Old Spanish Days & The History of Santa Barbara Alcohol: Viva La Fiesta!

It’s Fiesta time in Santa Barbara! Strap on your historical clothing, crack some cascarones on your friends’ heads, pick up some craft beer, and celebrate Santa Barbara history. Oh, not to mention all of those fabulous dressage horses that are known to leave a few stray road apples on their way up State Street. Careful where you step!
Fiesta got us thinking about beer history and wondering what the Franciscan monks thought about beer. The short answer is that they didn’t, so we had to revise our thinking to wonder about the history of producing alcohol in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is well known for producing some of the finest ales and wines around, but how did it start?
While we’d love to tell you about the incredible beer that Spanish missionaries were brewing based on centuries old European recipes, it simply didn’t happen. The Spanish missionaries were more focused on wine and brandy. Starting in 1779 under the direction of Father Junipero Serra, Franciscan monks in California began to plant wine grapes, mostly the Criolla varietals, at the San Juan Capistrano mission. While the man’s history is controversial due to his treatment of native peoples, Junipero Serra left his mark on the alcohol culture of California by planting vineyards from San Diego all the way up to Sonoma County as he founded missions throughout this entire stretch.
By 1782, Junierpero Serra had traveled north and planted wine grapes in Santa Barbara in a vineyard right around Milpas Street. Four years later the Santa Barbara Mission had been established and expanded its operations to include two separate vineyards, enough to supply all of the monks and to provide the sacrament for services.  Look at old pictures of the Santa Barabara Mission and you’ll see a vineyard right next to the building.
Pretty soon the local land grant ranches had popped up around the county and all indications are that the original European settlers to the area were wine drinkers as well. Some of these ranches planted vineyards as well, although none were really producing at scale. NOTE: Despite our best efforts, we were unable to uncover any evidence of the Chumash fermenting beverages. If you know of any resources about it, please let us know!
The culture of producing alcohol in Santa Barbara really began to gain traction in the 1960s with the establishment of a commercial vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley and Pierre LaFond opening the Santa Barbara Winery. By the 70s the wine business had taken off and by the 90s it was booming.

In the madness of the expansion of the wine industry of the 90s, another key event took place: Santa Barbara Brewing Company opened its doors in 1995, launching the craft beer industry in the area. Firestone Walker was founded in 1996 and the Brewhouse, Island Brewing, and others followed in the coming years. You all know what’s happened since then with an explosion of craft beer options in the area. Where you used to have to saddle up and ride your horse up to the mission to get a drink of alcohol, you’ve now got incredible options no matter where you live!

Now craft beer is truly a part of Santa Barbara culture, and its very clearly a part of Fiesta weekend. Check out the beer selections at Fiesta events around town and you're sure to see a bunch of local beers. Or stop by one of the Fiesta parties taking place at the breweries around town and celebrate the production of alcohol in Santa Barbara this Fiesta weekend!


Photo by: Damian Gadal