The year is 1994. Nelson Mandela has been elected president of South Africa; Amazon.com is founded by Jeff Bezos; the Chunnel between France and the United Kingdom is newly opened; famed athlete and actor O.J. Simpson is in a white Ford Bronco going somewhere with his friend Al Cowlings; I am a junior at Palm Desert High School, just getting into craft beer.
OK, it wasn’t yet “craft beer”; it was called “microbrew” back then, and it was beginning to gain traction with the public thanks to breweries like Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada.
Enter Erik Neiderman. He decided to be way ahead of his time, and opened the Palm Springs Brewing Company in downtown Palm Springs.
To put this in some context, San Diego’s craft-beer scene was just getting under way. Today, there are more than 150 breweries in San Diego County … and three here in the desert. That fits my definition of “ahead of the curve.”
However, as I began looking into the brewery, I became troubled by the utter lack of information about it. Sure, I got returns for the current Palm Springs Brewing Company beers at Revel Public House (this incarnation isn’t brewing beer—yet; Mason Ale Works is contracted to make the brews at the moment), but the only thing on the first PSBC I could find was an interview with Erik Neiderman’s father, Andrew, by Palm Springs Life magazine. Andrew Neiderman is the author of many books including The Devil’s Advocate (yes, the story that was made into a movie where Al Pacino became a full caricature of himself; he hasn’t looked back since). The article mentions the brewery briefly, but there was nothing of substance.
This meant I needed to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I asked my friend Joshua Kunkle, librarian and president of the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club, where I should go next. I had an eerie feeling I might have to sort through microfiche (Google THAT, kids!), but Josh found a breadcrumb thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine: It was Palm Springs Brewing Company’s website from the 1990s, shown here. (It’s so beautifully ’90s that it made me nostalgic for the old modem dial-up sounds.) It was a good start, but I needed to keep digging.
I eventually tracked down Erik Neiderman through the website of the company for which he now works. Thankfully, he was less creeped out and more impressed. (Does this make me an investigative beer journalist? Can I travel around the world and just do this now? Maybe I can get a TV show. And a badge. I definitely want a badge.)
Erik Neiderman was kind enough to answer some of my questions via email.
How did you get started with brewing?
I was in the restaurant business for a few years. I had been vacationing in San Diego, where one of the first brewpubs, Brewski’s, opened. I wasn’t much for beer in those days. A friend suggested I try this new microbeer. After that, I wanted to open my own place.
What was your training?
I was trained by a handful of brewers. I didn’t attend a trade school or university for brewing sciences. Back then, I think only UC Davis had a program. After my first few months of training, I hired a brewer to work with me when I opened the original restaurant/brewery. That was actually called BrewMeisters.
What were the beers/breweries in what used to be known as “microbrewing” that you enjoyed?
We primarily brewed English-style ales. From a business perspective lager- or pilsner-style beers didn’t seem practical, although later on we did brew a few varieties. My favorites where old English style; (I’m) not sure if they would be considered “microbrewing.” … Going to the Great American Beer Festival back in the early days was such a treat. We would meet home-brewers trying to make a go of it. I tasted some amazing beers back in those days.
When did the brewery open, and when did it ultimately close?
(We were) open in 1994, closed the restaurant in 1996 (sold it, actually), and continued to brew offsite and bottle and keg until 2001. We had built a 500-barrel production plant off of Gene Autry Trail.
What were some of your favorite/proudest moments there?
The people. Everyone was new to the idea, and everyone contributed to making something of it. It wasn’t easy, since most people had been a fan of Bud or Coors. When we sold our first keg off-site, I think I was most proud of what we did: Someone else wanted to tap and serve our beer at their establishment.
Your favorite beers you brewed there?
Porter and stout. I liked beers with flavor.
Do you still enjoy craft beer? If so, whose beers are you a fan of? It’s an amazing world compared to the late ’90s, especially here in So Cal.
Honestly, I’m a wine guy. I do enjoy my beer from time to time. I just came back from Germany a few weeks ago. Had some great brews there. Once in a while, I will buy a few just to reminisce.
Why did the brewery close down?
We sold the restaurant off in 1996 to focus on off-site production. We built the 500-barrel production plant with the first in-line pasteurizer, for shelf-stable microbrew. We turned the production plant into a home for the little guys as well. We dedicated 150 barrels of fermentation to “Mom and Pop” shops that couldn’t afford a bottling line and allowed them to come in to brew and finish the beer. We would then bottle it for them. That is how we made money besides selling our own products around the desert.
In 2001, I was approached by a company that made soda. We started to produce soda for them on the side. This led to more soda, and eventually they brought me a product to produce that was called Energy in a bright-green package. We made a deal to build a larger plant in Indio just for their products. That took us out of the beer business; I handed most of my products and clients to a friend in the high desert. He still operates today: Indian Wells Brewing Company, (run by) Rick Lovett. Oh, and that “Energy” drink in the bright green package … they changed the name from “Energy” to “Monster.”
A special thanks to Erik for his help in satisfying my curiosity. He left me with one last thought: “I hope that helps you out. Fun thinking about the old times. One of my partners in the business passed away a few years ago, and his sister sent me a news article from the brewery. Good times. I hope your experience with brewing is among the best times of your life. It was for me.”
With that, I raise a toast in honor of the original Palm Springs Brewing Company.
You may have noticed I’ve changed my sobriquet (there’s a $10 word for you) for the column to Caesar Cervisia—Latin for “beer emperor.” This was done at the behest of a certain organization that wanted me to either use my full title (Certified Cicerone™) or something else entirely. The name I chose (thank you, Joaquin, for the suggestion!) seemed appropriate for two reasons: First, it’s been almost a full year since I started writing this column, following in the footsteps of The Beer Goddess, Erin Peters. But alas, I am no immortal, so I settled for “emperor.” Second, the name I was forced to change was derived from Latin, so it seemed poetic to use it myself.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.