Boca Brewing Company | California’s First Lager

Boca Brewery on the Truckee River during heavy snow. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

By Dave DePuy 

Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies 

Today, Boca Reservoir is known for being right off Interstate 80’s Hirschdale Exit, but the area was once was a vibrant town next to the brand-new Transcontinental Railroad. The town was built at the confluence of the Truckee River and the Little Truckee River. Where the railroad passes over the Little Truckee River, it emulates a mouth. So, the town was named Boca the word for mouth in Spanish by Judge Edwin Bryant Crocker, older brother of Charles Crocker, one of the Big 4 investors for the Central Pacific Railroad. 

Dozens of special events are planned as part of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad; details in the Event Calendar.   

On June 15, there will be two opportunities to further explore this topic: 

Nelson Van Gundy of Truckee Donner Railroad Society will lead an interpretive walking tour of the Town of Boca site at 10 a.m. Take Exit 194 off Interstate 80, cross the railroad tracks and park on the right. | truckeehistory.org 

David Burkhart, historian for Anchor Brewing Company, will be presenting as part of the Sierra State Parks Foundation Speaker Series at Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center. He will be bringing samples for attendees age 21 and older. The doors open at 5; the presentation begins at 5:30 p.m. Parking fees are waived but a $5 donation is appreciated. | sierrastateparks.org 

Boca was important for 50 years from approximately 1870 to 1930 for three reasons. First, it was a major lumber depot because it joined a significant narrowgauge spur and lumber mills with the Transcontinental Railroad. Second, the Little Truckee River could be easily diverted onto the relatively flat terrain near Boca and into the manmade ponds where ice could be made, sawn and stored through the summer. This ice was much cheaper than the ice imported from Alaska and could be used to cool fruits and vegetables from California’s Central Valley heading to Eastern cities. The ice was also sent to bars and hotels in San Francisco on the rails. Third, Boca had access to all of the important ingredients to make a top-notch beer in an Old-World style for a thirsty new-world setting and it could export beer via rail throughout California, the United States and beyond.  

 Not All Beer Is the Same 

There are two major types of beer: ales and lagers. Ales do not require the same amount of refrigeration as lagers do and they use a different strain of yeast. That said, in the late 1800s, lagers were highly appreciated. 

When the idea was conceived to make a brewery in Boca, it was decided to use the delicious mountain water and the readily available ice to make a lager, which many beer drinkers think have a smoother, mellower flavor. Lager uses a fermentation process that requires a cold environment for the yeast. The other major type of fermentation, ales, do not require expensive refrigeration while being made. It should be noted that the other significant advantage of beers made in the tradition of ales is that they can be produced much quicker than lagers.  

Boca Brewery staff. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

 Boca Had the Right Stuff 

To make a great lager, the major ingredients are a knowledgeable brewmaster, investors, barley, hops, yeast, water and ice. Since the Gold Rush started in 1849, there were many immigrants who had come from other countries to California, including a former brewmaster, Leonhard Friedrich from Baden, Germany. He knew how to make a delicious lager beer. To get the barley, he used a two-row barley grown in the Sacramento Valley. The cluster hops were also from California’s central valley. The water came either from the Truckee River or from the five springs in the hillside above the brewery on the hillside just below where The Meadows residential development outside of Glenshire today 

In 1876, the Boca Brewing Company produced California’s first lager. It was a major success and production soon rose to 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of beer per year. It employed approximately 40 people from a wide range of countries, especially beerdrinking countries. 

To the brewery’s credit, it was well located on the rail line. From Boca, it could quickly ship beer west to the California markets in a few hours or to the large eastern cities in less than a week. It could even export the beer internationally. Boca’s brew was so delicious that it was served to great acclaim at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878.  

Boca Beer Ad. | Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

 Fire or Arson? 

Unfortunately, a fire on Jan. 9, 1893 destroyed the brewery. Damage was especially large because much of the firefighting equipment was frozen due to the cold weather. 

There was speculation that arson caused the fire. In part this came from a complaint lodged in 1886. In the complaint filed in San Francisco, the firm of London, Liverpool and Globe Insurance Company stated that William Hesse Jr., secretary for the Boca Brewery Company asked E. L. McLellan of Boca to set fire to the mountain brewery. However, the accusations and facts of 1886 did not warrant an arrest in 1893. No one was ever convicted of arson as a result of the 1893 event. 

Although there are many reasons why the brewery was never rebuilt, one reason could be that by the 1890s the cost to produce ice was rapidly falling, so the brewery’s lager monopoly was likely to be broken soon. Additionally, the fire corresponded to the start of a large recession. It would have been difficult to raise funds in the face of high unemployment. Lastly, in the mid-1890s a consortium of breweries was becoming stronger, controlling distribution and Boca was not invited to join.  

Fortunately, there has been a renewed interest in California lager. Anchor Brewing Company has recently released its own California lager as part of its Zymaster series. Using the recipe of Boca Beer, the California lager is stronger with more malt and hops than most of today’s lager. That said, the brew has a very smooth, creamy finish and is drawing a significant following 

In summary, without the Transcontinental Railroad, California would have been deprived of its first lager. 

For a list of summer activities that celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Transcontinental Railroad, visit goldspike.org or Donner Summit-Truckee Golden Spike Celebration on Facebook.  

 Dave DePuy is a retired electrical engineer, marketer and a volunteer for the Truckee-Donner Historical and Truckee Donner Railroad societies. He is also a board member of Tahoe Silicon Mountain.