This month’s History & Hops features Gordon Biersch Brewery and Restaurant at Navy Yard. Started in 1988 by Dan Gordon and Dean Biersch, the brewery reflects its founders’ love of German style lager beers. Gordon Biersch was started as a small brewery and restaurant in Palo Alto, California, and within ten years the owners opened their first brewery and bottling facility in San Jose. The brewery at Gordon Biersch Navy Yard is managed by head brewer, Travis Tedrow, and the brewery features a selection of traditional German-style beers like maerzen, pilsners, and hefeweizens.
Dan Gordon, a co-founder and head brewer of Gordon Biersch, learned traditional German brewing techniques at the Technical University of Munich. The brewery takes pride in brewing its beers according to the German Purity Law, known as the Reinheitsgebot. When the law was first established in 1516, beer could only be brewed with water, malt and hops. The law was amended in the early 1990’s to allow for yeast to be used as a fourth ingredient.
Gordon was trained in the same German methods of brewing as generations of German brewers before him. Christian Heurich also learned the traditional style of German brewing as a young apprentice and continued to brew according to these standards when he ran his brewery. Like Gordon Biersch, the Chr. Heurich Brewing Company brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot and marketed its beers as being pure and of the highest quality. The Chr. Heurich Brewery Co. earned two gold and two silver medals for purity and clarity at world’s fairs, including a medal at the 1900 Paris Exhibition for its Maerzen or ‘March Beer’.
Who were the brewers at the Chr. Heurich Brewing Company?
Since Christian Heurich was trained in Germany and brewed according to German Purity Laws, we were curious to know if he employed brewers who were trained in Germany like himself. The museum’s collection has over 600 Heurich Brewing Company Employee Federal Credit Union cards which range from the 1930’s to 1950’s. These credit union membership cards contain information about the employees, such as what division the employee worked in at the brewery and where they were born. We sorted through hundreds of employee records and here is what we found:
21 cards listed the occupation of brewer, master brewer, assistant brewer or fermenter
11 cards listed Germany as birthplace
Of the 21 brewer cards, 7 brewers were German born, 14 brewers were born in the U.S.
Average Age of German Brewers: 43
Average Age of U.S. Born Brewers: 37
Average Age of Brewers total: 41
The other 4 Germans that worked at the brewery according to these cards held positions of: Engineer, Floor Man, Fireman and one simply put ‘Brewery’.
After 1933, approximately 33% of the brewer’s employed at the Chr. Heurich Brewing Co. were German born. According to these statistics, it is also clear Heurich employed German-born and U.S. born workers. In fact, these employee cards show us there were more U.S. born brewers working for Heurich. However, many of the U.S. born brewers, had German surnames. Interestingly, the majority of the German-born workers that the brewery employed were trained as brewers (7 of 11 workers born in Germany). These brewers tended to be older than their American counterparts, as well. We do not know if the number of Germans that the brewery employed changed from the early years of the brewery in the 1870’s and 1880’s to the post-war years (we only have employee records from after 1933).
Another German-American brewery, the Pabst Brewery, employed a large number of German immigrants in the pre-war years. In his book, The Pabst Brewing Company: The History of An American Business (1948), author Thomas C. Cochran chronicles the history of the famous famous German-American brewing company. Cochran writes: “It must be remembered that few men of other than German birth of parentage were brought into the home office, which helped provide a certain camaraderie among the staff and to make them proud of the Captain as a fine example of German leadership in an American city.” (pg.91-92).
Otto Schmalzried: A Chr. Heurich Brewery Company employee’s life
The majority of U.S. born brewers at the Chr. Heurich Brewing Company had German surnames. We decided to research the life of one of these employees, Otto Schmalzried (1885-1942), to trace his roots to Germany. Otto was born in Philadelphia, PA and was the child of German immigrants, as noted in the 1930 Census of Philadelphia. In that census, Otto was listed as a Superintendent of Bottling Works. Otto married Mary Thomas in 1910 and together they had one daughter, Dorothy. Prior to being a bottling superintendent, Otto was working as a brewmaster at the Arnold Brewery in Hazleton, PA. According to other census data, sometime between 1935-1940 the Schmalzrieds moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and Otto began working for the Chr. Heurich Brewing Company. In 1939 his wife passed away and was buried in Philadelphia. Whether Otto worked at the Heurich Brewery until his death in 1942 unclear, but it is evident that he worked in the brewing industry, eventually earning title of Master Brewer at the Heurich Brewing Company.
Today’s brewers continue to be trained in traditional German brewing techniques. In fact, many local brewers in and around the District trained in German-style brewing at Gordon Biersch, including: Thor Cheston of Right Proper, Barrett Lauer of District Chophouse and Jason Oliver of Devils Backbone. Gordon Biersch continues this legacy of crafting staple German-style beers in tried and true methods, just as generations of German-trained brewers before them did.