Karl Strauss, 94; master brewer for Pabst helped pioneer microbrew trend

Times Staff Writer

Karl Strauss, a German brew master who worked for Milwaukee beer giant Pabst Brewing Co. for 44 years before helping craft microbrews for his six namesake brew pubs in Southern California, has died. He was 94.

Strauss died Thursday at his Milwaukee home, Matt Rattner, president of San Diego-based Karl Strauss Brewing Co., said Tuesday. The cause of death was not reported.

After serving as Pabst’s master brewer and vice president of production, Strauss retired in 1983 and became a brew-making consultant when American microbreweries were booming.

“He was a proponent of smaller brewers, craft brewers from their very inception,” said Raymond J. Klimovitz, a Wisconsin beer consultant who serves on the executive council of the Master Brewers Assn. of the Americas.


About that time Rattner and fellow Stanford Business School alumnus Chris Cramer were living in San Diego and developing plans for a microbrewery, where beer is made in small batches and emphasis is placed on freshness, quality and full-flavored taste.

Their breakthrough came when they discovered Cramer’s distant cousin Strauss.

“He guided the way for us, provided recipes to us ... helped design the breweries that we were building and let us use his name,” Rattner said.

In 1989 Rattner and Cramer, who is chief executive officer, opened the first brewery in San Diego since Prohibition with three brews on tap: Karl Strauss Amber Lager, Gaslamp Gold and Downtown After Dark.


Strauss visited San Diego often and became an enthusiastic spokesman, his beaming face, thick German accent and sunny outlook creating an image the company carefully maintains.

Today Karl Strauss Brewing Co. has four brew pubs in the San Diego area, one in Costa Mesa and one at Universal CityWalk plus a beer garden at Disney’s California Adventure theme park in Anaheim. Up to three dozen varieties of beer are brewed throughout the year at the individual bars, and a facility in Pacific Beach brews and bottles six types of beer for retail sales.

Production is still relatively low, at a few thousand barrels per year, compared with the millions running through the siphons at industry behemoths Anheuser Busch, Miller and Coors.

Karl Martin Strauss was born in 1912 in a brewery in Minden, Germany, where his brew master father lived with his family. Strauss studied brewing at a technical institute in Munich and earned a certificate as a master brewer.


In the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler gained control of Germany, Strauss and his family made plans to flee the country. He saw some close relatives packed off to concentration camps, but Strauss reached the United States safely in March 1939.

On his way to join family in San Francisco, Strauss stopped to visit friends in Milwaukee and got a temporary job at the Pabst brewery.

Once Pabst realized that it had a Bavarian brew master in its employ, Strauss quickly advanced. He oversaw production at various Pabst brewing plants, including the Los Angeles Brewing Co. on North Main Street from 1948 to 1956. He was honored with the Master Brewers Assn. of the Americas’ distinguished life service award.

“He really had beer in his blood,” Rattner said.


Strauss is survived by his wife, Marjean Strauss, and four stepchildren. His first wife, Irene Vollweiler, died in 1978. He will be buried Friday at 1 p.m. at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

Instead of flowers the family has suggested donations to the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, 4950 Murphy Canyon Road, San Diego, 92123, with a notation to the Karl Strauss Brewers Education Fund.