Lake Havasu City, Arizona is a destination for legions of sun worshipers, fans of water sports and people who enjoy mild sunny days in the midst of winter. And for the beer connoisseur it is known as the home of Mudshark Brewery and Public House, a Grand Canyon State pioneer in the renaissance of the microbrewery that is carrying on a rich western tradition.
For more than a hundred years western themed movies have distorted the picture. And so when people think of the old west saloon where rough and ready miners, dusty cowboys, gunfighters and card sharks gathered they think of whiskey as the drink of choice. But beer was a popular beverage and many an entrepreneur on the western frontier turned a tidy profit by setting up breweries.
Legend has it that one of the earliest American immigrant breweries in California was established by John Sutter. This is the same fellow that owned the sawmill where the gold was discovered that sparked the gold rush in 1848.
Sutter had established a small brewery at his fort near present day Sacramento, where he sold beer to travelers and settlers. He also supplied beer to his workers at the sawmill, including James Marshall, who discovered the first gold nuggets in the American River.
As prospectors and miners flooded into northern California, Sutter’s brewery was soon overshadowed by the hundreds of others that sprang up in the mining towns. And breweries transformed San Francisco into the hub of the beer industry in the west.
San Francisco was a boomtown that grew from a small sea post and village to a bustling metropolis within a short few years, thanks to the influx of gold seekers from all over the world. Counted among the immigrants were many Germans, who brought with them their skills and traditions of brewing lager beer.
Lager beer was different from the ale and porter that were common in England and America at the time. It was brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast that required cooler temperatures and longer aging periods. The result was a clear, crisp, and refreshing beer that was better suited to the warm climate of California.
The Germans soon dominated the beer market in San Francisco with dozens of breweries and saloons. Some of the most successful brewers were John Wieland, Adam Schuppert, Frederick Brekle, and Jacob Gundlach. They established breweries that lasted for decades and produced millions of gallons of beer annually. Some of these pioneering brewers also developed innovations such as ice machines, refrigerated rail cars, and pasteurization to improve the quality and distribution of their products to markets in the west and southwest.
Many mining camps in the Sierra Nevada foothills had their own breweries or saloons that served beer from San Francisco or other towns. Beer was a popular alternative to the often contaminated water sources or the adulterated whiskey that was sold in some places. And, of course, beer also had some health benefits, such as providing calories, vitamins, and minerals.
Beer was not always a blessing for the mining communities. It contributed to a plague of drunkenness, violence, crime, and disease. As gambling, prostitution, and robbery were rampant in most saloons, drunk miners or cowboys made easy targets.
But then as now, beer also brought people together, fostered friendships, and was shared in the celebration of successes. Beer is also linked to some western legends such as the story about a group of thirsty prospectors in Grass Valley that decided to name their camp after their favorite drink: Boston Ravine. They then proceeded to name the streets after different kinds of beer: Porter Street, Ale Street, Lager Street, etc.
So, the next time you belly up to the bar at Mudshark Brewery and Public House, hoist a pint to western tradition.