Throwback Thursday: The Pearl through Prohibition, impact on San Antonio culture

Emma Koehler kept Pearl running through Prohibition

By RJ Marquez - Digital Content Curator, Dale L. Keller - Photojournalist, Samuel Bayless Jr. - Editor

SAN ANTONIO - Much like the city itself, the story of the Pearl’s birth lies along the San Antonio River.

The brewery was founded in the late 1800s by German immigrants Otto and Emma Koehler in response to the rapidly growing community of German immigrants who were frustrated by their lack of beverage options.

Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer at the Pearl, said the river was the ideal location to brew a great Bavarian pilsner.

“At the time the river was spring fed and had crystal clear waters,” Fauerso said. “It also had access to wells where they could tap into the aquifer, so one of Pearl’s taglines for years was 'from the country of 1,100 springs.'”

The Pearl Brewery rapidly became what is known as the Milwaukee of the south, Fauerso said.

But production came to a standstill in 1918 when prohibition laws were passed.

The era catapulted the Pearl into different areas led by Emma Koehler, who had taken over running the business. It was her leadership and ingenuity that helped the Pearl survive Prohibition. 

“Pearl was able to retain all of its employees and basically maintain itself at full capacity by shifting from being a brewery to being a food company,” Fauerso said. “They launched Alamo Foods, launched an ice company.”

Because of its full staff, the Pearl went into immediate production when Prohibition was repealed. That pushed the Pearl into its golden era in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Throughout the decades, the Pearl remained part of the city’s identity. It had a hand in building Hemisfair and was involved in the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo and almost functioned as a record label.

“During Fiesta they had floats and they had their jingles sung by Augie Meyers, and sponsored concerts so it was a real cultural pillar,” Fauerso said.

Production at the brewery ended in the 1990s and the site was abandoned. It did not take long, however, for the Pearl to be reborn and developed into what it is now.

It currently features 19 restaurants, 14 retailers and more than 500 residential units.

The Culinary Institute of America San Antonio campus is located at the Pearl, and there are free events and programming throughout the year.

The Hotel Emma is one of the center pieces of the development with more to come, including the 10-story credit union Credit Human headquarters which will be completed in the future.

The Pearl is now one of the most visited areas by local residents and tourists alike. 

“The intention was not only to renovate historic buildings but to bring back that sense of dynamism to the neighborhood,” Fauerso said. “And bring back Pearl as a neighborhood that is of San Antonio and for San Antonio, that supports entrepreneurship and a place that takes care of our families.”

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