What some of us would simply call ‘drinking on the job’, workers at the 19th-century Pearl brewery in San Antonio, Texas, had a special name for: the Sternewirth Privilege – a policy that allowed beermakers a tipple during the day.

Those days are long gone – Pearl Brewing Company moved out of its factory in 2001 – but the spirit of the Sternewirth Privilege remains in the 1894 building, which has reopened as the Hotel Emma.

Now, it’s the guests that can indulge in daytime drinking.

Design studio Roman and Williams was tasked with revamping the brewery structure – the crown jewel of a sprawling 23-acre site known as the Pearl campus. Led by the husband and wife team of Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer, the firm preserved many of the beer-making factory’s original details, with traces of the site’s industrial heritage on show in every nook and cranny.

The Hotel Emma in San Antonio, Texas
Photography: Scott Martin

Bill Shown, managing director of real estate for the hotel’s developer Silver Ventures, says the deliberate raw aesthetic was ‘out of respect and appreciation of the Pearl’.

Heavy steel beams, wood-burning fireplaces and stone pillars dot around the hotel. Patterned concrete tiles were also recovered for the floor. In the lobby, the flywheel of an old generator becomes the centrepiece of the space.

‘We wanted to celebrate that history – not cover it up,’ says Shown. ‘By keeping much of the interior intact, the authenticity and history of the place was maintained.’

Roman and Williams complemented this by sourcing furniture and objects dating back to the same time the brewery was constructed – pieces including leather armchairs and brass, bronze and blown-glass chandeliers around the 146-room hotel.

The Hotel Emma in San Antonio, Texas
Photography: Scott Martin

Elsewhere, a two-storey library is home to 3,700 books that guests can borrow. The hotel’s 1,500 sq ft courtyard has a water feature made from salvaged tanks once used in the brewery. There’s even a grocery shop, called Larder, tucked away in the old brewing cellars.

A restaurant, aptly named Supper, serves farm-to-table American grub while the Sternewirth bar’s 25 ft vaulted ceilings provide a lofty setting for guests to invoke the same drinking privilege as the old brewery workers.

For Bill Shown, the Hotel Emma sets a new standard for historic hotel design ‘by its juxtaposition of grittiness and authenticity with elegance’.

It also lays down a marker for the Pearl campus, which was acquired by Silver Ventures in 2001. A culinary and cultural scene has sprung up in the last decade – thanks to a year-round farmers’ market and countless bars, shops and restaurants – spearheading the revitalisation of Midtown and northern Downtown San Antonio. The hotel is just one more reason to visit.

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