Sometimes it is good to examine a success story and see what really happened. This is just one such story.
Steam beer reached its full potential in the 1970s as the first great "American" style in the new, mostly ale-producing, craft beer era.
Even as the great lager beer revolution of the mid to late 19th century flowered here and in Europe, a minor movement took place in a parallel vein in California.
California steam beer is the beer style bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, between the lager revolution and the ale movement that preceded it.
Steam beer, introduced in the last half of the 19th century, was at that time a minor hybrid style, an outgrowth of the lager revolution. Oddly, steam beer, the last great American style of that era, actually reached its full potential in the 1970s as the first great “American” style in the new, mostly ale-producing, craft beer era. The grandfather beer to our beloved microbrew revolution.
A Little History, If You Please
Steam beer was first brewed in about 1851, a little after the California gold rush started. It is very close to being an ale: warm fermented, but with bottom-working (lager) yeast instead of the usual top-working (ale) yeast normal for that beverage.
Lager beer, a child of cooler climes, was necessarily fermented and aged at cold temperatures, often in caves and deep cellars, kept cool by ice blocks harvested in local lakes.
Mid-19th-century California, at gold rush times, with its influx of immigrants, many from central Europe, was a budding market for the new mellow lager beer. Unfortunately, California simply didn’t get cold enough for a lager ferment.
Warm ferment was the only answer. The newly devised system called for an initial ferment in large shallow pans called clarifiers. The beer was then transferred to closed casks, where it was kraeusened in the German (lager) style, rather than primed in the English (ale) fashion. Priming is the addition of sugar syrup to the finished beer. That causes a new ferment resulting in a small increase in alcohol content and carbonation of the finished beer. German immigrant brewers felt obligated, even in this new country that had adopted them, to follow the ancient 1516 Bavarian Reinheitsgebot purity law. Sugar was verboten, so a small volume of kraeusen (new fermenting beer) was added 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). Actually, it was about the same pressure as is found in a good bottle of French champagne, some four times the pressure of beer served today. When the beer keg was tapped, there was often a loud hiss. Folks came to call this beer “steam” beer, perhaps for that very reason.
The production of steam beer flourished, and by the end of the 19th century, there were over 100 steam beer breweries in California, with others in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and as far east as Wisconsin. Some of these so-called steam brewers might have labeled themselves “steam” from the fact that they used pasteurization, called “steaming” in those days. At one time, 27 steam beer breweries operated in San Francisco alone, but the number declined, as did the popularity of the product. By the time of Prohibition in 1920, only seven remained.
The lone survivor in this crap shoot was the old Anchor Brewery of San Francisco, closed from 1920 to 1933. Thirteen years of Prohibition had taken its toll of steam beer aficionados; they were a small, enthusiastic, but aging group.
Prohibition had also taken its toll on the brewing equipment from the old 1896 Anchor brewery, some of which had survived the 1906 earthquake, which the original brewery had not.
In 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, Joseph Kraus and Joe Allen reopened the old brewery and revived the beer, as the only “steam” brewery to open after Prohibition.
In 1934, they moved to 398 Kansas St., at 17th, where the brewery remained in production until 1959. At that time, a final move settled the old brewery in at 541 8th St., under the freeway. They reopened there in August of 1960. Joe Allen and Lawrence Steese were the major figures, and 27 years after Repeal, their customer base had steadily diminished.
By 1965, perhaps 10 outlets existed for the company’s draft-only product. Production had been reduced to single monthly brews; the “steam beer” aficionado pool was growing old and would soon be gone. Worse, the beer was regularly sour and contaminated. Clearly, the handwriting was on the wall; bankruptcy seemed inevitable for the faltering brewery.
Enter Maytag: Fritz the Great, savior and father to a new revolution. This has to be one of those wonderful serendipitous events in world history, because it is clear that, if Maytag had been paying attention, he would have known better than to buy into such a financial swamp.
The story has often been told about how Maytag, the scion of the great washing machine and cheese family, rescued the old brewery. What hasn’t been made clear was how the man’s personality reacted to this situation. It is a story of how one man’s vision of purity and devotion was able to revive a failing business. He risked everything, including personal family relationships (his wife divorced him), in this venture. For almost 12 years, his investment rested on the brink of failure, before becoming the centerpiece of the whole 20th-century craft beer revolution.
Maytag reformulated the beer along what he hoped were traditional pre-Prohibition lines, with the help of consultant Joseph Owades. At first, no one noticed and success eluded him. Gradually, he was able to build his flagship brand, San Francisco Steam Beer, into what has since been recognized as a world-class beer. It was hard work, requiring constant attention to every detail of the operation.
At one point, in 1980, he sued an upstart rival, the California Steam Beer Brewing Co., of San Rafael, which had started operations in 1979, because he thought they were brewing such bad beer that it would ruin the good name of steam beer. He was able to trademark “Steam Beer” to protect the company’s good name.
“Our position,” Maytag explained in 1983 in the San Francisco Chronicle, “is that while steam beer (once) meant something to many breweries; for more than  years it has meant the product of this particular brewery and only this brewery.”
Beyond Mere Style
It should be noted here that while most of us see various beer styles as more or less interchangeable, Maytag views his steam beer as a multi-dimensioned accomplishment, well beyond mere style.
Ingredients and temperatures are not enough. You need large, open, shallow clarifiers, and the kraeusening to do the thing properly. Even that would not satisfy Maytag, whose brewery has been the only brewery making this type of beer for over 80 years now.
No, you would need the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, with its beautiful copper brew house, large, open clarifying vessels, and none other will do. In the November 1980 Brewers Digest, Maytag told us, “There is nothing quite like our beer anywhere in the world. Our brewing methods evolved gradually, based on what we knew about the past traditions, and also using a lot of common sense.”
The Anchor Brewery has since achieved national success, to become an inspiration to aspiring craft brewers everywhere. The company’s production, steady for several years now at just under 100,000-barrels, has reached a growth limit that Maytag, now 64, has set for the brewery. They ranked 17th in 2000.
It has been Maytag’s single-minded, 37-year devotion to this brewery and his dedication to quality and quality control that made it all possible.