An Unofficial History of Craft Beer in San Francisco

a man looking at the glass while pouring beer in it

Like many other things in San Francisco, the history of beer is long and colorful. The stories begin with a cadre of German and Irish immigrants who choose to make their fortunes not in the Sierra Nevada foothills but instead serving up tall not-so-cool ones to gold-rush area prospectors and fortune seekers.

Like sourdough bread, San Francisco’s early beers were unique. Called “steam beer” it was brewed without refrigeration (brewers had no access to winter ice as they did in the Northeast). It was an improvised process using bottom fermenting yeast out of necessity.

Experts disagree on the origin of the name “steam beer”. Most likely, “steam” came from the fact that the brewery had no easy way to chill its boiling wort. So, they pumped the hot brew up to shallow, open-top bins on the roof where they would be chilled by the cool Pacific Ocean air. Breweries always had a distinct cloud of steam and wonderful aroma permeating from the facilities.

So, let’s tap this keg of history and re-tell the stories of some of San Francisco’s original beer pioneers.

San Francisco Brewing Company opened its doors in 1907 on the edge of the infamous Barbary Coast as the Andromeda Saloon. It was an immediate sensation among sharp-talking politicians, homesick sailors and brazen prostitutes.

Jack Dempsey, a future heavyweight boxing champion, worked there as a bouncer and peacekeeper. In 1939, Baby Face Nelson was captured in the pub by the FBI. During Prohibition, the Andromeda Saloon recast itself as the Andromeda Cafe – providing classy seafood dinners (psst… ”Would you like a beer with those clams?”).

After Brewer Allan Paul acquired the Andromeda in 1985, he added an artisanal on-premise microbrewery and renamed the enterprise San Francisco Brewing Company.

Today, the bar is called the Comstock Saloon and you can still see the original fan system with its elaborate set of belts and pulleys. There are bar implements, artwork and bow-tied bartenders reminiscent of the period.

Current brew-master Joshua Leavy has re-started brewing and has put out several interesting new beers, the most interesting (and humorous) of which are Bock Obama, the Albatross Lager and the Hugh Hefnerweizen.

Three Specht brothers arrived in San Francisco from Germany in 1853 and soon established The Broadway Brewing Company at 126 Broadway. Ads from the time list the brewery’s products as porter, ale and steam beer.
Broadway’s early years are filled with intrigue and shady dealings. The original partnership was short-lived. Sadly, the oldest brother, Johanas, was found dead after being stabbed and dumped into the bay.

The remaining brothers had more than a little difficulty paying their taxes. On Feb. 14, 1871, the San Francisco Bulletin reported that “the Broadway Brewery was seized by the Internal Revenue collector for an alleged violation of the revenue law.”

Financial struggles continued into the 1890s when bookkeeper William J. Rohrer went missing and his accounts were found to be short several thousand dollars. Suspicions about shenanigans were fanned when his own mother had this notice published in the newspaper.

“Caution – I will not be responsible for monies loaned or paid to William J. Rohrer on account of Broadway Brewery or otherwise. Mrs. Jacob Rohrer”

The building that housed the Broadway is long gone, but coincidently the site is now home to the Southern Pacific Brewing Company at 620 Treat St.

Image: Courtesy of

In 1860, two Irish immigrants Anthony Durkin and Charles Armstrong established Hibernia Brewery for the purpose of brewing ale and porter. Instead of naming the brewery after its location on Mission Street, the partners choose the classical Latin name for the island of Ireland – Hibernia.

The company’s first decade was plagued by tragic accidents and misfortunes.

In the early morning hours of April 18th of 1906, the city was hit by a massive earthquake. According to reports, the Hibernia plant was undamaged by the earthquake and its workers were preparing for a normal day’s work when a fire reached and eventually consumed the entire facility.

Of the twenty-five breweries in the city, fourteen were burned and one was badly damaged when a large stack of bricks fell onto the stock house.

Sadly, the Hibernia plant might have been saved had a proper hose coupling been at hand. At the time, J.T. Murphy, Capt. of Engine No.29 reported: “Word reached us that the tanks of the Hibernia Brewery contained 50,000 gallons of water, but we were unable to make any use of this water, as the pipes connecting with the tank were too small to make a connection with our Engine.”

So much for the luck of the Irish.

Want to know more about brewing? Book our All-Star Craft Beer Crawltour that combines beer tasting with learning fascinating insights from the beer industry insiders.

There are some things in life that people simply have to experience firsthand (like beer tasting, for example). Can’t wait to see you soon on one of our best San Francisco tours – the craft beer tour!

Published on: May 29th 2018
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