The city began as a center of crude oil production, was later propelled by citrus production, and is now an important retail center because of the large Brea Mall and the recently redeveloped Brea Downtown. Brea is also known for its extensive public art program which began in 1975 and continues today with over 140 artworks in the collection placed and located throughout the city. Brea's public art program has been used as a model and inspiration for many Public Art programs nationwide.
Sunset magazine named Brea one of the five best suburbs to live in the Western United States in early 2006.
The area was visited in 1769 by Gaspar de Portolà. A historical marker dedicated to his visit stands in Brea Canyon just north of town. He noted the local Native Americans as "dirty" without realizing that they used crude oil bubbling up in the canyon as topical medicine.
The village of Olinda was founded in present-day Carbon Canyon at the beginning of the 19th century and many entrepreneurs came to the area searching for "black gold" (petroleum). In 1894, the owner of the land, Abel Stearns, sold to the west of Olinda to the newly created Union Oil Company of California, and by 1898 many nearby hills began sporting wooden oil-drilling towers on the newly discovered Brea-Olinda Oil Field. In 1908 the village of Randolph, named for railway engineer Epes Randolph, was founded just south of Brea Canyon for the oil workers and their families. Baseball legend Walter Johnson grew up in Olinda at the start of the 20th century where he worked in the surrounding oil fields as a youth.
The villages of Olinda and Randolph grew and merged as the economy boomed, and on January 19, 1911, the town's map was filed under the new name of Brea, from the Spanish language word for tar. With a population of 752, Brea was incorporated on February 23, 1917, as the eighth official city of Orange County.
As oil production declined, some agricultural development took place, especially lemon and orange groves. In 1950 Brea had a population of 3,208. The citrus groves gave way gradually to industrial parks and residential development. In 1956, Carl N. Karcher opened the first two Carl's Jr. restaurants in Anaheim, California and Brea, California. The opening of the Orange Freeway (57) and the Brea Mall in the 1970s spurred further residential growth, including large planned developments east of the 57 Freeway in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. In the late 1990s, a swath of downtown Brea centered on Brea Boulevard and Birch Street was heavily redeveloped into a shopping and entertainment area with movie theaters, sidewalk cafes, a live comedy club from The Improv chain, numerous shops and restaurants, and a weekly farmer's market. It is locally known and signed as Downtown Brea.