Hibernia Brewery print ca.1905
calendar courtesy Thomas Jacobs collection

Mission Street Brewery

and successor:

The Hibernia Brewery  (1867-1920)

In the mid-1850s an immigrant from Anthony Durkin portrait ca.1857County Mayo, Ireland, Anthony Durkin, found his way to San Francisco. The portrait of Anthony (below) was taken in 1857, at age 25.

The City Directory for 1856 indicated that Anthony was employed as a drayman, but didn't mention for which brewery. However, the 1859 Directory indicated that he was a drayman for the Empire Brewery, which also employed his brother-in-law.

Mission Street Brewery

In 1860, he established A. Durkin & Company, at 608-610 Mission St., for the purposes of brewing ale and porter. His two partners in the company were Charles M. Armstrong, a 35 year old Irish immigrant, and a German immigrant, Louis Luhden. In naming the brewery Anthony simply referenced its location, thus the Mission Street Brewery.

In 1862, Louis Luhden sold out and the company was comprised of just the two Irish partners, Durkin and Armstrong, an arrangement that remained until 1865. However, the luck of the Irish didn't seem to follow these two. The company's first decade was to be plagued by misfortune, and the two partners themselves were destined for dire circumstances.

The first serious incident occurred on June 16th, 1861. The following account was reported by the Daily Alta California:

"A beautiful child, aged seven years, daughter of George Coffee, Boiler Inspector, fell into a vat of boiling beer in the Mission Street Brewery, last evening. A young man named Thomas Kennedy attempted to rescue the child and he also fell in. John McCabe, the cooper of the establishment, was severely scalded in his efforts to get them out. The child died almost immediately. Kennedy was taken to St. Mary's Hospital. He will probably die."

In spite of this tragic accident the business experienced steady growth and in 1863, in addition to its ale and porter, the brewery began producing lager beer. This wasn't lager in the traditional sense, but a lager peculiar to the San Francisco area called steam beer. It was made without refrigeration but with a bottom fermenting yeast. Another steam beer producer, and major competitor, was a company that also took their name from their location, the Broadway Brewery.

In 1864, Anthony severely injured his left arm, leaving him partially disabled, but he didn't quit brewing. Then in July of 1865, all that changed. The following is a newspaper account from the July 4th edition of the Daily Alta California:

"Anthony Durkin, the brewer who was disabled about a year since, by falling under a street car which fractured his left arm so that it was found necessary to perform the operation of excision of the elbow joint, met with another unfortunate accident while running to the fire with Engine Company No. 2, on Sunday morning. He tripped and fell while holding by the rope, and his arm, which had become in a measure useful again, went under the wheel of the engine, which crushed it into a shapeless mass, making what is termed by surgeons a 'compound comminuted fracture' of the worse description. Dr. Murphy, who is attending upon Mr. Durkin, has little hope of being able to avoid a full amputation this time."

As a consequence of the accident, Anthony sold his interest in the brewery to his partner, the month after the incident.

Durkin-Armstrong notice of disolved partnership

Anthony then took his proceeds and opened a saloon, but in 1867 he removed to Virginia City were saloon keepers were prospering as much as the miners. This decision proved to be an unlucky one for Anthony. Rather than prosper, he met an untimely death from pneumonia on Jan. 15, 1868, at the age of 36.

With the purchase of Anthony's share in the Mission Street Brewery, the business was known as C. M. Armstrong & Co., a sole proprietorship. But not for long. In 1866, another Irishman, Matthew Nunan, bought into the company. Matthew's oldest brother, John, was a driver for the brewery and no doubt made him aware of this opportunity. The two partners, Armstrong & Nunan, planned an expansion project but soon found that they required more space. So they leased two adjoining lots on Howard St., between 8th & 9th, and purchased another lot located directly behind their Howard St. lots. 

On April 30, 1867, Armstrong & Nunan entered into a new agreement for the construction of their brewery on Howard St., and instead of naming the brewery after its location, the partners choose to name it for the land of their birth - Hibernia (the Classical Latin name for the island of Ireland).

The Hibernia Brewery
HIbernia Brewery ca. 1887
Hibernia Brewery ca. 1887


The 1867 structure that housed their new brewery would have been a modest one compared to the 1887 version depicted above. But the image shows that the ensuing 20 years were good to this Steam beer brewery.

The new partner, Nunan, had four older brothers in the city and they were all involved with the brewery to some degree over the years. His oldest brother, John, had been at the Mission Street plant and continued with the new brewery on Howard St. Also in '67, his brother-in-law, Robert Little was put on the payroll, and appears here on one of the company's beer wagons. The lettering on the side reads: "Hibernia Brewery - C. M. Armstrong & Co."

