STEAM BEER TODAY AND OF THE PRE-MAYTAG ERA
Something always struck me about Anchor Brewery of San Francisco: it never made huge efforts to associate its star brand with Anchor’s pre-Fritz Maytag era or California steam beer in general. Maytag, indeed of the famous washing machine family, is a legend in the beer business. He rescued Anchor from the edge of bankruptcy in 1965 and thereafter placed it on a solid quality and financial footing. This helped in the process to kick-start the craft brewing movement on the West Coast and ultimately everywhere.
Craft breweries usually go to great lengths to stress reliance on tradition. They like to say they make things the historical way and are channeling “the good old days” rather than relying on the latest advances of beverage chemistry and science. Of course, the reality is more complicated, but vaunting the old ways is still a mainstay of the business. Even when novelty is offered, e.g., an unusual spice is used, people often say, well in the old days they used everything under the sun to flavour beer, so…
Anchor has an unquestioned status as craft brewing avatar. Still, I feel the company has been somewhat equivocal about steam beer history and the extent to which it continues that tradition. To be sure, Anchor explains its history and heritage proudly, e.g. on this website. It notes the brewery has functioned under its present name since 1896 and has made steam beer since then, and some information is given on historical steam beer practices. Anchor’s labeling and advertising have always stressed an against-the-grain, even anti-“corporate” approach: small, hands-on, artisan have been the general themes for Anchor. At the same time, this extract from an Anchor coaster is instructive, and one can read similar things on bottle neck labels or from interviews with company representatives:
“The word ‘steam’ may have referred to the pressure of natural carbonation developing in the beers. Today the brewing methods of those days are a mystery, and for many decades Anchor alone has used the quaint name ‘steam’ for its unique beer. Today Anchor is one of the smallest and most traditional breweries in the world. San Francisco’s famous Anchor Steam beer is unique, for our brewing process has evolved over many decades and is like no other in the world”.
As one sees, Anchor considers the brewing methods of steam beer’s salad days, approximately 1850-1919, mysterious. It offers an explanation for the name steam but doesn’t commit itself to the story. Indeed, the website suggests another possible origin for the name, steam coming off wort fermented on the rooftops of old Bay Area breweries. (I find this persuasive, myself). By saying Anchor Steam is “unique” – twice – and like no other in the world, the brewery is marking off the beer from all others, but also to an extent from steam beer history. I offer some ideas below why Anchor has taken this approach.
But first, what was steam beer in the heyday mentioned? We have a fairly good idea from a number of articles or passages in books written around 1900. This article, from the December, 1903 American Brewers Review, gives a detailed account of California steam beer production. Some of its highlights are: use of lager yeast to ferment in the temperature range for ale or top-fermentation brewing; generally an all-malt character but with some brewers opting to include grain adjunct or some sugar; use of black malt or caramel to lend an amber cast to the beer; fermentation in shallow pans with an initial fermentation in “starting tubs”; hopping at about 3/4 lb per barrel; use of hops from the West Coast; and use of local malting barley as well.
The account states that for brewers without refrigeration equipment, before being fermented the wort was cooled in cooling equipment which was, as earlier accounts of steam beer breweries make clear, located on the top floors of the building. These were often provided with shutters to control in a primitive way air flow and temperature. These louvers can be seen in the image of Anchor Brewery above, from 1896.
Malting barley often used in California then was a particularly prized 6-row type called Bay Barley, it was said to have plump kernels and be similar to fine, European-raised 2-row barley. Hops then, as California still had active fields, was a Cluster type, originally a cross-breeding of wild American hops and a variety(ies) brought from Europe by British or Dutch settlers. While Cluster is still available, other hybrids have been developed since, one is called Northern Brewer.
In 1903, much steam beer was krausened as well, meaning some freshly fermenting beer was added to clarified, fully-fermented beer to add a final, strong carbonation and a fresh note.
How is Anchor Steam brewed today? The company uses 2-row pale malt as the base, and some caramel (darkish brown) malt to ensure a medium amber colour and a little sweetness. The hops used are the Northern Brewer variety, at about 1 lb per barrel, which offer a combination of old and new world hop tastes, as Cluster did. A classic, shallow fermenter and a deeper, square tank are used in a two-step process to ferment Anchor Steam Beer. Open coolers to cool the wort are no longer used as they had a potential to infect the beer – one of the quality issues Fritz Maytag addressed early on. The wort is mechanically cooled in a way similar to what other breweries do. The company krausens the beer, too.*
Also, all Anchor Steam Beer is pasteurized, by a flash process which however is felt less impactful on the beer (from a taste standpoint) than a more intensive tunnel pasteurization process.
