Steaming Into the Thirties (Part VI)

Just Like Woodrow Wilson Did

Earlier in this series I mentioned that upon resumption of legal brewing in 1933, California brewers agreed with the State to limit their draught beer to 3.2% abw or 4% abv. This, according to some experts and press reports, meant steam beer couldn’t be successfully kegged. As a “live” product, continued fermentation might cause the alcohol to exceed the agreed strength.

The same logic applied to bottling, and in any case almost all bottled beer was pasteurized in the post-Prohibition period. The brewers may have felt you could pasteurize steam beer – Anchor Brewing does today, even the draught – but at the time steam beer was mainly a draught product.

In the result a few brewers did sell draught steam beer at the required strength, but except for (tiny) Anchor Brewing steam beer disappeared in the years following. The bad publicity could not have helped.

It occurred to me to check whether a similar issue existed in 1918-1919 because in that period many brewers manufactured beer with a maximum permitted alcohol of 2.75% abw (about 3.5% abv). The short answer is, yes, but first some background.

It is a complex political, constitutional, scientific, and legal story. I’ll simplify as best I can, and if I have anything awry, happy for comments.

Congress passed the 18th Amendment in December 1917. This banned the manufacture, sale and transport of beverage alcohol, to take effect one year after the last state ratified it under the 2/3rds requirement of the Constitution. Meanwhile, in January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure to set the legal limit for malt beverages at 2.75% abw.

He also required that brewers reduce their use of raw materials, effectively their output, by 30% over the previous year. This was justified as a war measure to conserve resources, but came in the wake of the historic 18th Amendment. With some justice many viewed 2.75% beer, “war beer” it was called, as barely beer, almost a temperance drink.

The 18th Amendment came into force in January 1920, one year after the last State ratified it under the 2/3rds formula, Utah. California had ratified earlier in January 1919.

In late 1918 Wilson, as a further war measure, banned any form of malt beverage – regardless of alcohol content. The war was over but not the mobilization set in play when America entered the war. The new beer rules would only end when the mobilization was declared terminated, with the larger issue of national Prohibition looming as ratification proceeded.

By the spring of 1919, the mobilization had ended. Malt beverage could be brewed provided it was “non-intoxicating”. The brewers took the view 2.75% abw beer was non-intoxicating, arguing the government acknowledged that by setting the limit earlier for war beer.

The government said no, and the Internal Revenue branch argued anything over .5% abv was intoxicating. Much litigation resulted, some of which ended in the Supreme Court. Jacob Ruppert, the famed brewer in New York, fought for the right to sell 2.75% abw beer as did a company, Standard Brewing, in New Orleans.

In the second half of 1919 some companies brewed such beer in the hope the courts would side with them; others took a wait and see stance. But many gave up on brewing period with the writing on the wall.

The courts kind of side-stepped the issue. They held the federal government did not impliedly consent to 2.75% abw beer being non-intoxicating but Internal Revenue could not determine for its part how that was defined. It would remain to be litigated based on evidence.

The issue became moot as by the time the decisions came out the Volstead Act had been passed, which set the level for non-intoxicating beer at a maximum .5% abv. (That was challenged too but the brewers lost).

But steam beer production in California had stopped or virtually stopped in 1919. It was due, in part at least, to the concern that a keg of steam beer might exceed a maximum 2.75% abw.

The story below, from Riverside, CA’s Daily Press in December 1917, foretold the trouble albeit with some imprecision:



The trade journal Western Brewer in January 1918 pleaded the brewers’ case:



Brewers tried to get both steam beer and Kentucky common beer (an ale) exempted on the same basis as for porter and ale. The Anti-Saloon League of California campaigned against the move, arguing the President’s order would be rendered “nugatory”. This press story sets out its position, from the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, February 1918.

The brewers were not upheld, at least for steam beer, and with good reason. Ale and porter were surely exempted not because they cannot be made at lower strengths – that is obviously not the case – but because it was traditional for them to be stronger than lager.*

Steam beer and Kentucky Common shared the trait of being in active fermentation at dispense, which is not the same thing, and also were never as strong as some ale and porter despite the kind of press report above (that was good industry lobbying). Continued fermentation in the kegs there was, but I doubt much steam beer ever reached 7% abv.**

Contemporary sources – the trinity of steam beer articles I have mentioned a number of times – suggest a typical strength of between 5% and maximum 6%.

But the linking in the Western Brewer of Kentucky Common and California steam beer underlines the relationship functionally I was discussing earlier.

The Morning Oregonian, in June 1918, amplified on the steam beer dilemma, now a fait accompli, via a reader’s letter, eccentric in expression but making the point that alcohol level could not be strictly controlled in the keg.

In the Western Brewer again, in October 1919, a list of California brewers is included that states a steam beer plant is shut, with little other brewing activity indicated. The list is surely not complete, but is suggestive nonetheless.

Today, Anchor Brewery in San Francisco both bottles and kegs its steam beer, flash-pasteurizing in either case. No live yeast. Whether this affects the character of the beer I can’t say, I’d have to do a “before and after”. I’m sure Anchor has carefully determined the palate it wants and science today too is much better than in the 1960s not to mention the 1910s and ’30s.

Soon I’ll get a bottle of Anchor Steam and provide my taste impressions in light of this grand history.

In subsequent parts, I’ll look at steam beer in the period 1900-1917, before world events and looming Prohibition reversed its fortunes. And I’ll look at steam beer during Prohibition – yes, it had a career then!

N.B. Ale and porter were exempted from the 2.75% abw ceiling enacted in January 1918 but presumably little was made due to the requirement to cut raw materials usage.

The remaining Parts (through to Final, so three 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.


*This kind of pleading, while understandable from an industry and lobbying standpoint, is an example of the care that must be taken when reading even technical accounts of the past. Trade journals often contained, or reflected, special pleading in a word. This is less likely today as the world is smaller and lobbying is subject to wider scrutiny than was possible at the time.

**The actual decision issued may be viewed here. It states that “ale and porter” are exempt. Technically this should have included Kentucky common beer, but in any case steam beer was classed with the lager, hence subject to the 2.75% abw maximum.


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