In a few weeks, a couple of my former classmates from the American School will be stopping by for a visit which gives me pause to reflect back once again. We graduated in 1962, looking ahead to a future of promise and perhaps even a sense of anxiety. We were to be let loose on a society that may not have been ready for us.
No, we weren’t juvenile delinquents although some of friends’ parents may have had doubts about me. Manila was an adventure for a teenager. There may have been a minimum legal age for drinking in the States but in the Philippines ? Alcohol was readily available – some of our high school parties even had a bar set up. At left, my friends: Barbara Dunkum, Iñaki Ugarte, Ralph Davis, and Peggy Henry. Yup, the boys are holding bottles of San Mig. (photo courtesy Charlie Jones)
Of course the beverage favored by boys my age was San Miguel beer. It was ubiquitous – everywhere. Were there other beers available ? Sure, but San Miguel was cheap AND good. I must admit it was an acquired taste but rather distinctive and when ordered at your local bar, it was often served in the inimitable Filipino style: warm with a glass of ice.
I still look for San Mig today – it’s not easily available in Seattle but if you look hard, you’ll find it. I don’t think it tastes quite the same as I recall back in the Sixties but memories can play tricks on you. So this impending reunion led me to finding out more about this wonderful elixir. Where and when did the San Miguel Brewery get its start ?
Back in 1889, a successful businessman, Don Enrique Maria Barretto de Ycaza y Esteban (that’s a mouthful), apparently enjoyed his quaff so much he decided to make his own and applied for a royal grant from Spain to establish the first brewery in Southeast Asia. He was awarded the grant for a period of twenty years. Rumor has it that the original San Miguel recipe was said to have been concocted by the religious Recoletos for “medicinal purposes”. Apparently following the traditions of past religious orders such as the Benedictine monks and their brandy. Perhaps alcohol was helpful to focus one’s “spirits” in chants and prayers ?
Although I can’t confirm the original recipe for this beer, which the label states is “brewed from the choicest Bohemian malt and Czechoslovakian hops”, it certainly hit the spot and was immediately successful.
On September 29, 1890 (Michaelmas, or the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel), La Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel was declared open for business.
On a quiet, peaceful street in the more affluent San Miguel district, Don Enrique converted his large home, Casa Barretto, on 6 Calzada de Malacañang (later called Calle Aviles) to a brewery. I imagine his wife had at least a comment or two on that decision. The facility had two sections: one devoted to the production of ice with a daily capacity of 5 tons, and the other to beer production. With 70 employees, the plant produced about 47,000 cases of lager beer during the first year.
With great fanfare and pomp, a pavilion was erected for the inauguration of the Fábrica de Cerveza de San Miguel (named after the San Miguel district), originally scheduled for September 29, 1890. However, a tropical storm forced the event to be postponed to a few days later on October 4th.
On June 6 1893, the company was incorporated and registered with a capital of P180,000. The incorporators were the movers of Manila’s business elite: Don Pedro Pablo Róxas y Castro, Don Gonzalo Tuasón y Patiño, Don Vicente D. Fernández y Castro, Don Albino Goyenechea, Benito Legarda y Tuáson, the heirs of Don Mariano Buenaventura y Chuidan and of course, Barretto.
Róxas was soon appointed manager, playing a prominent role in the development of the firm. He remained with the firm until 1896, when he left for Europe. Prior to his departure, he bought a portion of Don Enrique Barretto’s interest in the firm worth P42,000, then purchased the balance of Barretto’s stake in the business later that year when Barretto retired. In 1895, San Miguel Beer won its first of many awards as a product of the highest quality at the Exposición Regional de Filipinas. By 1896, San Miguel beer was outselling all imported beers in the country by more than five-to-one.
Don Pedro Pablo Roxas y de Castro had alcohol in his blood, so to speak. He was born in 1847 in Manila to Don Jose Bonifacio Roxas y Ubaldo and Doña Juana de Castro, of Spanish descent and belonged to wealthy families. Don Pedro was involved in the business interests of his father, among them a distillery and a sugar and rice plantation in Nasugbu, Batangas.
At the same time, he represented the business interests of his wife, Maria del Carmen Roxas de Ayala, in Ayala y Cia. After the death of his father, he became part owner of the large land holdings in Nasugbu, Calatagan, Calauang, and San Pedro Makati and continued the management of Destileria Ayala, founded in 1834. [Source: Isidra Reyes]
In June 1834, Casa Róxas founded a distillery named Destileria y Licoreria de Ayala y Compañia. It produced a variety of drinks including anis, anisette, cognac, rum, whisky and its trademark gin, Ginebra San Miguel. The distillery, which was located in Quiapo, Manila, was a major business of Ayala y Compañia (successor of Casa Róxas) until it was acquired by Don Carlos Palanca of LTI (La Tondeña, Inc.) on June 21, 1924.
The “marca demonio” product label of Ginebra San Miguel is still in use today, was designed by Fernando Amorsolo in the early 1900s. La Tondeña was later sold to San Miguel in 1987, making it the world’s largest gin producer with a global market share of almost 50%. Incredible !