Hibernia beer wagon ca.1867
Hibernia beer wagon ca.1867

However, the following year, Little had an unfortunate accident. This account is from the Daily Alta California dated March 4, 1868:

"Yesterday morning a steam-pipe in Armstrong's Hibernia Brewery, on Howard street, between Eighth and Ninth streets, exploded, filling the place with steam and frightfully scalding Robert Little , one of the employees of the establishment. Little's back and side received the full force of the blow and were very badly scalded. His sufferings were severe and it is feared that he inhaled enough of the steam to render his recovery doubtful. He received medical assistance immediately, and was taken to his home on Natoma Street, between Seventh and Eighth."

Robert Little survived his burns but was incapacitated for nearly a year. He did, however, return to the brewery and served as an agent/salesman. In April of 1873, Little divorced his wife Anna, sister of his employer, and was no longer a Hibernia man. He died the following year.

With the move to Howard St. in 1867, the initial cost of a new brewery and building the business, with ever increasing competition, was a financial struggle for the company. By 1870, the company was burdened by debt of $25,000 to $30,000 (over $800,000 today). The senior partner, Armstrong also had other financial issues, and ultimately they overwhelmed him. The following is an abbreviated account published in the March 1st, 1870 edition of the Daily Alta California:

"Suicide Yesterday. -- The workmen at the Hibernia Brewery on returning from dinner yesterday were shocked to find the dead body of one of their employers, Mr. Charles M. Armstrong, lying upon the floor. When found the body was lying upon the left side while upon the right side was a double barreled shot gun both barrels of which had evidently been recently discharged.....No definite cause is assigned for the rash act, but it is supposed deceased was pecuniarily involved. During the past week he had been quite despondent and hardly able to attend to business......Deceased leaves a wife and child to mourn."

Charles Armstrong was only 45 years old.

Matthew Nunan, was financially unable to purchase his deceased partner's share. So Matthew made an agreement with his brother, Thomas to make the purchase. Additionally, Thomas was the owner of the Howard St. lots, and it was he that granted the 15 year lease to the partners in '67.

Thomas agreed to purchased Armstrong's share but wished to remain a silent partner. Consequently, Matthew proceeded as a sole proprietor in accordance with this verbal agreement. However, the following year Thomas and Matthew had a disagreement over the scope of the previous years arrangements. They couldn't come to terms and in May of '71, Thomas brought suit against Matthew. Due to delays and mistrials the suit dragged on for years resulting in a family feud.

In 1874, another of Matthew's brothers, Edward, joined the company as a bookkeeper, and remained in that position for a number of years. James Nunan, Matthew's younger brother, also joined the brewery as a driver and remained until 1882. In 1885, Matthew's 21 year old son, Frank, signed on as an assistant bookkeeper, remaining for the life of the company. Including family members, almost 100% of Hiberna's employees were of Irish extraction.

In 1878, another family member joined the company. Edward F. Sweeney, Matthew's nephew was hired as an assistant bookkeeper. After a couple years, Edward went to work with Fredericksburg Brewery in San Jose, where he learned lager beer brewing techniques. He then returned to the Hibernia Brewery were he served as plant superintendent. In 1882, Edward relocated to Seattle were he established the Claussen-Sweeney Brewing Co.

The year 1885 ushered in a new era for the breweries of San Francisco. Prior to '85, no S.F. brewer was using refrigeration to produce and age a genuine lager beer, instead they produced the popular form of lager called steam beer.

The December, 1903 edition of the American Brewers' Review offered this description of California steam beer:

"Steam beer is usually a dark amber color and has a sharp taste, similar to Weiss beer. It has an effect similar to Weiss beer on the stomach owing to its great amount of carbonic acid it contains....Steam beer is a moderately clear, refreshing drink...."

San Jose's Fredericksburg Brewery was established as a true lager beer brewery in 1869 and was selling its product in S.F. almost immediately. Also, the Boca Brewing Co. (near Truckee) was using harvested ice to produce a true lager, and they were selling it in S. F. as early as 1875. Local agents for eastern brands like Pabst, Schlitz, and Budweiser, were established in the '70s, and real lager was gaining in popularity in San Francisco. So, the city's major breweries were forced to compete with these growing threats to their market share.

The largest brewery in the city, Wieland's Philadelphia Brewery, was the first make the make the change. The Aug. 7, 1885, edition of the Daily Alta California published this story: 

"Yesterday was a gala day at the Philadelphia Brewery, for it was the occasion of a ceremony known as "Bierprobe,'' or the sampling of a new brewing.  In this case the Bierprobe was of the first lager beer ever made at the above-mentioned well-known brewery. Great expense has been incurred in making the necessary alterations at the brewery for the manufacture of lager beer.

The cool temperature necessary in the storage rooms is furnished by two immense Boyle ice machines, the largest on the coast. From the huge copper kettles the beer goes into the sixty tanks, of 1,500 gallons capacity each, in the fermentation room; from these tanks the beer descends to the storage room proper where there are sixty vats of 8,000 gallons capacity each. Here the beer must remain at least four months in a temperature of thirty-four degrees. Then it goes into fifty huge casks, ready to be drawn off into the convenient-sized kegs of commerce. The ordinary or steam beer requires but one month's time in its making, while lager must be at least four months old before it is ready for the market. Of course, the longer the beer remains in the storage vats the better it becomes.

