Steaming Into the Thirties (Part VIII)

As stated in our last part, illicitly made steam beer was sold in the Embarcadero, San Francisco for a couple of years after Prohibition commenced on January 17, 1920. In fact, throughout the state, as in many parts of Prohibition America, real beer was being brewed and bottled illicitly. An instance on a fairly large scale was reported by a paper in San Luis Obispo in 1924.

At the same time, through the 1920s one sees ads in California newspapers for well-known brands of steam. Wieland’s, and Golden West’s, say. Here is one of the latter, in 1925, in Madera:



But this was near beer, compliant with the Volstead Act’s limitation of alcohol content to .5% ABV. Such steam brew, we can call it, was both bottled and on draft. John Wieland’s, perhaps the most prominent pre-Prohibition brewer in San Francisco, advertised its near beers extensively.

In 1922 Wieland’s advertised its Special Steam together with an Extra Pale and even a Special Bock.



Were the dockers I discussed in the last part drinking such near beer and “needling” it with alcohol to make a simulacrum? It is possible but I incline more to the fact that they were drinking authentic beer. It was early days under the “new normal”, to borrow a phrase of our time. The machinery to enforce Prohibition especially in corners remote from the centres of power took time to marshal.

Once beer-beer dried up the port workers had a choice between near steam or another kind of near beer, or a soft drink – root beer seems to have been popular. And there was milk. That the dockers chose milk as their go-to may be telling as to the “nearness” of the beer substitutes.

San Francisco had 12 breweries before Prohibition began, of which six continued in business making near beer and other legal products. See this press story of June 1920 in Colusa, CA. Wieland’s was among these, a prominent producer of steam beer and lager before Prohibition. (It would return post-Prohibition, but not in San Francisco).

In Oakland across the Bay, Golden West Brewery Co., a merger in 1909 of five steam beer breweries in Alameda County, also continued operating.

Any concerns that steam beer couldn’t be kegged, couldn’t be bottled, were swept away under the new regime. What made steam beer “steam” – the active fermentation in keg or bottle when sent to consumer – was out of the picture, yet the descriptor “steam” was applied.

However bottled or kegged steam brew was made, and perhaps some was pasteurized, there was no fermentation going on in those containers.

It was an exercise in marketing, to trade on the popularity of steam beer before 1920. There is no question steam beer was under pressure in the market (sorry) before WW I, with cold-aged lager increasingly dominant, but lots of steam beer was still sold.

Maybe the same malt and hop types were used as in the pre-Prohibition real thing, to suggest a similarity.

Be that as it may, steam near beer was marketed for years, especially by Golden West. In fact Golden West seems to have done quite well during Prohibition. Or well enough to emerge at the other end, mid-1933, to fight another day. Of which more in our last part to come.

N.B. This 1921 story out of Stockton, CA addressed the possibility to brew medicinal beer, as the government consented to issue permits to do so, in the fashion similar for distilleries whose products could be prescribed by doctors. This seems to have been a damp squib due to the “red tape” involved.

The remaining Part, the Final one of this series, follows 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.


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