A Bit of the Irish on the Canadian Frontier
Due to continually rich material appearing for this series, George F. Goerl, a pre- and post-Prohibition brewer connected to steam beer, will appear later.
For now, consider a name that will resonate with many reading: Damon Runyon, the author and journalist who bequeathed his surname to a character genre. A mid-20th century writer, he was based in New York but had roots in the West and had spent some time in San Francisco.
In March 1941, with the help of a source, he recalled the steam beer era in his syndicated column, “The Brighter Side”, which you can read here.
He wrote what many others had, that steam beer was a drink peculiar to San Francisco and gassy. Unlike many he was no fan. Runyon had a propensity to over-drink in his earlier years, which perhaps affected this judgement.
Be that as it may, the column attracted the attention of a steam beer sentinel, is one way to put it. I have found, in my research over the years, that in every period there is someone with an unusual interest in beer who will take to the letter columns and today’s equivalent.
It may be Victorian Britain, 1910s America, 1980s Canada, 1941 New York or whenever. Before and after craft beer this was and will always be true.
And so with a war on in Europe, and America soon to enter the war, a person wrote in to correct Runyon. On April 1, 1941 Runyon’s column in the Endicott Daily Bulletin included the letter. It is of good historical interest for the detail conveyed.
According to Merriam-Webster a cheechako is a tenderfoot, or greenhorn many might say, and derives from Indigenous languages.
Runyon’s correspondent evidently had worked in an occupation connected to the Gold Rush, indeed in cities and towns mainly associated with it (so roughly 1897-1905). The statement that steam beer was made in Alaska and Northwest Canada is, of itself, not surprising.
Breweries had sprung up to serve the miners and townspeople, and it is known some made steam beer.
A case in Canada is O’Brien Malting & Brewing in Klondike City (just outside Dawson City), which I’ll revisit later. Dawson City had the Dawson City Brewery which operated for a short period in the late 1890s.
The old-timer recorded that in Dawson City steam beer was served from two kegs, one being used to create the foam “collar”. This is analogous to the Irish two-cask serving system for stout used until the mid-1960s (the current Guinness “nitro” pour, from a single keg, replaced it).
Second, he notes the system of laying burlap on casks and strewing cereal grains on them to sprout. What could the reason for this possibly be? In Burton-on-Trent, U.K. in the late 1800s tiers of filled barrels were stored in the yard outside Bass brewery. Some type of covering was laid on them as insulation from the capricious weather.
But why do this in Alaska of all places? The short summers can be warmish in the far north, but don’t exceed 70 F from my checks, and the writer notes too the beer was drunk as fast as it was made.
A possibility I think is a kind of decoration, but given the unusually high pressures of steam beer, perhaps a cooling function was desired, and/or to provide fairly cool beer for the palate. The tender sprouts would have formed with the jute a bed to hold the chill. One thing is sure: that water was ice-cold, in any season.
The availability in Juneau of light and dark steam beer is noteworthy, an odd epicurean touch in a frontier context. Anchor Brewery, before Fritz Maytag took over in the 1960s, also issued its beer in two colours. Since it used, by this period, caramel to achieve the dark effect, Maytag wisely abandoned the practice. (Perhaps his rather amber beer was a compromise of hues).
The portrait of the bar in Seattle offers vibrant detail. With the right flourish a barkeeper could crack a boiled egg to stand on its end. I must try this, a bottle of Anchor Steam to alongside.
Steam beer truly was a California and Northwestern specialty, but its roots lay in numerous older beer and brewing traditions.
The image below is from Dawson City, Yukon, in 1899, exactly the period discussed. Note the tiered barrels, almost certainly to serve steam beer + collar.
These fellows, albeit nicely togged-out for the picture, look pretty tough. As the steam sentinel wrote, they had to be. Runyon understood that too, that was his world. (From Eric Hegg collection at the University of Washington Digital Library Collection).
Note: all images or quotations in this series were sourced from the historical newspaper, historical brewers’ journal, or other source as identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.