The recent Vintage Beer, Wine & Spirits Labels exhibition at the California Historical Society (CHS) combined three of my biggest passions in life:
- Printing (I used to be a graphic artist and still work in the printing industry);
- History (I’m a big historical preservation buff);
- Beer (duh).
The exhibit, from CHS’s Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing, featured labels printed in the 1930s by the Lehmann Printing and Lithographing Company of San Francisco.
The firm seemed surprisingly depression-proof, as the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 created an instant demand for now-legal alcoholic beverages. The company, founded with $190 in 1911 by Adolph Lehmann, was by 1935 one of the largest printing facilities in the country, valued at $600,000 and employing 100 people.
Demand was so high, in fact, that Lehmann became a pioneer in developing “stock” or generic labels that could be shipped to a manufacturer to then tailor to their specific products.
The wine industry was also having trouble keeping up, and for decades after repeal produced oceans of sickly-sweet, highly alcoholic wine made of grapes unsuited for the purpose.
The labels, therefore, had to convey the quality that wasn’t in the bottle. Lehmann’s house style was in full display — exuberant, saturated, flashy colors, bold art-deco-style lettering, and scenes of rolling, vineyard-covered hills.
Early forms of product positioning are also evident. Depending on the demographic the client was targeting, labels might feature anything from couples in suits and gowns out on the town, to prospectors panning for gold in the mountains.
Wine, spirit, and produce labels made up the majority of the exhibit. But I, as usual, was here for the beer.
Forgive the quality of these photos. Ansel Adams with a cellphone I aint.
They may be hard to see here, but numbers are stamped on most of the labels (25, 35, 50, etc.). These indicate, in thousands, the print order for each label.
Depression Proof, indeed.
Of course, all of the San Francisco area breweries have long since passed, and through acquisitions and mergers (sound familiar?), their histories are murky and difficult to track down (although I tried a while back). Here’s a brief glimpse.
Founded in 1868 as Bay Brewery, Milwaukee Brewing (as it was known by 1880) moved to 10th Street in 1891. Closed by Prohibition in 1919, it reopened in 1933 as part of the new San Francisco Brewing Corporation. The San Francisco Brewing Company (see the Tru-Bru label) was also part of that group.
The 10th Street facility was renamed Burgermester Brewing in 1956 after the Corporation’s then most popular beer, and had a peak capacity of 900,000 barrels. It was eventually sold to Schlitz, who eventually sold it to Flagstaff, who closed it permanently in 1978.
The site is now a Costco.
United States Brewing began in the 1880’s on Fulton Street, and by 1890 had been consolidated under British ownership into San Francisco Breweries, Ltd. Only one of the conglomerate’s brands, Fredericksburg Brewing in San Jose, survived Prohibition.
Seattle-based Rainer Brewing opened their San Francisco facility in 1915 to try an end-run around the growing temperance movement. Washington state had recently voted to become dry, and Rainer’s ownership gambled that California, due its robust wine industry, would remain a hold-out.
They were wrong, of course. But under new ownership, Rainer relaunched after Prohibition and continued brewing in San Francisco until Hamm’s purchased their facility in 1953.
If you missed this wonderful exhibit, I highly recommend its companion books — “Vintage: California Wine Labels of the 1930s,” and “Well Aged: California Whiskey and Spirits Labels of the 1930s.” Both are filled with vivid examples of Lehmann’s art, and offer great insight into the challenges of both the Depression-era manufacturing and post-Prohibition alcohol industries.
Speaking of books, researching this post reacquainted me with “San Francisco Beer: A History of Brewing By The Bay” by Bill Yenne. Filled with historical photos, this is a must have if you’re a beer and history geek like me (although it can already use an addendum since its 2016 printing).
Okay, history lesson over. Time to check out some contemporary labels I keep on file — in my fridge.