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Albion Castle – San Franciscans, their Beers, and the Story of One Brewery

by Susan Saperstein

Nineteen-year-old John Burnell, already an experienced brewer trained in London, came to San Francisco in 1868. He bought a parcel of land with large flowing springs in an area where brothers Robert and Philip Hunter managed real estate transactions for the new city – an area known today as Hunter’s Point. Here in the 1870s Burnell established the Albion Porter & Ale Brewery. The building he erected, featuring a three-story tower reminiscent of a Norman castle from Burnell’s native England, has always been known as the Albion Castle. The Castle was recently in the news when it was auctioned off for $2.1 million.

The building has walls two to three feet thick and was built with stone that some claim was brought to California as ships’ ballast. Burnell dug out low arched tunnels in the rock 200-300 feet long to serve as reservoirs. It was his claim that Albion ale was not worth drinking until it had aged two years, and the castle provided dry, cold areas used to store the casked beer. After Burnell died in 1890, his wife Fanny took over as brewer and ran the business with his brother and nephews until she sold her share in 1898. Although the brewery was closed after the 1906 earthquake, it opened again in 1911, but closed for good before Prohibition began in 1920.

San Francisco has always had a drinking population and, except for the era of Prohibition, many breweries and hundreds of bars. The first brewery in California, the Adam Schuppert Brewery at Stockton and Jackson Streets, was estab-lished in 1849. In 1852 the city had 350 saloons for 36,000 people; by 1860 that had increased to 800 saloons supplied by 24 breweries. Beer became the dominant alcoholic drink in San Francisco and the rest of the country because many immigrants came from beer-drinking countries such as Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

Digging into the past reveals the following San Francisco breweries dating from the 1800s:

•Bavarian Brewery on Vallejo and Green Streets, 1852-1909. It had several name and location changes. One of the partners, Jacob Gundlach, bought land in Sonoma a few years after establishing the brewery. This land eventually became the Gundlach Bundschu Winery, which is still in family operation today.

•Union Brewing Company on 18th and Florida Streets, 1854-1916

•South San Francisco Brewery on Railroad Avenue and 14th Street, 1855-1899

•John Wieland Brewery on 2nd Street, 1856-1920

•The Albany Brewery on Evertt Street, 1858-1920, started by Claus Spreckels

•American Railroad Brewery on Valencia and 16th Streets, 1858-1904

•Washington Brewery on Lombard and Taylor Streets, 1859-1916

•The Bay Brewery on 7th Street, 1868. It changed name and location several times – Milwaukee Brewery in 1880, San Francisco Brewing Corporation in 1935, Burgermeister Brewing Corporation in 1956, transferred to Joseph Schlitz Company in 1961, then Falstaff Brewing Corporation from 1971-1978.

•The National Brewery on Fulton and Webster Streets, 1861-1958. It was associated with Cereal Products Refining Corporation during Prohibition.

With the onset of Prohibition in 1920, breweries had to decide what to do with their assets. Some disposed of their equipment. Others began producing near beer with less than one-half of one percent alcohol. Some breweries made malt syrup, advertised as an ingredient for baking cookies – but most people knew its primary use was for homemade beer. But, as was the case with the Albion Brewery, the majority of breweries established in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era ended business during Prohibition and never started again.

The natural water springs under Albion Castle brought about the property’s next incarnation. Leonard Mees, president of the Mountain Springs Water Company, bought the water rights to the springs in 1928 and subsequently changed the name to Albion Water Company. It provided spring water to residents and businesses in San Francisco until 1947.

However, the property itself had seriously deteriorated by 1938, when the buildings were bought and restored by Adrien Voisin. Voisin, who lived and maintained his sculpture studio at Albion Castle for many years, had studied art at the Beaux Arts in Paris and created many bronze and slate sculptures of Native Americans.

The Castle was purchased by another sculptor, Eric Higgs, in 1998. He said of the property, “When you walk through those gates, it's like moving through a portal to a different place and time….you're in a castle that evokes images of Europe hundreds of years ago.” While planting trees there in 1998, Friends of the Urban Forest found pieces of the original Albion ceramic beer bottles.

Napa mortgage banker Kathleen Smith made the winning bid when the property was auctioned off in June. A lover of castles, she owns a Napa guesthouse in the shape of a castle, complete with a 35-foot Cinderella tower and a slide. Her plans for Albion Castle including resurrecting the Albion Brewery Porter & Ale label.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, 10/17/1998 Westways Magazine, December 1961 Gold Rush Breweries by Ken Koupal, Draught Board Homebrew Club Landmark Preservation Advisory Board Report, October 17, 1973 Saloons of San Francisco by Jane Chamberlin

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library. Current photo of Albion cave courtesy of Kaleene Kenning.

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Undated photo of the Albion Porter & Ale Brewery before its renovation in the late 1930s.

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A current view of a cavernous reservoir at Albion Castle.

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