On Innes Avenue, one of the main streets in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, a leafy retreat known as Albion Castle hides in plain sight.
“Once you close the door, it’s like you’re the only one here,” said Nat Medina, the son-in-law of owner Bill Gilbert. Gilbert, a native San Franciscan and former police lieutenant, is now 78, but he remembers seeing Albion Castle when he was just 8 years old.
His parents used to buy shrimp across from the castle, where Chinese fishermen sold the crustaceans wrapped in newspaper.
In the days just after World War II, Hunters Point was still an operating naval yard, and Albion Castle was the Mountain Springs Water Company, once the only freshwater supplier in all of San Francisco.
But Albion Castle’s history goes back another century. The stately edifice—a stone structure modeled after the Norman castles of England—housed the Albion Brewery, where founder John Hamlin Burnell produced porters and ales for thirsty San Franciscans.
Burnell, who was born in England and came to San Francisco via British Columbia, first tried to make his fortune in the fur trade before turning to brews. He wanted to make English-style tipple, for which a supply of fresh water was a key ingredient. “Albion” is a romanticized name for Great Britain, related to the word “albino,” and it may refer to the white cliffs of Dover—the first thing travelers see when sailing to England from Europe.
After his death in 1890, Burnell’s widow and brother took over the business, operating the brewery until Prohibition forced its closure in 1919.
Gilbert installed a complex water filtration system—seven filters in total—thinking that someday he would begin bottling water again. The company used to produce 50,000 bottles a day, according to Medina.
Burnell built the brewery in 1870, hand-carving tunnels into the hillside where an aquifer was located. These caverns brim with the wet stuff even today. Although Gilbert used to rent out the castle on Airbnb, people’s penchant for climbing into the pools—which has led to costly repairs—spurred the family to decide to open the residence only for select gatherings, like dinner parties and weddings.
More generally, however, crime has not been a problem.
“The only break-ins have been by raccoons,” said Jennifer Gilbert, a daughter of Bill Gilbert who manages the property.
And while there have been rumors that the property is haunted, the only intruders are those same raccoons, according to the family.
Still, over the years, Albion Castle’s appeal has remained undimmed. In the 1940s, a sculptor named Adrien Voisin restored the castle, bringing back its former glory while adding sculptures and landscaping. Voisin continued to live on the property after the Mountain Springs Water Company purchased the estate in the 1970s.
Today, visitors can still see the remains of the ovens that used to heat up the malt for the beer, which was produced and sold in ceramic bottles until 1919, when Prohibition began.
“The magic of the beer is in the natural spring water,” Jennifer Gilbert said.
The water is so magical that people specifically request it, according to Gilbert. Native Americans believe the water has healing properties, and the area was potentially once an Ohlone settlement.
The beer itself was also tasty: More than a decade before Anchor Brewing Company became San Francisco’s most famous hometown producer, Albion Brewery’s ale won a silver medal at the Mechanics’ Fair in 1882.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org