Steaming Into the Thirties (Part VII)

Steam Beer During Prohibition

We have seen in earlier parts that steam beer was a form of common beer, typically but not always bottom-fermented.

Common beer, known in Kentucky (and much beyond, it should be added) was a 19th century form of ale (or vice versa), a top-fermented product that could be made in anywhere from three to 12 days for the market.

“Ale” as such in the period generally meant (as for lager) a stored/aged/vatted product. Common beer including steam beer and cream ale was its converse: quick-fermented at warmish temperatures, left to build a strong fermentation in the barrel when sent to market or given a carbonation assist by krausening (or heading or filling if you will).

We can call it a “running beer” in UK terms except UK mild and bitter ales were generally not wanted nearly as carbonated. The various venting techniques of Britain – spiling, removing the bung – were not used in America c.-1900 except for the fast-disappearing still or flat ale.

We have seen how steam beer taps out in its California heartland in 1919, ahead of Prohibition’s commencement in January 1920. Various obstacles including a mandated 2.75% ABW limit took the heart out of the beer and the makers.

So Prohibition comes, and steam beer is forever gone. Yes? Not exactly.

Perhaps due to its location so far from Washington, D.C. over the yawning Continent, California retained a particular insouciance about Prohibition. Certainly the scofflaws existed everywhere in the country. These were the bootleggers, illicit brewers and distillers, and patrons of blind pig bars. But a 1924 news report on longshoremen’s bars and drinking in San Francisco tells us the dockers blithely continued drinking real steam beer for two years after start of Prohibition.

Printed in a Connecticut labour newspaper in October that year, the account gives a vivid picture of a classic market for the drink in its spiritual home, San Francisco. This was the hard-working dock workers, whose daily consumption – outside holidays when it could double – was a couple of gallons!

That’s about 20 12-oz. bottles, and to think some men reached double that on special days is hard to believe, but there it is.

Clearly someone was brewing the traditional drink as if nothing had changed, but finally enforcement or public rectitude, probably both, eliminated the offending fluid and the old saloons. The few bars that were still in business by the time the report appeared, only some 20, were all true soft drink bars. As to the longshoremen, they turned to milk as their restorative cum solace – hardly the same thing except in calories I guess.

Steam beer was now gone, at least in anywhere near the open fashion evident between 1920 and 1922. To be sure the mens’ overall health must have improved: that much must be said.

The drink would return in faltering steps in 1933, but would never regain its pre-Prohibition importance, nothing near it.

There is more to say about steam beer in California after 1924 and before Repeal in 1933. Next part.

Before that though, let’s ponder the glory days of steam beer in old California, as memorialized by The Connecticut Labor News:

No other city boasted [steam beer] … at least not until San Francisco created the demand, and nowhere else was it so good. Almost everybody drank steam: bankers, business men, truck drivers, Van Ness avenue society queens, humble wash ladies. But of all the places in San Francisco where steam was consumed, there was no place that vied in quantity of consumption with the embarcadero. Every day, wide-wheeled brewery wagons, drawn by sleek horses which the brewers refused to supplant with the more efficient auto-truck, used to deliver 800 filled kegs to waterfront saloons. Popular gossip was that the ordinary capacity of each grimy, sweating longshoreman was two gallons daily…

Image below, from National Park Service, shows San Francisco’s Port of Embarkation in 1933, the year National Prohibition ended.

N.B. The statement above of steam beer’s appeal through the social mosaic varies from earlier accounts that type it as a working-class, lower-echelon drink. Social history is anything but reducible to simple formulas.

The remaining Parts (through to Final, so two more) follow in succession below.

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.