Steam Beer. While in America today the name “steam beer” is claimed by a single San Francisco brewer, it was once a widespread beer style in California. In the mid-to-late 1800s, people streamed into the West, drawn by promises of the Gold Rush and wide open spaces. Beer, of course, went with them. By the late 1800s, an indigenous style called “steam beer” was brewed by perhaps as many as 25 breweries in San Francisco alone. In 1902, Wahl and Heinus’s American Handy Book of Brewing and Malting tells us, “This beer is largely consumed throughout the state of California. It is called steam beer on account of its highly effervescing properties and the amount of pressure (“steam”) it has in the trade packages. The pressure ranges from 40 to 70 pounds in each trade package, according to the amount of kräusen added, temperatures, and time it takes before being consumed and the distance it travels from saloon rack to faucet, etc.”
Other explanations abound for the original naming of steam beer, but it is agreed that the style adheres to general production methods: lager (“bottom- fermenting”) yeast is allowed to ferment the beer at warmer temperatures, resulting in a crisply nuanced yet hearty hybrid of both styles. The combined factors of the demand for the lager beers then capturing the world’s fancy and the lack of refrigeration available to brewers on America’s expanding western frontier led to the production of beers which satisfied both taxonomy and capability. Eventually this beer became a style unto itself. Steam beer’s rough-and-tumble production origins fit with its favor among the working class of the day, not unlike the role of porter in Industrial Revolution-era London. Literary mention of steam beer also indicates a less-than-sophisticated reputation. As refrigeration and more consistently modern brewing techniques came to the West, brewers moved to more strictly defined lager styles, resulting in the near-extinction of steam beer.
In 1965 Fritz Maytag, an heir to the resources of the Maytag washing machine family, became involved with the Anchor Brewing Company, which had brewed under that name in San Francisco since 1896 but which at the time was on the verge of bankruptcy. He not only rescued the brewery by eventually purchasing it outright but gave new life to its steam beer, which today remains the brewery’s flagship product. For years “Anchor Steam” was a strictly San Francisco staple, but in the 1980s it became more widely available throughout the United States and beyond.
Various breweries in America and elsewhere have historically appended the word “steam” to their beer in reference to the power plants firing their kettles and running their machinery. It is thought, however, that true steam beer owed its name to one or another procedural association in its production and serving. One had to do with the “steam,” or excess carbonation needing to be let off kegs of fresh beer preparatory to serving; another concerned the method of cooling the wort post-boil by running it into broad and shallow cooling vessels which allowed a proportionately large surface area to come into contact with cold outside air, resulting in distinctive and enveloping clouds of steam. This cooling procedure also adheres to the inherent low-tech aspects of frontier brewing.
Another interesting aspect of the steam beer mythos is the jealous manner in which Anchor Brewing protects the style-designated name of its principal beer. Time and again it has asserted its legally sanctioned (trademarked since 1981, and generally respected) ownership of the word “steam” in connection with beer and brewing. Letters have appeared on the doorsteps of more than a few brewers, requesting them to cease and desist the use of even oblique and playful reference to “steam beer” and threatening legal proceedings to enforce the same. Occasional recalcitrant American brewers have generally been brought to heel, but Anchor has found difficulty enforcing steamy sovereignty beyond American borders. Sleeman’s of Canada, for example, has proven able to defy Anchor’s attempted prohibition of its marketing of a steam beer under that name by proving the use of the name within Canada prior to Anchor’s introduction there. The Maisel Brewery in Bayreuth, Bavaria, produces a “steam beer” (dampfbier) as well, avowedly in reference to the old steam engines these days displayed alongside more modern equipment. An outgrowth of this assertion of right by Anchor has been the designation of the once-ubiquitous American steam beer style by various US judging entities as “California Common Beer,” including the Beer Judge Certification Program and the Brewers Association, which oversees both the World Beer Cup competition and the Great American Beer Festival. Smacking of political correctness and lacking all but a vestige of Old West color, the new designation would seem to discourage emulation of a beer with an interesting— as well as democratic—historical pedigree.
Since the Anchor beer stands alone in the legal marketing of American steam beers, some notes on its appearance and effect are perhaps appropriate. Dark amber in color, Anchor Steam displays strong carbonation, a touch beyond the usual. Its crispness of flavor is due both to its lager yeast and the Continental hops used, but there is also malt flavor and the fruitiness of warmer fermentation in evidence. It is noteworthy that such a hybrid would have served, in the infancy of the craft brewing movement, as a “gateway” beer to the uninitiated. Some years later Boston Beer Company (brewers of Samuel Adams Boston Lager) and many other American brewers would take similar approaches with their own beers. Perhaps a steam beer by any other name may yet taste as sweet.
Anchor Brewing. anchorbrewing.com (accessed October 20, 2010). Smith, Gregg. “Steam beer.” http://www.realbeer.com (accessed August 14, 2010).
Anchor Brewing. anchorbrewing.com (accessed October 20, 2010).
Smith, Gregg. “Steam beer.” http://www.realbeer.com (accessed August 14, 2010).