Beer In The Old West The water in many areas was so bad, local beer was often a healthier alternative for pioneers.

beer in the old west
Crystal Palace Saloon.

Let’s begin with a couple of nuggets from Sherry Monahan’s book, Tombstone’s Treasure, “Shaughnesay, his partner Haeffner, Martin Costello, and Gilbert S. Bradshaw placed a notice in the paper stating they intended to sell beer at $5.50 per keg and would deliver twenty pounds of ice for free until further notice.

“The Crystal Palace Saloon owners, Wehrfritz and Caesar, constructed a patent refrigerator for storing beer.  It stood sixteen feet high and was divided by an iron floor into two compartments.  The lower part, for beer, was six feet tall and held over one carload of kegs.  The space above was large enough to hold a couple of carloads of ice.  Within three or four days, Tombstone residents were enjoying ice-cold beer direct from St. Louis breweries.  They also sold ice at two and one-half cents per pound to anyone and everyone.

– Daily Record Epitaph, September 15, 1885”

The water in many parts of the West was so bad it was believed the local beer was actually healthier than the local water. The shelf life of beer was short and the cost of transporting it was prohibitive. This led to the building of local breweries. Selling at about 10 cents a glass, saloons served up volumes of brew, but in those days in warmer climes the beer was never ice cold, usually served at 55 to 65 degrees. Though the beer had a head, it wasn’t sudsy as it is today. Patrons had to quaff down the beer in a hurry before it got too warm or flat.

It wasn’t until the 1880’s that Adolphus Busch introduced artificial refrigeration and pasteurization to the U.S. brewing process, launching Budweiser as a national brand. Before then, folks in the Old West, accustomed to the European tradition of beer served at room temperature, were not expecting their beer to be cold.

Beer was not bottled widely until 1873 when pasteurization came. Up to then it was mostly kept in kegs.

In some parts of the West they had ice cold beer. German brewers like Adolph Coors set up business in the earliest days of the Colorado mining camps and cow towns. Ice plants in western towns began cropping up as early as the 1870s. Earlier, they’d cut ice from frozen rivers in the winter and store it underground during the summer to keep the brew cool.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and the Wild West History Association’s vice president. His latest book is 2018’s Arizona Oddities: A Land of Anomalies and Tamales. Send your question, with your city/state of residence, to or Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327.

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