Steaming Into the Thirties (Part IV)

Oregon Steam Beer

Steam beer, while apparently Californian in origin (c. 1850), had a surprising geographical and socio-cultural reach, lasting about two generations. If I was 25 and looking for a doctoral subject, I might take on “Steam Beer: a Study in Historic Economic Geography”.

If you are still reading, consider that steam beer was far from just San Franciscan. It was made in numerous counties in California although generally in the north. It was made in Nevada. In Oregon and Washington. In British Columbia, including Nanaimo and New Westminster. And in Alaska and Yukon.

I have seen advertisements for steam beer in all these places, sometimes with reference to the Californian origins.

In part, the peripatetic nature of mining explained its expansion. But also it stands to reason a beer known and liked by many would spread within the general geographical region. And that took in more or less all the places of its migration, so California and straight north through to Canada and Alaska, and some or all of the Mountain States.

Here, I’ll mention one instance outside California, charming for the phraseology of an ad whence we know its existence and the variety of beers produced.

This was Mason’s Steam Brewery in Oregon City, which is about a dozen miles south of Portland, in the northwest of the State.  Here is the ad, as printed in 1869 in a newspaper of the city:

The term brewage is hardly even colloquial English, although I’ve seen it used in contemporary beer writing in England. It suggests a rhyme not very appetizing, but perhaps this was an Oregon City in-joke. Or simply demonstrative of an ingenuous owner.

The neatly-named C.C. Smart took over from the previous owner. I have not been able to determine how long each ran the brewery. A John Mason is recorded for small-scale brewing in San Francisco in the second half of the 1800s. Perhaps he had worked earlier in Oregon.

The product range is noteworthy as except for a steam beer, presumptively made with lager yeast, the other beers were clearly top-fermented in the British tradition. One can read the ad though to mean “steam ale” – in which case it was all top-fermented.

In fact, since no price is quoted for steam beer or ale as such, quite possibly Cream XX was available in two versions: fizzy (steam) and flat (still). If so again both were probably top-fermented.

Note how an XXX, or strong, ale is mentioned as part of the range. When comes time to mention the price, suddenly it is XXK, not exactly the same thing. Printer’s error?

It seems unlikely to me that Smart and his predecessor fermented in two sets of equipment for these beers, but it is possible. In California, Alaska, and British Columbia, an ad might tout steam beer, lager, and porter. By mentioning lager separate from steam beer, it is clear I think that a bottom yeast was used for both. See e.g. George Lauck in Santa Clara, CA c. 1916.

Porter in such ads may have been either top- or bottom-fermented, likely the former for larger breweries.

In the context of a small brewery such as Smart’s, where “lager” is not mentioned, it is much less clear that he had two yeasts in the brewery. If he had only one, it almost certainly was a conventional top yeast.

The flat ale is rather intriguing. Smart was not the only brewer in Oregon to advertise flat beer. In the East it was called still ale, something in my experience seen only in parts of the Northeast, where British influence endured for cultural and historical reasons.

Here out in northern Oregon – across the wide Continent – we find just after the Civil War the same thing, the most British form of draught there is, cask ale in other words.

Perhaps an Anglo cultural strain ran through this part of Oregon at the time. After all, who founded Oregon City? It was the Hudson’s Bay Company some 40 years earlier. It took years for the Northwest border to be settled. British influence competed with American in what became at start of the Civil War the state of Oregon.

On the same page of the newspaper in which Smart’s ad appeared, we find this ad:

Yet more beer connections to Albion, and rather direct ones. Joule’s Stone Ale, which I’ve discussed earlier, was a reputed product of Staffordshire. It was exported as far afield as Australia. I suspect the Shade saloon’s supply came across the Pacific from there. That’s a long journey from England.

The taste must have differed from Smart’s locally-made “brewages”, but how, and what the saloon-goers of newly formed Orego thought of each, we can never know.

Today great ales are again made in Oregon, indeed the State was a cradle of the craft beer revival. In between though a great wash of lager ran through it, taking no prisoners. Even in 1869 flat ale wasn’t long for the (American) world, but hand pumps pull again today in and around Portland – or will once we get from under the blight of this pandemic.

Meanwhile, ponder this scene of mid-19th century Oregon City. Somewhere in the background were being supped fine ales of Britain, mediately or immediately, and an emerging beer style of the United States, or a simulacrum. The weather looks about right for them, too.



The Image immediately above was sourced from the entry on Oregon City in Wikipedia, here.

See Part V for a continuation of this series.

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.




2 thoughts on “Steaming Into the Thirties (Part IV)”

  1. Just to emphasize further viz. whether Smart meant steam beer (lager yeast) or steam ale (ale yeast), the fact that the brewery was called Steam Brewery doesn’t mean, or only mean, this was just another brewery using steam power as many did in the U.K. and Britain to heat the kettle or otherwise. And the reason this is so is, he includes the term steam in a description of one of his beers. This could only have been meant as an allusion to California steam beer. If his was just another steam-powered brewery, he wouldn’t distinguish one beer of the range as steam beer (or ale). It would all be steam beer…

    • About three months earlier in 1869, Smart advertises his steam brewery as producing simply strong ale and porter. No steam and still ales. In the later ad, he states he sold off the stock on hand when he purchased the brewery. I infer quite possibly by December 1869, he decides to bill one of his beers as a (California) steam beer specifically. What he may have done is, brew a beer less strong than XXX and offer it in two forms: fizzy and still. Likely it was all top-fermented. How far it resembled true steam beer is difficult, nay impossible, now to say, but I doubt he would vaunt it as steam beer, which travelling people in the far west had to know who knew California, without some basis (in palate) to it.

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