Business opportunities flourished during the 1910s for trading companies, manufacturers, and service companies, many of which were located on or near the Escolta in Manila. San Miguel Brewery, one of the larger companies in Manila, advertised, “The brewery that brews beer to suit the climate.” They offered a variety of beers including Pilsner, Double Bock, Negra, Gold Ribbon, Malt Extract, and Maltina. “Noble Colonials: Americans and Filipinos, 1901-1940”, K.F.Kasperski
San Miguel Fifty Fifty ad from 1940.
After writing about beer and spirits, one may think that’s about all I was interested in during my formative years in Manila but no … other beverages come to mind. In those days, I remember Coke, 7 Up, Bubble Up, Mission, Cosmos, and Bireley’s, but my absolute favorite was Royal Tru-Orange.
San Miguel Brewery began to diversify in the early 1920s by opening up a line of soft drinks and aerated water, starting with the Royal Tru Orange brand and soda. The company had acquired the Oriental Brewery and Ice Co. in 1919 from Don Antonio Barretto, Don Enrique’s cousin. The plant was transformed into an ice plant and cold storage that later became the Royal Soft drinks plant. It was the beginning of an expansion period for San Miguel as they secured the licensing rights to bottle Coca Cola in 1927.
In 1920 Andrés Soriano, Sr., the 22 year old cousin to the Zobel family, joined the original San Miguel Brewery as an accountant. In six months, he became acting manager. By 1924, he was its general manager, and in 1931, at the age of 33 he was elected as its president. In the 1930s, Soriano established A.Soriano Corp. (ANSCOR) as a holding company for a myriad of investments outside of San Miguel.
Eager to expand even further, the San Miguel Brewery went into the ice cream business with the purchase of the Magnolia Plant. The new site used to house the Fábrica de Hielo de Manila which was bought by San Miguel in 1924.
The history of the Magnolia brand can be traced back to 1899 when an American by the name of William J. Schober, who used to own the prewar Legaspi Gardens, arrived in the Philippines as a cook in the volunteer army and introduced the “magnolia pie”, “magnolia ice cream” and “magnolia ice-drop”. The photo below shows the Legaspi Gardens restaurant in the 1920s.
In 1925, Schober sold his interests to the San Miguel Brewery. The dairy plant at 526 Calle Aviles in the San Miguel district of Manila stood on the same street as the original San Miguel brewery (6 Calle Aviles). A year later, the dairy was relocated to Calle Echague (now C. Palanca Sr., Street) in Quiapo, Manila. In 1970, production was transferred to a new modern facility in Aurora Boulevard, Quezon City, known as the Magnolia Dairy Products Plant. The facility also housed the main branch of its Magnolia ice cream parlor. Below, Magnolia retail store and office set up in the damaged Metropolitan Theater, c.1946.
My tito, Enrique Gutierres, pictured on the left with his wife Lulu, worked at the San Miguel plant during the occupation. He was always joking around and was quite the avid storyteller. Of course, us kids loved hearing his stories. I recall him saying that the Japanese maintained operations of the beer plant by employing the Filipinos who had worked there before they took over. At night, the Filipinos used to piss in the beer and laugh outrageously to think this would be offered to the troops. I can’t confirm this as fact, but it was a good story.
After freezing the commerce of the Islands, the Japanese made a quick survey of merchandise, machinery, and all other items held in warehouses as well as in business houses. San Miguel Brewery’s stocks of beer were taken over, together with the entire plant, and placed in charge of the former BBB (the prewar Japanese-owned Balintawak Beer Brewery), which had been closed by the United States forces in December 1941. The smokestack at the BBB power plant had been destroyed, presumably as it was being used as a directional marker to the Japanese bombers during the bombing of Manila. Officials of the San Miguel Brewery were allowed to continue in attendance, but with no participation in the management of the plant. All operating personnel were retained on considerably reduced salaries. The beer in stock, and that which was manufactured after the occupation, was sent to the troops in the field daily. “Conditions in the Philippine Islands since the Japanese Occupation”, Chick Parsons, 1942.
Other members of our battalion liberated the still working San Miguel Brewery. General MacArthur came by and was stopped while an enemy machine gun was taken out. A soldier said, “Come in, General, and have a beer.” He did and remarked that it was very good. A mess sergeant came in looking for water and was told “Why do you want water when we have all this good beer?” – “Life and Times of the 672nd AMTRAC Battalion, Art Coleman
Above, a GI taps a refreshing drink. Apparently the “Off Limits” sign didn’t deter his quest to quench his thirst.
Sunday, February 4 , found us hiking toward the Manila city limits. Our eagerness to enter the city was sidetracked by shouts of “Beer! Beer! Beer!”. The entire column broke, running toward a huge building with a sign on top: Balintawak Brewery. As we neared we saw a scene unique in the annals of the bejungled Pacific War. Soldiers were sloshing helmets full of beer over their heads and any other heads nearby. – “GI Jive: An Army Bandsman in WWII”, Frank Mathias
Although World War II interrupted San Miguel’s brewing business, the company got back on the growth track in the postwar era, acquiring production facilities in Hong Kong in 1948 and eventually licensing San Miguel beer in Spain through the Mahou-San Miguel group. When we traveled through Europe a few years ago, it was fun for an old expat like me to see our Philippine product, San Miguel beer, being sold everywhere.
I’m so pleased that I have had over a half million visits to my site. As always I invite your comments and stories of the Manila we all love. Email me at: ManilaNostalgia@gmail.com