Steam Beer, Survivor of the Gilded Age
California steam beer has been the subject of many studies and blog pieces. See my own post some years ago where I examined how Anchor Steam beer is made today, and how steam beer was made historically (circa-1900).
I concluded that modern Anchor Steam is a true exemplar, due to factors such as its all-malt construction, shallow pan fermentation + “krausening” method, and amber hue. Some things have changed, especially in that Anchor Steam is pasteurized today, but essentially the beer is what it always was.
The career arc of steam beer in the post-Prohibition 1930s has been much less examined.* I can remedy this in part by discussing a few references below. Most are from the trade journal The American Brewer.
I think a lot of people feel, I know I did at one time, that steam beer was an artifact of the gas-lit, striped awning era, something that had no place in the chromium, streamlined 1930s, and to the extent it did survive via Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, it was a fluke.
Steam beer certainly faltered in the 1930s after Prohibition but for specific, practical business reasons, which appear from a 1934 article in the journal mentioned.
Brewers in California had agreed with the State that draft beer would not exceed 3.2% ABW and stronger beer would be available only in bottles. This made it difficult for steam beer to come back. While it was always mainly or exclusively a draft product, it was typically 5% ABV or a bit over. It was difficult to control the final alcohol level in the kegs due to the krausening needed for the trade casks, a key factor in production.
Kegging a beer that would not exceed 3.2% ABW in active fermentation – that’s what krausening does – was a challenge few brewers were willing to take up. And the prospect of bottling a product with its residual yeast, to keep that fermentation going again, was unappealing as well: by this time almost all bottled beer was pasteurized. A 1932 story in the journal stated, for this reason, that steam beer “can’t be bottled with success”.
Anchor Brewery in fact never had bottled it until Fritz Maytag started in the late 1960s – and he felt he had to pasteurize to do it.
While some steam beer was brewed in 1934 by Grace Bros in Santa Rosa (see here), and Anchor did re-commence draft steam beer production, few other brewers in the Bay Area were inclined to do so.
One story, see here, reported that success had been achieved by El Rey Brewing in kegging 3.2% steam beer. Clearly, some steam beer was being made in 1930s San Francisco by brewers other than Anchor. North Star and El Rey were two, but as far as we can determine, steam beer withered as a force in the market by the mid-30s. El Rey closed its doors in 1937, for example.
Near-extinction came after WW II but Anchor continued on a very small scale as the only surviving maker.
Compare to 1904 when 19 San Francisco breweries shared a sizeable steam beer market, as this story in the San Francisco Call made clear. Conventional lager beer had made good inroads by 1904 but steam beer still sold well. It was a favourite of saloon-goers and the less well-off in particular. Jack London memorialized the beer in his John Barleycorn.
In contrast, conventional lager beer had an upscale image, as London made clear, as craft beer does today.
A 1936 journal reference to steam beer states that a product called steam beer was marketed in some states made by top-fermentation (the ale process). The observation was meant to counter a federal proposal for steam beer that would classify it as bottom-fermented only (lager process).
The government draft standards mentioned in the article classified both cream ale and steam as distinguished either by krausening in barrels (a re-fermentation) or completion of primary fermentation therein. In contrast, conventional lager and ale are packaged in finished form before despatch from the brewery – the product does not continue to ferment in package until consumption.
Such highly active bottom- or top-fermented beer, dispatched in unfinished condition, has a certain analogy to hand-pulled, U.K. cask-conditioned beer. A continuing fermentation until consumption seems to be the common link between the different types of steam beer more than fermentation method, that as well as warm fermentation and aging.
In ale terms, you are creating a present use, cream or lively ale, all old-fashioned terms to describe this type of ale. Such ale borrowed a technique of German-inspired lager brewing in America. Steam beer was American lager that borrowed techniques of English-inspired ale brewing – warm fermentation and warm aging. A neat complement and compliment.
For fellow Ontarians who don’t know steam beer and would like to try it, our LCBO has Anchor Steam, see listing here. Its aptly written taste note:
Light amber colour with dense head; aromas of spice, grain and sweet toasted malt with floral notes; dry, medium bodied, rich, creamy with notes of nut and grain and a long finish.
Sounds good. And it is. Both as history and perhaps more relevant to most, as beer.
What would Jack London say of today’s Anchor Steam? It’s like that New York Times feature does in the Sunday book review: if you could invite three dead authors to a dinner party, whom would you ask?
I’d invite Jack London (“Jack – here’s Anchor’s beer today – is it still a boss beer?”); Charles Dickens (“You wrote beer can’t be tasted in a sip – sample this pale ale from Dominion of Canada and give us your innermost thoughts”); and Marcel Proust (“M. Proust, how do your senses react to this genuine Pilsner Urquell?”).
I think they would be well pleased with the offerings. I envision their likely reply in unanimity: “This is a fine reminder of home. It’s just as well to have it available, too, as our return journey appears delayed for a while. Oh and, may I have another?”.
For Part II to this article, see here.
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.
*To our knowledge.