Aztec Brewing Company
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|Headquarters||Mexicali and San Diego, USA|
The Aztec Brewing Company (Aztec Brewery) was a regional brewery founded in Mexicali, Mexico in 1921, which moved to San Diego, California in 1933. It closed in 1953. It is the only brewing company ever to move from Mexico to the United States.
In 1921, San Diego businessmen Edward P. Baker and Herbert Jaffe, and brewing engineer William H. Strouse were instrumental in starting Cervecera Azteca, SA, in Mexicali, the capital city of the Mexican state of Baja California. It was a smart business plan since beginning in 1920, no alcohol was being manufactured, sold or transported in the United States due to Prohibition. Mexicali is located on the border with good railroad links that allowed easy distribution of the product throughout Mexico and easy importation of raw materials such as grain and hops. The brewery was destroyed by an earthquake and fire a few years later, but was soon rebuilt at the same site.
During the 1920s, Aztec competed with Cerveceria Mexicali (Mexicali Brewery) for market share in Baja California, especially in Tijuana where thirsty Americans were flocking during Prohibition. Aztec’s flagship brew was Famous A.B.C. Beer, a pale lager. The company also brewed a dark beer. A.B.C. Beer won a gold medal at the Exposición Ibero-Americana (Ibero-American Exposition of 1929) in Seville, Spain. This led to the inclusion of the word "Famous" in the name.
Strouse was later chief engineer for the San Diego Brewing Company, and was also instrumental in founding, with Alberto V. Aldrete Sr., the Tecate Tecate Brewery in Tecate, Mexico in 1943. Strouse later returned to the Aztec Brewery until his death in 1944.
Move to San Diego
With the end of Prohibition in 1933, a new brewery was built in San Diego and the entire operation moved to the new location soon afterward. The new brewery was located at 2301 Main St. in the Barrio Logan neighborhood. The building was a former plant for the Savage Tire Company. Approximately $450,000 was spent in purchasing the property and remodeling the building so that it could be converted into a brewery. It had a 100,000 barrel per year capacity and a refrigerated cellar with capacity for 4,000 barrels. It had one of the largest bottling plants of its kind at the time with a system that could wash, rinse, sterilize and fill 100 bottles per minute. Although the main brand, A.B.C., was kept, it was reformulated by then brewmaster A. Bud Daniels. The word “Supreme” was added to the label. Former workers of the company later stated that the reformulation was necessary and that the original beer had a “skunky” flavor. The label continued to refer to the beer as “Famous” even though it was no longer the same recipe that had won the gold medal.
Photographs of the brewery show a modern facility with a very colorful tap room, known as the Rathskeller. Murals on the wall depict various scenes of Aztecs. The logo of the company itself was the Aztec sundial. The Rathskeller murals were painted by renowned Spanish artist Jose Moya del Piño. Coincidentally, among other works by Moya are murals painted for the Acme Brewing Company of San Francisco.
Aztec Brewing grew quickly. Within three months, it went from seventeenth place to third place in sales west of the Rocky Mountains. Aztec began producing beer in cans in 1936. The early conetop cans from the 1930s and 1940s are highly sought after by collectors today, as are other products from the company. Edward Baker also purchased a stake in the Arizona Brewing Company of Phoenix in 1934, but the two companies were never merged.
Aztec quickly had a new rival – the San Diego Brewing Company, which had originally opened in 1897, but had closed in 1920 for the duration of Prohibition. It reopened in 1935 and continued until 1942. The brewery should not be confused with the current San Diego Brewing Company brewpub that opened in the 1990s.
Keeping track of the number of beer brands Aztec made is difficult, because with a minimum order of 500 cases, the company would put any label on its bottles for the customer. But some of the surviving examples of labels for the company include A.B.C., A.B.C. Bock, A.B.C. Old Ale, A.B.C. Old Stout, A.B.C. Pale Ale, Associated, Aztec, Black Eagle, Bulldog, Casa Mia, Del Mar Pale Ale, Dutch Lunch, Excel, Great Seal, Majestic, Old Coin, Old Dutch Ale, Red Spot, and Spotlight. A.B.C. Beer’s primary markets were San Diego, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and parts of Arizona. However, the beer was also distributed to New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Hawaii as well.
Sale and closure
In 1948, Aztec was purchased by the Altes Brewing Company of Detroit. Altes had originally been the Tivoli Brewing Company, but was renamed after its most popular beer. Edward P. Baker remained at Altes as a director of the new company. For whatever reason, Altes did not continue brewing the popular ABC Beer. Altes focused on its brands Altes, Altes “Brisk,” Altes Golden Lager and 7-11. Instead, the Famous ABC Beer brand was purchased by the Maier Brewing Company of Los Angeles and brewed there until at least 1957.
Altes was bought by the National Brewing Company of Baltimore, Md., which closed the San Diego brewery in 1953. The building was subsequently used by Rohr Aircraft Corporation and later by Dorman’s Tire Company. The building was torn down by the city of San Diego in 1989 when it was deemed the building was unsafe by earthquake standards. However, the murals and other items from the Rathskeller were deemed by the community as valuable historical items, and the city of San Diego had them removed and stored for future display in a project in the neighborhood.
With the closure of the Aztec Brewery, there was no local commercially brewed beer in San Diego County for 36 years, until the Karl Strauss Brewing Company opened its first brewery in 1989 in Downtown San Diego.
An Old Brand Revived
In 2008, John Webster discovered the brand and began bringing it back to life with his partner, Claudia Faulk. Webster learned about the Aztec Brewing Company while researching old California beer brands for a line of t-shirts he was designing. Recognizing the potential the name and historic brand had in the San Diego area he secured the U. S. trademark rights and with his partner Claudia Faulk, set about reviving the brand as a modern craft brewery.In 2010 they joined forces with brewer Rob Esposito. A year later they opened a small production brewery with tap room in Vista, California.
The new Aztec Brewing Company opened Aug. 29, 2011 in the Vista Business Park, also home to Iron Fist Brewing Co. and Latitude 33 Brewing Co. The company operates a tasting room at its brewery, 2330 La Mirada, Suite 300.
- The Home of A.B.C., The Miracle Brewery, Aztec Brewing Company brochure, circa 1937.
- Burgess, A.J., The Aztec Brewery Once Thrived in San Diego, Beer Can Collector News Report, Vol. 10, No. 5, September – October 1980.
- Sipos, Ed, A-1: The Western Way to Say Welcome, American Breweriana Journal, January–February 1998.
- Van Wieren, Dale P. American Breweries II, Eastern Coast Breweriana Association, West Point, Penn. 1995
- Williams, Dan. San Diego Breweries 1868-1953, San Diego Public Library, RCC 663.4/SAN
- Beer & Breweries in San Diego Photo essay on San Diego Historical Society web site.