No history of Tahoe is perhaps more curious than that of Boca, a town of 2,500 near the modern-day Boca Dam that once boasted its own hotel, school, library, and one of the best known California breweries of the 19th century.
Once known worldwide for its famous Boca lager, today little of the bustling town remains beyond its cemetery, an eerie reminder of those who built a brewery so famous it was celebrated at the 1883 World’s Fair in Paris.
“I wondered why they built a brewery here,” said Tom Macaulay, a local historian best known as the “Iceman” for his meticulous research into the ice houses of the previous centuries. “But it takes a lot of cold and clear spring water to make a lager beer.”
Odd as it might seem to find a world-famous brewery near the top of the Sierra, the heavy winters and cold temperatures provided the perfect climate for making lager, which must be fermented at temperatures near freezing. The Gold Rush brought its share of breweries to California, but lacking refrigeration, many chose instead to brew ales and porters.
The town of Boca, which was built near the ice ponds of Prosser, was perfectly situated to brew lager. It had all the necessary ingredients: fresh, cold spring water, freezing temperatures, a plentiful supply of ice and, with the coming of the Trans-Continental Railroad, a means of shipping the beer to cities.
The brewery was incorporated in 1875. Within a few years, it employed as many as 80 men, who shipped out 25,000 barrels of lager worldwide.
In 1896, a fire destroyed the brewery by the Truckee River, and it was never rebuilt. Refrigeration had arrived the decade before, and more breweries had gotten into the lager business. But the Boca imprimatur remains so alluring that Anchor Brewing of San Francisco created a tribute lager earlier this year — the Zymaster Series, a limited edition that sold out on draught appearances throughout the city’s beer week celebration.
No telling whether Anchor, the famed brewers of Anchor Steam, will do a repeat performance. But beer lovers can learn more about the experiment by searching “Zymaster series” on YouTube.