Cooling the wort the modern way and even flash pasteurizing are simply ways to better ensure a beer’s stability. They don’t alter the character of the beer in any meaningful way.
My view is that in every important respect, Anchor Steam Beer reflects a classic steam beer tradition. It has the expected, slight aleish quality (fruity note) from a warm ferment but the roundness and clean quality of a lager beer. It is all-malt and uses a hybrid hop, as much steam beer around 1900 was, and did. Etc.
Anchor Steam is probably quite similar to much of the steam beer available before WW I. Since most breweries then used wooden vessels, which are hard to clean, some steam beer had unusual tastes. One surviving report, reprinted on Jess Kidden’s historical beer pages, called the taste “wild and gamy”. This may have meant some steam beer had a brettanomyces, “animal” note, or possibly a lactic edge from lactic acid bacteria. The 1903 article mentioned above likens the taste of steam beer to “weissbier”, of which some styles are sharp and lactic in taste. Anchor Steam Beer (fortunately!) does not have those tastes, but I’d think the best of the original steam beers were similar including, perhaps, the Anchor Steam of that era.
Why then would Anchor partly distance itself from the steam beer made by the brewery when Maytag bought a stake in 1965 (he obtained full ownership in 1969)? One answer is very clear and understandable, which Fritz Maytag has discussed many times in interviews. When he bought the brewery, the beer was inconsistent. Often it would go sour and bar owners were hesitant to stock a beer which was not reliably stable when sold. Also, due to straightened finances of the previous owner, sometimes sugar was used in the mash to reduce cost. Whether hop content from historical levels (see the 1903 article mentioned) was also cut back is unknown to me, but in any case today, Anchor Steam beer uses the aforementioned 1 lb hops per barrel, well within the historical range. Maytag commendably has ensured all-malt since the 60s.
The brewery back in ’65 was so small and faltering it had almost no fan base, certainly no cachet. Quality needed to be addressed to make the beer saleable and Maytag addressed it very effectively, not just in the changes noted above, but by buying new equipment, improving sanitation, and finally moving the brewery to a new, purpose-built location. So far so good, but after a few years went by, I think many breweries would have tied their product more directly to the earlier history of the brewery. Anchor didn’t though, for example, brewery representatives would be non-committal when asked what steam beer was. They might say, well, no one really knows today what steam beer was, and as only we sell a beer called steam beer, a beer evolved in our particular way, steam beer is what we make.
The name Anchor Steam Beer was registered in 1981 as a trademark as no other brewery had used the name steam beer since the 1930s, so indeed it is the only steam beer in the world in that sense.
Apart from the point that the beer was improved after Maytag took over, I think other reasons probably explain why the company has viewed its iconic brand as it has. One is that in the late 1960s, the small-is-good mantra was just beginning. Technology still had a powerful hold on the public imagination. After all, the first moon landing occurred in 1969. The Bay Area was the emerging birthplace, too, of the semi-conductor and computer industries. Arguing for technological savvy made sense even in a small-scale environment, then. (Of course it still does, but the recognition is less patent).
One can ponder, too, whether product uniqueness and non-specific historical character made the argument for a registered trademark more acceptable. Anchor wasn’t replicating an old, fuzzy beer style; it had by 1981 come up with something unique and distinctive. What was once a descriptive term – a term Anchor alone had used since the 1930s – became distinctive in its hands. It’s a good argument. At the same time, viewed more broadly, to me the beer is well within the historical frame of California steam brewing.
A final note: how does Anchor Steam Beer taste today? It tastes great particularly when consumed on draft in California or from a fresh bottle. Current bottles at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario are vibrant with sweet malt, a light estery (fruity) quality, and flowery hop taste. I’ve been drinking it off and on since the 70s and it has never been better. Truth to tell, it does seem to change somewhat from time to time. The current version seems more, or better-, hopped than I recall, but this may be more a question of how the beer is handled before being purchased.
Note re first image above: The image shown of the Anchor Brewery, from 1896, was sourced from this website (www.thehoppyhour.com) and is believed available for educational and historical purposes.
*Additional reading confirms that Anchor pitches its yeast at 60 F, similar to the range c. 1900 sources specify for steam beer. This is important as much of the steam beer character derives from lager yeast being used atypically at warm temperatures.