On page 154 of the second edition of the Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1988, author Michael Jackson described a brewery called Golden Pacific:
“Beer-in-a-box was an early innovation from this micro-brewery in Emeryville, a borough in the urban agglomeration between San Francisco and Oakland. The initial product, Golden Pacific Bittersweet Ale, has a full, darkish colour; a light-to-medium body; some malty chewiness; and an extremely dry finish. Too early to rate.”
Indeed. “The idea was just to kind of box it up and deliver it like pizza,” Golden Pacific co-founder Tad Stratford told me recently. The boxes, too, seemed to Stratford a way around the potentially prohibitive cost of a bottling line (all smaller breweries back then started with either kegging or bottling—canning wouldn’t seem a viable option for many years yet).
Golden Pacific appears to have been the only American brewery selling its beer in a box 30 years ago, though several operations, big and small, now do so. Boxed wine had been circulating in the U.S. since the 1970s, having been introduced in Australia during the decade before. The technology worked well for that flatter libation.
For carbonated beer, things were different. The technology was much more rudimentary than today—essentially, it was beer stuffed in a bag stuffed in a box. Stratford said that he and early business partner Maureen Lojo ordered cardboard boxes with bladder-like plastic bags from a vendor in Southern California. They would pay to have the vendor wax the boxes as well. That was because they then used a hot glue gun to kind of solder them together to withstand the pressure from the carbonation.
They sold the boxes for about $25 a pop—and pop they would, the pressure finally released. Stratford often delivered the containers personally, just like pizza. The brewery sold about 30 to 40 a week, most of the sales coming on the weekends.
Golden Pacific, which launched in 1985, operated out of an old General Motors engine factory in Emeryville, the city between Berkeley and Oakland. True to form for smaller startup breweries then (and for a while after), Stratford and Lojo got their equipment secondhand and made it work—the commercial refrigerator came from a nearby music club, for instance, the original brewing kettle from a soup kitchen.
The pair, University of California-Berkeley graduates in their mid-20s by the time Golden Pacific started drawing local attention, were also self-educated brewing-wise. They perfected the recipe for Bittersweet Ale at home in Berkeley. Stratford described it 30 years later as a kind of India pale ale ahead of its time—hoppy, rich and dark (similar to Michael Jackson’s assessment published in 1988).
Stratford eventually left his job as an accounting assistant at the university and Lojo as a computer trainer at a local firm to focus on Golden Pacific. Part of that focus involved a shift away from the boxes and to proper bottles, which they filled initially with a rejiggered capper.
Lojo moved on early and is now on the business-administration faculty of Sacramento State. Stratford kept at it through the late 1980s, until he sold the operation in 1990 to his Emeryville landlords, who moved it to Berkeley. (Stratford now works in financial systems in the Bay Area.)
As for those beers in a box, they continued as a novelty through Stratford’s tenure. If a customer called the brewery to request one, Golden Pacific could generally make it work, he said. Asked what was the oddest place he ever delivered a box to, Stratford laughed. And demurred.
“If you think about where I was delivering, I was delivering in Berkeley. That might answer a little bit of the question.”
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Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His most recent book is a history of American fine wine called American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.