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COM: November 2006

Brown Derby Beer circa: 1937

This month I picked a brand rather than a specific brewery. Brown Derby was the store brand for Safeway stores starting about 1937.

Brown Derby OI.

Brown Derby OI. Brown Derby OI.

Produced by Humboldt Brewing, Eureka, CA.

Brown Derby was a store brand, something that was more common after Prohibition than before. Once Prohibition ended in 1933 brewers looked for new markets to replace the old, discredited saloon model with saloons "tied" to specific breweries. Most beer sold before 1920, when full nation-wide Prohibition began, was sold on draft, usually in a saloon. After Prohibition brewers sold draft beer in bars (note the name change) but also began selling more beer for home use. Bottling beer had begun on a wide scale in about 1910, and in early 1936 canning beer began, adding a new way to package for home use. Cans and bottles were easy to carry and could be sold individually as well as by the case (or the six pack starting in the late 30s). More groceries then began to add packaged beer to their shelves and so the distributing companies that supplied grocers began carrying it as well.

Humboldt Brewery.

Humboldt Brewery, circa 1937.

In the 1930s the West Coast Grocery company in California supplied Safeway stores as well as another chain called MacMarr. They contracted with the tiny Humboldt Brewing Company in Eureka, California to make a new store brand called "Brown Derby." There was a famous Brown Derby Restaurant in Los Angeles and the West Coast Grocery Company probably hoped the name would strike a chord with consumers. In 1933 the brewery started bottling the beer with a green and brown label and the hat and cane logo. In 1935 they started canning the beer. However, the restaurant's owners sued for copyright infringement. The beer could still be produced, but only with a redesigned label. So in 1936 the beer was produced in a silver can, like the COM I have above. (The original brown and green cans are now insanely rare.)

The Brown Derby restaurant in Beverly Hills.

Humboldt Brewing apparently could not keep up with demand, however, and so in 1938 West Coast contracted with other breweries in the region to produce their beer in cans and bottles with the same label (see list below). Humboldt was closed and its equipment was sold in 1940.

A 1937 Brown Derby newspaper ad.

 

A clip from a 1937 film advertising Brown Derby Beer.

The other breweries continued to make the beer and eventually it became exclusively Safeway's brand. The can was redesigned after World War II and in the mid 1950s it was expanded beyond the west coast and sold in Safeway stores around the country. At that time the can was again redesigned. In 1988 Safeway sold many of its stores to Vons and the new owners decided not to keep the brand. Brown Derby was still sold in Safeway stores in the west, where the brand had been born.

Some Brown Derby cans are very common, some are hard to find, and a few are rare. The rarest ones are probably the original brown and green cans mentioned above, and the 1940s quart produced by the Salem Brewing Association.

Breweries that canned Brown Derby

Pre-World War II producers are in bold.
Post-World War II producers are in italics
Post 1950 producers are underlined.
Some breweries produced the beer in more than one of these periods and are marked accordingly.
As always, corrections and additions are welcome. Please email me at Mark@rustycans.com

Atlantic, Spokane, WA
Atlas, Chicago
Best, Chicago
Century, Norfolk, VA

Columbia, Tacoma, WA
Eastern Brewing, Hammonton, NJ
Empire, Chicago

Grace Bros LTD. Los Angeles
Grace Brothers, Santa Rosa
Humboldt Eureka, CA
K.C. Best, Spokane
Los Angeles Brewing, Los Angeles
Maier, Los Angeles
Rainier, San Francisco
Salem Brewing Assn., Salem, OR
Silver Spring, Tacoma, WA
United States, Chicago

Sources Used

Mugrage, Bill and John Vetter. "Safeway's Brown Derby" American Breweriana Journal. (January-February 1990)

Nash, Glen and Terry Scullin. "Good Ol' Humboldt Brew" Beer Cans and Brewery Collectibles. (February-March 2003).

"News and Views of the Breweries" California. Brewery Age. (March 1936)

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