The new "John Wieland Lager Beer" is of a beautiful clear, amber hue, and with a bead sure to fascinate all lovers of the beverage concocted from the invigorating hop. The present capacity of the brewery will be 50,000 barrels of lager yearly, but extensive additions are contemplated which will greatly increase the output. The beer will be on sale at all saloons to-day."

Another major producer, Hansen's National Brewery, followed Wieland's lead and soon released it's first lager beer. By 1890, Lager beer was out selling steam beer by a huge margin. But there was still a strong demand for the old favorite, mainly due to steam beer's cheaper price, giving Hibernia a welcome increase in business.

Hibernia Brewery drawing ca. 1899
Hibernia plant, ca.1899

In 1885, when San Francisco's brewers began switching over to lager beer, the Hibernia Brewery's output of steam beer was over 25,000 barrels annually. In the ensuing 14 years the plant's output  nearly doubled. The Imperial City, published in 1899, stated:

"For over thirty-five years Mr. Nunan has been a brewer of beer, and commencing in a small way, he now furnishes the beer-drinking public with over fifty thousand barrels annually, and gives employment to some fifty people. This concern is the largest steam brewery in this city. It has lately been compelled, by Increase of business to add to its plant a large three story brick, fire-proof building. The cellar is used for the filling of barrels, the first floor for the clarifiers, the second story for the storage of hops and barley, and the top floor for the cooling apparatus.

Besides its tremendous output of steam beer, porter is made quite a feature, and it is stated, on the best authority, that in this department Mr. Nunanís great brewery equals the best products in this hue."

Hibernia's porter, mentioned in the above article, was the only product that was bottled. The brewery didn't have its own bottling works but contracted with outside bottler/agents. One such agent, was Nunan's son-in-law, J. R. Spellacy. Coincidently, another son-in-law, Joseph M. Bettencourt, joined the family and he too had a bottling works - in Sausalito.

Hibernia Beer & Porter sign
sign courtesy Thomas Jacobs collection

Hibernia's defacto "Irish only" policy was set aside in 1900 when Frederick "Fritz" Kaiser was hired as the plant's brewmaster. He came to them from Hagemann's Albany Brewery, a steam beer plant, where he had been for the previous 10 years. He remained with Hibernia for 20 years.

In 1906, an event occurred that devastated, not only The Hibernia brewery, but the majority of the city's breweries. At 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18th the city was hit by a massive earthquake. The May, 1906 edition of the American Brewer's Review reported: 

"After the earthquake they (Hibernia's workers) were going to go ahead with their days work when the fire destroyed the plant."

Most of the plants would have survived the the earthquake shock without very serious damage, but were located in the section of the city which became prey to the flames. Of the twenty-five breweries in the city, fourteen were burned, and one, the National, was badly damaged by the falling of a large brick stack which demolished the stock house.

Ironically, the Hibernia plant might have been saved had a proper hose coupling been at hand. J.T. Murphy, Capt. of Engine No.29 reported:

"Word reached us that the tanks of the Hibernia Brewery contained 50,000 gallons of water, and on our arrival we were unable to make any use of this water, as the pipes connecting with the tank (located on the roof) were too small to make connections with our Engine."

Ruins of the Hiberia brewery ca.1906
Hibernia Brewery, April 1906

As bad as it was, with the expectation of insurance reimbursement, the Hibernian Brewery was rebuilt and in production by the end of the year.

Matthew's only son, Frank, had joined the company as a bookkeeper in 1885 and twenty-eight years later, in 1913, he's finally made a manager of the plant. This would appear that Frank wasn't motivated or that his father was reluctant to give up any control, but the position of "bookkeeper" was actually an executive position in this company equal to a corporate title of secretary/treasurer. Three years later Frank would be the manager, with total control.

As destructive as the fire & earthquake had been to his brewery, Matthew Nunan would be spared the pain of seeing his legacy destroyed. Matthew died on Jan. 7, 1916, four years prior to the enactment of national Prohibition.

Frank Nunan & Michael Sullivan were executors of the estate and Frank became the proprietor of Hibernia. Sullivan was the company's bookkeeper.

The Nunan family was never properly compensated for their claim against the insurance company. To avoid paying, the insurers claimed that it wasn't a natural disaster that destroyed the brewery, but a fire. The family sued but it was against a German insurance company and with the probability of entering the war in Europe, and receiving nothing, the family settled the claim. They received some compensation, but it was only pennies on the dollar.

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  • Thanks to Dr. Thomas Jacobs for the image of his 1905 Hibernia calendar, curved glass sign, and for extracts from his article on the Hibernia Brewery that was published in the November - December, 1987 issue of the American Breweriana Journal.
  • To Bob Standish for the photo of his gr-gr-grandfather on the Hibernia beer wagon, as well as family history.
  • To Thos Muller for the portrait of Anthony Durkin.
  • And to John Kirby for his help with the Nunan family background and SF history.


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