in Los Angeles.” The paper added that the plant had “the latest improved machinery” acquired “at enormous expense,” while “the material used is all of the best quality” for what was deemed “a pleasant health-giving beverage,” a claim all-too-often made for beer at the time. In fact, the paper exhorted readers, “all who are run down and require a good malt tonic to build up and regulate their systems during the warm season will find that the Philadelphia lager fully meets their requirements.”

Express, January 1894. Note the historic Aliso (sycamore) tree in the courtyard between wings of the massive plant, though it was shown as much smaller than otherwise described.

As the boom burst forth over the next couple of years, the Los Angeles Express of 29 December 1888 noted that Philadelphia was one of the largest breweries on the Pacific Coast and output topped $1 million for the year. It noted that five-story brick building, of dimensions of 40 x 80 feet, being constructed for further expansion for brewing, while a six-story structure, also of brick, was being built for stock—the pair of edifices represented an investment of some $150,000. Praising Maier and Zobelein for their experience, enterprise and the “enviable reputation” of their beer, the paper concluded “from present indications the business is likely to double during the year 1889.”

At the end of June 1889, a formal grand opening of the much enlarged plant was held and the Herald reported that several thousand persons congregated for the event, including “many of the most distinguished citizens of Los Angeles.” The account also observed that “in the area between the two big wings of the building stands the big Aliso tree . . . its lofty branches tower far above the topmost point of the great brick block” and it was added that former mayor Stephen C. Foster, an expert on Angel City history, pronounced its age to be 400 years. Former owner Lichtenberger spoke about the excellent product of his friends and added “a plentiful supply of good beer is a powerful factor in the civilization of the race.”

Los Angeles Record, 16 May 1896. Note the absence of the Aliso tree, which was felled the prior year.

A little more than four years later, the Herald published a brief account of the brewery and pronounced that “there is not an enterprise in Los Angeles that shows a larger growth,” even as the boom inevitably went bust and difficult times were experienced, including a national depression that began in 1893. It reported that 4,500 barrels of brew monthly were produced and a market stretched as far as Arizona and New Mexico and to Fresno in central California, beyond the “home market,” as the local area was called. Notably, hops for the beer were raised in El Monte, though much was imported from the owners’ home country. The boiler, ice-making plant, and bottling sections were among those mentioned and the piece ended with the note that “there are 30 horses and 10 wagons in the delivery department.”

The New Year’s Day 1894 edition of the Express, which, notably, included an image of the Maier and Zobelein plant with the venerable Aliso tree shown as dwarfed by the buildings in contrast to what was stated above, provided more information about “the most extensive brewery in Southern California” with emphasis on the most modern equipment and up-to-date manufacturing techniques. It added that, while capacity was higher, production was around 350 barrels daily with 100 hands employed at the plant. Similar to what was stated above, the paper proclaimed,

That positive flavor and purity which this beer holds has made for itself a wide reputation among the consumers of this health-giving beverage, for it is manufactured from the purest and best quality of hop and malt, and the motto of the firm is purity and excellence in quality.

As noted in a prior post here on the famed Aliso tree, it was cut down the following year and, while some accounts suggest it was felled because of the plant expansion, it was not only clear that Maier and Zobelein purposefully pursued their plans for additional growth by building around the tree, but it was recorded that Zobelein was so emotionally affected by its demise that he refused to take part in the removal. Trees, obviously, have life spans, though whether the intensive work of constructing the large brick facilities were a major factor or not in the death of the Aliso is a question.

Los Angeles Times, 25 June 1936, from Zobelein’s obituary.

Maier and Zobelein continued their successful partnership and operation, including incorporation in late June 1893, when $1 million in stock was issued, though the firm, officially the Maier and Zobelein Brewery, remained private. Devoted as they were to the business and its rapid growth, the owners had occasional business endeavors elsewhere, including the German-American Mining Company, which operated in Mohave County, Arizona along the Colorado River. Zobelein was also involved in some community organizations, principally those involving German immigrants and their descendants, such as the Liederkranz Singers.

Maier, however, who always had a delicate constitution, suffered from heart disease, which may explain the wording above about being “fit” enough to oversee the brewing process, and the demands and rigors of operating a large and successful business undoubtedly complicated his health. By the turn of the 20th century, his condition worsened with heart failure and paralysis and, after a European trip in 1903 extending several months as he sought a remedy, Maier was essentially home-bound.

When he died in July 1905, the brewery employed 150 persons and made some 100,000 barrels of beer each year. Almost immediately, however, Zobelein filed a lawsuit against their heirs of his partner of nearly a quarter-century alleging fraud by the Maiers for installing many of them as stockholders in an effort to take command of the business. He asked for a receiver, dissolution of the partnership and the sale of the firm and its substantial assets. Zobelein not only alleged stock manipulation, starting in 1898 when two employees with just a few shares transferred them secretly to the Maiers, but contended that profits were concealed from him and he claimed that the situation had worsened over the preceding five years.

It was asserted that, in 1900, Maier, he and his partner owning equal amounts of 75% of the firm, gave shares assigned to his wife to their son without informing Zobelein, who then did the same. A Maier son, Joseph, Jr., then distributed stock to relatives, who then placed his name in contention as president of the firm, supplanting Zobelein. This effort failed, though Joseph was made vice-president and secretary. From that point, he alleged, Maier family members, principally Joseph and his brother Edward, conducted financial transactions without consulting him as the president and treasurer of the company.

Express, 3 March 1906.

In March 1906, Zobelein prevailed and ordered a stock sale by a commissioner appointed by Judge Walter Bordwell for the purpose, with half to go to Mary Maier, the widow of the late partner, and the remainder to Zobelein, while a receiver was to be appointed to oversee the process and prevent further difficulties. With this ruling, Zobelein then separated from the firm and acquired the Los Angeles Brewing Company, which operated a plant on North Main Street in East Los Angeles (later Lincoln Heights) and developed his famous Eastside beer, which may be the product shown in the featured photo. The Maiers, in turn, continued operating their enterprise at the Aliso Street site with their Brew 102 also locally prominent.

As noted at the outset, we’ll return, in the future, with another post following up on this important aspect of Angel City brewing history. For an interesting summary of early beer brewing in Los Angeles, check out Nathan Masters’ post on the subject, while there is much Zobelein family history on a family-operated website.

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