The short-lived and not-so-good comeback of brewing in ABQ after Prohibition

This odd-looking building at Second Street and Marquette was home to two breweries more than 80 years ago.

As we continue our trek through the history of brewing in New Mexico, following our tales of a brewery shootout and the ups and downs of the first two Albuquerque breweries, we skip past the era of Prohibition (1918-33) to the time of the first two breweries after those dark years.

Let us just say first off that things did not go too well, and the resulting gap in commercial brewing in New Mexico was far longer than Prohibition. Nearly 50 years would pass in between the last batch of beer at the first Rio Grande Brewing Company and the arrival of Santa Fe Pale Ale in 1988.

Right after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, there was talk that the old Western (neé Southwestern) Brewery and Ice Company would restart its brewing operations. A story in the Albuquerque Journal stated that the brewery would employ 100 men and cost about $300,000 to restart. This being the Great Depression and all, it turned out that it was too expensive, and the former brewery remained an ice-making plant that also bottled sodas and mineral water.

Another group came along in 1934-35, determined to start up an Albuquerque Brewing Company. Once again, the cost was apparently too high ($250,000) to get it going, and it was never mentioned again.

Finally, in 1936, a new brewery did open in Albuquerque at the corner of Second Street and Marquette (one block north of the present-day Convention Center). The New Mexico Brewing Company was formed by a group of investors led by Lee James, who became company president. The brewmaster was Vienna native O.S. (Oskar) Scholz (also spelled Schulz), who came from the Idaho Falls Brewing Company, and before that worked at breweries in El Paso and Arizona.

NMBC produced mainly lagers for draft only. The brewery did not have a bottling line, but was said to be planning a purchase in the future. By the end of July 1936, the brewery was up and running. Advertisements for Scholz Beer appeared in the newspaper. NMBC was said to be capable of brewing 90 barrels of beer in a day, and would employ 35 men.

Unfortunately, it appeared that the people in charge really did not know what they were doing financially. Scholz said the brewery cost upwards of $80,000 to start up, far above the original $45,000 estimate. By the start of 1937, the brewery was shut down, claiming at first that a bottling line was being installed.

That did not happen, and control of NMBC soon fell into the hands of receiver Joseph Land, appointed by the courts to find a way to move the 1,032 barrels of beer still on the premises. Eventually some 900-plus barrels were transferred to Dante Dinelli, a former investor who had loaned the brewery $3,800.

By the end of January 1937, the judge on the case ordered the brewery to be sold at auction. The auction took place February 17 and 18, with none of the initial bids topping $7,000. The original owners attempted to show a $25,000 reorganization plan that was rejected outright. Instead, the court accepted the bid of San Francisco resident Paul von Gontard, who would rebrand the brewery as the Rio Grande Brewing Corporation.

Von Gontard was no stranger to the beer industry. He was the grandson of Adolphus Busch (yes, of Anheuser-Busch fame), and had previously run the General Brewing Corporation in San Francisco. Von Gontard even advertised his familial connections with that brewery, only to have his relatives go out of their way to say that the GBC had no real ties to the mega-brewery in St. Louis.

The initial cost of remodeling the Albuquerque brewery was projected at $125,000, but later lowered to $110,000. It would include a bottling line, with overall brewing capacity increased to 20,000 to 40,000 barrels. Brewmaster Max Leischner had everything up and running by July, and bottling began in October. The bottling line cost $35,000.

A label from the first Rio Grande Brewing in the 1930s. (Image courtesy of BCCA)

Beer names included A&P, Bavarian Winter, Duke City, Glorieta (a nod to Southwestern), La Bonita, Old Albuquerque Lager, Rose Bud, and Vaquero. Advertisements had a case of 24 bottles of Vaquero costing $1.50. Over the course of 1938, Rio Grande brewed more than 10,000 barrels of beer, about a third of what Southwestern brewed at its peak 30 years earlier.

Unfortunately, Rio Grande spent too much and did not make anywhere near enough in return. Von Gontard was forced out at some point late in the year, as a March 1939 article saying he had become an American citizen noted he was the former president of the brewery. By May, Rio Grande had gone belly up, declaring bankruptcy. The brewery owed $120,076.86 to various creditors, with listed assets totaling $190,632.88, and only $3.96 of cash on hand.

Some of the brewery assets ended up in Mexico. Other parts were likely sold for scrap (possibly even to the military in advance of World War II). Von Gontard left New Mexico and continued to live off his family fortune. He would die of a brain tumor at the age of 54 in 1951.

Rio Grande and New Mexico Brewing were the only two post-Prohibition breweries to operate in New Mexico until the late 1980s. The City Beverage Company in Santa Fe did get a charter in August 1939 to brew its own beer, but in the end it never made a single batch. There were no other serious attempts to brew commercially in the state until 1988.

Our next couple of articles in our beer history series will return to the era before Prohibition, but head outside the Albuquerque area to see what brewing was like in Santa Fe, as well as the many small towns scattered throughout the state. If anyone has any bits of information or images that they would like to share, please DM us through social media or contact us at nmdarksidebrewcrew@gmail.com.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

3 Comments Add yours

  1. paraleaglenm says:

    I lived in this building from 1994 to 2010, eventually renovating the entire 5th floor.
    The original owners showed me a lot of old photos . . . the brewery had its own well, and was associated with burlesque and the El Rey owners.
    I was associated with the Rio Bravo (Alvarado) brewpub back in the 1990’s.
    If I had only known craft brewing would have become the business juggernaut today!

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