Steam Beer—America’s Monumental Brew Still Going Strong
Whenever I visit the San Francisco Bay area, I always make sure to have some draught Anchor Steam Beer. This is California’s monumental contribution to America’s great beer heritage, and a cornerstone brew in our ongoing craft beer revolution. California common beer, as the style is known, remains one of my favorite styles, but finding it on draft outside of San Francisco is fairly rare.
Nevertheless, California common is, in my opinion, closely related to another favorite of mine: Düsseldorf-style altbier. Common beer is fermented with lager yeast at warm ale-temperatures and aged in lager style, also at warmer temperatures; whereas alt-bier is fermented with ale yeast and aged lager-style at much colder aging temperatures. They make an interesting comparison, mostly because the two styles are so similar to each other.
California Steam Beer a.k.a. California Common Beer
California steam beer was the bridge between those old styles and the new craft beer movement. This beer type, introduced in the later part of the 19th century, only reached its full potential in the 1970s as the last great American style of the old days and the first great American style of the new craft beer era.
Steam beer originated in about 1851, a little after the California Gold Rush started. It is actually an ale, warm fermented, but with bottom working (lager) yeast instead of the usual top working (ale) yeast normal for that beverage. These mid-nineteenth century immigrant German brewers finished out their beer, in warm California, as they had been taught: that is by lagering it in cool cellars (but not as long, and not as cold). Those German brewers were lager-addicted. In Germany, they had even started lagering their top fermented ales (altbier) and in this new country they were forced to brew bottom-fermented beer at warm temperatures, where cold ferments and lagering were unfeasible.
As time went by, this new beer came to be kräusened in the German (lager) style, rather than primed in the English (ale) fashion. Priming is the addition of sugar to the finished beer, which then causes a ferment in the container, resulting in a small increase to the alcohol content and the carbonation of the finished beer. German brewers felt obligated, even in this new country that had adopted them, to follow the ancient Reinheitsgebot purity law. Sugar was verbotten, so a small volume of kräusen (new fermenting beer) was added directly to the casks before bunging (closing) and delivery. This additional ferment gave the product a rich, creamy head, especially so because the beer was served warmer and therefore under much heavier pressure (carbonation) than we are accustomed to seeing these days.
A beer writer of the time, John Buchner, writing in the Western Brewer, in 1898, gives us the scoop: “Steam Beer is bottom fermenting at high temperatures of 60-69F/15-20C… [the beer] is allowed 10-12 days…from mash tub to glass.” “Steam” refers to strong CO2 pressure 50-60-lbs/in2 caused by kräusening with green beer as priming, thus building steam. Buchner was no fan: “not a connoisseur’s drink… tastes better than raw hopped, bitter and turbid ales.”
Steam beer was a bridge between ales and lagers of the nineteenth century and also a bridge to the twentieth. Even though ice machines became available by the 1870s, steam beer remained popular in San Francisco and other parts of California and, indeed, the nation.
Give Me Steam
The production of steam beer flourished, and by the end of the nineteenth century there were over a hundred steam beer breweries in California, with others in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and as far east as Wisconsin!* At one time there were 27 steam beer breweries in San Francisco alone; but the number declined as did the popularity of the product, so that by Prohibition (1919) only seven remained.
When Prohibition was repealed in early 1933, only one steam brewery, the Anchor Brewery (founded in 1896), was revived. Anchor was the smallest U.S. post-Prohibition brewery, and it was always lowest in production during those years. Moreover, production continued to drop from around 1500 barrels (46,500-gal; 1760-hl) in the early years, to less than 700 by 1965.
Clearly, the handwriting was on the wall; bankruptcy seemed inevitable for the faltering company. It was only by a twist of fate that young Fritz Maytag heard of the brewery’s plight from Fred Kuhn, owner of San Francisco’s Old Spaghetti Factory.**
Maytag, 27, was just out of Stanford Graduate School (Asian Studies), and not at all enthused about his family’s dairy business in Newton, IA, or in the washing machine branch of the family, for that matter. He did like beer and he had come to enjoy the special qualities of steam beer at the Old Spaghetti Factory. The next morning he went to visit the brewery to offer his condolences to the owners and ended up buying a major interest. It was fortunate that he took control of the brewery, because he proceeded to make small brewing a sound idea.
I suppose the craft brewery movement in North America actually began in California at that time. Maytag reformulated the beer along traditional pre-Prohibition lines with the help of consultant Joseph Owades. At first, no one noticed and success eluded him; but gradually Maytag was able to build his flagship brand Steam Beer into what has since been recognized as a world-class beer. At one point, in 1980, he sued a rival company, California Steam Beer Brewing Co., because he thought they were brewing such bad beer as to ruin the good name of steam beer. At that time he trademarked the name “Steam Beer.”
Anchor Brewery, at 1705 Mariposa in San Francisco, has achieved great national success; an inspiration to craft brewers everywhere. Their production, steady for several years now at under 120,000-bbl/3,720,000-gals, has reached the growth limit that Maytag has held for the brewery, ranking 13th among U.S. craft brewers. Fritz Maytag is clearly the father of the craft brewing movement in the United States.
*Although some of these so-called “steam” brewers might have labeled themselves “steam” from the fact that they used pasteurization.
** Coincidentally, this was where I first tasted Anchor Steam Beer in 1968. It was unbelievably delicious to my then-uneducated palate. I was just beginning to discover fine quality beer.
Fred Eckhardt lives and drinks beer and a wide variety of alcohol beverages in Portland, Oregon, but Anchor Steam remains a favored libation.