In 16th-century Europe, when royalty toured the realm, the court needed to know where to get decent beer. A system of Xs developed, with tasters riding ahead to sample the brews of countryside inns. If the courier marked a tavern’s door with a single X, the court was advised to give it a pass. A double XX was pretty good, and a triple XXX meant the beer was fit for, well, a king.
Pearl beer, first brewed in San Antonio in 1886, adapted the European rating system as part of its brand; indeed, it was originally called “XXX Pearl,” a crisp lager brewed from a secret recipe that San Antonio Brewing Association founder Otto Koehler brought to San Antonio from his native Germany.
Today’s Pearl, long a part of Pabst’s large stable of brands, has been brewed at a Miller facility in Fort Worth since the original brewery on Broadway closed in 2001. That site, with its glorious 1894 brewhouse designed by Chicago architect August Maritzen, has been resurrected as a wildly successful residential and retail development with no business ties to the lager once brewed there.
And now Pearl, the beer, is being reborn, with a new look and taste – and an eye to its triple-X past.
“The triple X, which is a sign of supreme craftsmanship, says a lot about the history and quality of Pearl beer,” said Pearl Brand Manager Daniel Crawford, who works out of Pabst’s San Antonio offices in the Rand Building downtown. “It’s been almost 20 years since anything has been done with the Pearl brand, and we want to pay homage to its heritage and its story, while also giving a glimpse of where brewing is today in Texas.”
The new Pearl, which is being brewed at the Oasis Brewing Co. outside Austin, is available for $9.49 a six-pack at select retail locations, including H-E-B stores, in San Antonio starting the first week of June.
The beer, named for the tiny bubbles that ascend like balloons when it is poured in a glass, comes in a clear bottle with a creamy white label bearing the Pearl name in its iconic flowing script – in a dark green color discovered in the Pearl archives. An old slogan from the ’60s, “The Gem of Fine Beer,” is emblazoned in gold on a neck-ring label, and the familiar xXx, gone from the label for nearly two decades, is a prominent feature.
Crawford said the beer has an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 3.8 percent, which is on the low end of the beer scale. Its ingredients include Czech Pilsen malt, caramel malt, and a touch of wheat.
“We’ve added citrus at the end of the boil to give a distinctive flavor,” he said. “It’s an easy-drinking, elevated table beer. Our goal was to create the perfect Texas drinking beer.”
That was Koehler’s plan as well, and over the course of 100 years, Pearl was a dominant beer in the state, with an output of well over a million barrels – and a payroll over $2 million – in the ’50s and ’60s, the company’s heyday, according to Jeremy Banas, author of the 2018 book Pearl: A History of San Antonio’s Iconic Beer.
“They tweaked the recipe a bit – I know they left out corn, actually corn syrup, as an ingredient,” said Banas, who tasted the beer last week. “I don’t know how close it is to the original recipe, but it’s definitely more full-bodied and has a lot more flavor than any Pearl I’ve tasted. Honestly, I like it.”
Banas also likes the new look, which echoes Pearl branding of the ’30s, he said. “Historically, Pearl used red and white, so there is a deviation in color, but the look of it really honors the history, with a gentle nod to the progression of the brand,” he said. “Bringing back the triple Xs is really important because it so much part of Pearl’s identity. Old-timers will tell you that when they lost the Xs on the label, that’s when the quality of the beer started going down.”
San Antonio’s beer history is a rich one, with the first brewery dating back to the 1850s. But early efforts produced mostly ale, and the city’s German population thirsted for a good lager, a lighter beer that required colder temperatures to brew. By the 1880s, the technology was available, and Koehler and the San Antonio Brewing Association, located on the banks of the San Antonio River, stepped in to meet the demand.
Koehler, born in 1855 in Hanover, Germany, brought the recipe to San Antonio from the Kaiser-Beck brewery in Germany, and by 1892, more than 60 employees were brewing 60,000 barrels a year of his XXX Pearl.
According to Banas, Koehler “lived his life exactly how he wanted and made no apologies for it.” Perhaps that’s what got him in trouble, specifically embroiled in the “three Emmas” scandal. Married to Emma Koehler, he set up house for his two mistresses – both also named Emma – at a cottage on the city’s South Side.
On Nov. 13, 1914, Koehler left his mansion in the new subdivision of Laurel Heights and went to visit his girlfriends.
Was he there to break it off with both of them? That was one theory at the time. Whatever the case, 15 minutes after arriving, Koehler lay dead with three bullet wounds in his chest, neck, and face.
The ensuing trial and scandal – the Emma brandishing the .32-caliber pistol would be acquitted and later marry the jury foreman – rocked the city as “one of the most famous murder cases ever tried in Bexar County,” according to the San Antonio Light. Koehler’s net worth at his death, according to the Light, was $3 million, about $77 million today.
Rather than surrendering to shame or despair, widow Emma Koehler did something surprising for a woman of her era: She went to work, guiding the brewery through Prohibition, when it primarily produced food products, and the Great Depression. Fittingly, the magnificently restored Pearl brewhouse is now the Hotel Emma.
After her death in 1943, nephew Otto A. Koehler took over the company, which remained under Koehler control through its golden years until his death in 1969, the era when Pearl became known as “the beer from the country of 1,100 springs.”
The brewery was soon sold to a Houston corporation that made its mark in sugar cane in the ’30s, and the next decade would see Pearl absorbed by the company that owned Pabst and other brands.
“Throughout its history, Pearl had a lot of drama, but also a lot of love, tradition, and involvement in San Antonio’s history,” Banas said. “In San Antonio, Pearl means family. It was part of the city’s fabric, more so than Lone Star. And after 115 years of grand brewing tradition, it simply faded into the history books. So it’s great to see that it’s coming back.”
The relaunch of Pearl beer, said Crawford, is all about restoring a once-respected brand to new prominence.
With the current COVID-19 crisis, the brewing scene is not exactly buzzing about the Pearl relaunch, but it’s a least a little tipsy, said Banas.
“A lot of people are intrigued by it,” he said. “I’ve been getting some calls, and I’ve seen some Instagram traffic.”
Others may be reacting more like Houston Eaves, beverage director at San Antonio’s Esquire Tavern.
“There are a lot of questions in the beer world, in the bar world,” he said, “and that’s where my head is right now.”
Eaves, who doesn’t know when the Esquire might reopen its dining room, nevertheless said that the Pearl relaunch is “a fun conversation to have.”
“We actually sell a lot more Pearl than you might think,” he said. “Tourists come in and want a Texas beer, and it’s a classic choice. For eating tacos from a food truck or sitting at the Esquire bar, it’s a great choice. It’s nice to see that Pearl is looking to the future, with a nice tie to the past.”
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Crawford called the Pearl relaunch, in the hopper for more than a year, “very precise” but wouldn’t reveal a production output.
“With the nature of the world right now, we want to be able to produce at an efficient level with no crazy production costs,” he said. “Right now, we’re brewing month to month, but we have lofty goals for the beer.”
Merchandise is also a part of the relaunch. Pearl is partnering with San Antonio’s Richter Goods to produce a line of blue-collar clothing inspired by the beer’s heritage, as well as with San Antonio’s Jung Provisions to create a limited-edition candle.
Richter Goods owner Mario Guajardo said the clothing, including a pocketed shirt with snaps, “revives the brewers’ workwear of the late 1800s” and “features chain-stitched embellishments produced on a 1927 Singer sewing machine.”
“It’s really about tradition,” Guajardo said. “Pearl is very connected with the land, with the river. The collection joins heritage with modernity to recapture the glory of a brand that’s more than a century old.”