Boca Brewery: Truckee’s World-Famous Beer

Proud, mostly German, workers at Boca Brewery. | Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

The thirst for small-batch local beer is seemingly unquenchable across the country these days. The trend is red hot in the Tahoe Sierra with a new microbrewery opening up on a regular basis. California is best known for world-class wine, but it also has a history of thirst-quenching brew dating back to the Gold Rush.

Read Mark’s story on visiting the trail for the once-bustling Boca Townsite. Click on Summer: Hiking under the Out & About menu.

In 1849, tens of thousands of wealth seekers invaded San Francisco to find their fortune. Men — but comparatively few women — from around the world were hoping to get rich quick, anyway they could. Saloons were everywhere, but getting a cold beer was tough at first because any perishable steam or lager beer shipped from the East Coast spoiled before arriving on the Pacific Coast. Gold Rush argonauts were nothing if not resourceful and it wasn’t long before California’s first brewery was established in San Francisco. It was quickly followed by others, but the quality of these early brews was poor; they were made in 72 hours in a quick-brew process. Taste was sacrificed for speed and quantity to meet demand.

During the 1850s, beer crafters began to take more time to create a better product. Nearly all the hops used to make beer came from the Sacramento and Napa valleys. The demand for locally grown barley skyrocketed and by 1854 more than 83,000 bushels were being produced in Placer County alone. By the 1870s, there were more than 155 breweries in California using 18 million pounds of barley, producing 120,000 barrels of beer and ale.

On the Sierra west slope in Auburn, Sam and Frank Kaiser were opening the town’s first brewery and local miners pitched in to help. When they dug out the cellar, enough gold was discovered to purchase all of the equipment and run the brewing plant. These early steam-beer operations cooked up brew from malt and hops without the use of refrigeration. The Kaisers’ beer was poured into used whiskey barrels and wheeled into mining camps where it sold for $3 a gallon. Sales were brisk and the beer never lasted long enough to spoil.

In 1859, a silver strike at Nevada’s Comstock Lode generated a stampede of miners, businessmen and entrepreneurial women to Gold Hill and Virginia City. Soon German-owned breweries opened near springs of good water. Carson Brewing Company in Carson City featured a fine steam beer made with Sierra water. In 1912, the company called its product “Tahoe Beer, Famous as the Lake.” Many miners brought half-gallon growlers of the beer with them to help wash down their lunch.

During the 1870s, breweries opened in nearly every mountain town from Sonora to Downieville. Truckee’s small-batch brewers were well-experienced, but when the massive Boca Brewery opened in 1876, it took California beer making to a whole new level — both in volume and craftsmanship. Boca Brewing Company established its $100,000 facility about 6 miles east of Truckee in the river canyon. At the time of construction, it was the costliest plant west of the Mississippi River.

Winters are cold in the Truckee River Canyon with less rain and snow, a perfect location for growing ice. For years enormous volumes of ice had been cut by a multitude of companies. Boca Mill and Ice Company supplied large quantities of ice to cool railroad boxcars so California growers could ship perishable fruits and vegetables to lucrative markets in the eastern United States. Tons of ice were also sold to Comstock mining companies to help cool and refresh workers suffering from stifling conditions deep in the tunnels below. Boca ice was “of such an absolute purity” that San Francisco’s finest hotels and restaurants bought it to make expensive cocktails and shaved ice drinks.

The Boca Brewery took advantage of the natural spring water and abundant ice to produce 30,000 barrels of superior lager beer each year, which became known the world over for its excellent taste and crispness — its brewing process required at least 4,000 tons of ice per year. The craftsmen at Boca put out a top-of-the-line product — the beer won a variety of awards at the 1883 Paris World Fair and was one of the best-known brews in America. The plant’s location along the transcontinental railroad facilitated mass distribution.

Visitors to Truckee were encouraged to take a day trip and visit the famous brewery for a look at the huge operation that included a 100-barrel cooking kettle, a mill capable of grounding 3,000 pounds of malt per hour and 25 fermenting tubs, each holding 60 barrels of liquid. The plant employed up to 35 men, mostly German. The tour topped off with a glass of beer and a look at the three massive storage cellars, the smallest of which contained more than 50 casks holding 50 barrels of beer each. The casks were covered with 12 feet of ice for refrigeration and all beer was aged for five months before release.

It was common for locals to make summer pleasure trips to visit the picturesque town of Boca and spend an afternoon at the brewery or one of the nearby taverns that poured the “nation’s finest beer.” It wasn’t uncommon for “Truckeeites” to drink too much and struggle to return home.

In January 1893, the legendary Boca Brewery burned to the ground. One month later, W. L. Cole, an Internal Revenue collector, visited the ruins. A significant number of large barrels of the world-famous lager stored in the cellar of the building had been saved from the flames by 5,000 tons of ice on the floor above. Cole ordered the surviving casks of tasty suds destroyed because there was not a federal excise tax stamp on the alcohol. Cask after cask was tapped and spilled while a growing torrent of foaming beer flowed downhill into the Truckee River. The Truckee Republican reported, “A mournful assemblage of Bocaites stood on the river’s bank and with tearful eyes watched the sorrowful waste of the delicious beverage.”