My kids simply cannot conceive of the notion that movies haven’t always been portable. They know full well that if they wait a few months, whatever film they missed in the theater will be available at the local video store and that they will be able to pop it into the VCR and watch it from the couch while munching microwaved popcorn. They know that I am ancient beyond counting, but they still don’t really believe there was a time when microwave ovens didn’t exist and people had to rely on network TV to hack up and broadcast a favorite movie.
We are in the process of raising a generation of beer drinkers that simply have no idea how good they’ve got it. This is particularly true here on the West Coast, where the microbrewery “revolution” appeared more than a decade ago, freeing beer fans from industrial lagers and badly handled imports. In those days I rarely even drank beer because it was kind of nasty. I discovered imported beers that I liked well enough, but it wasn’t until 1980, when I followed members of my aikido dojo into a nearby tavern and tasted Anchor Steam Beer on draft, that my eyes were truly opened.
At the time American beer had reached its nadir, and American breweries had pretty much succeeded in persuading Americans to believe that all beer tasted the same (except that theirs, of course, was better). Breweries swimming against the tide were damn rare. All the way on the East Coast, Ballantine had been folded into a big brewing company but still brewed a reasonable imitation of its great India pale ale. On
the West Coast there were glimmerings of things to come at breweries such as New Albion. And there was Anchor Steam Beer.
In the mid-60s Anchor Brewing Co. was staggering along, supplying a tiny draft market in San Francisco. It was in imminent danger of folding. By all reports the brewery was truly a dump, producing a beer that few wanted to drink and not doing it terribly well. But it had its fans, it was still different from anything anyone else was brewing, and it was something of a survivor from a vanished era. In one of those fortunate moments of serendipity, Fritz Maytag discovered that the brewery was scheduled to close in a week. Maytag just happened to be part of a family that had done fairly well building home appliances — washing machines and the like — and just happened to feel strongly enough about the idea that he ended up buying the brewery.
In the long run Maytag probably would have lost his investment, the brewery would have closed ignominiously, and the story would have ended there. Maytag, while apparently entranced by the Anchor myths, wasn’t foolish enough to think the brewery had been failing for lack of an image. He hired a prestigious brewery consultant to clean up the brewery and re-formulate the beer. Resisting the notion that the brewery should be producing yet more American industrial lager, Maytag insisted on a beer with character and on preserving an almost prehistoric technology.
From the beginning Maytag was intimately involved with the production of the beer (not to mention selling the beer by personally visiting potential accounts all over the Bay Area). What really won my heart was his story of the early days, spending long days and nights in the brewery, sitting down with his ear pressed to the fermenter, listening to the sounds of the yeast working in his beer. I’ve done the same thing myself, and I imagine other homebrewers have as well, sneaking down to the basement late at night to check on
the latest batch and listening for the chuckle of the airlock.
Steam beers were not a Maytag invention, of course. In the latter part of the 19th century, German immigrant brewers had introduced lager brewing to the Americas. In the East and Midwest, abundant supplies of ice in the winter allowed the sort of temperature control necessary for the long, slow fermentations required, even in the summer (using ice stored from the previous winter). But the West Coast has a very different climate, and ice was not readily available. With the influx of immigrants into the Oregon territory and with the gold rushes into California, brewers found a ready market for beer but ran into serious problems in transplanting the new technology.
Ale brewing would have been one solution, of course, but the mostly German-born brewers had a different background and made the best possible attempt to brew to the styles they knew. Using the bottom-fermenting yeasts they had carried along, they adapted the process and created a new beer, considerably livelier and more vividly flavored than what they had intended. All through the West breweries produced steam beer. The term most likely stems from the lively carbonation, a result of yeast being pushed beyond its normal behavior by warm temperatures and short conditioning times. Reportedly, the beer “steamed” out of the newly tapped kegs into eagerly proffered glasses.
Late in the century artificial refrigeration transformed the brewing industry. For the most part steam beers disappeared from sight. The term remained, referring in some cases to very cheaply made beers that were heavy with corn, and in other cases to beers kraeusened at packaging (when unfermented wort is added to the keg for carbonation).
Only Anchor Brewing persisted in the style and in some of the old technology. One of the techniques developed by the early brewers to deal with warm temperatures was to ferment in very shallow, open fermenters, possibly adaptations of the “coolships” used, even today, to increase the hot wort’s surface area and enhance cooling.
Michael Jackson reports that fermentation temperatures at Anchor range from 60° to 72° F, quite a range! But when I visited the brewery in 1985 I was told that the average ambient temperature in San Francisco was 55° F and that this was more like the temperature at which the beer was fermented. Homebrewers’ definitions of steam beer generally state that it is fermented with lager yeast at ale temperatures. But it doesn’t take too many experiments to determine that not all yeast strains are suitable and that few respond very well to temperatures at the high end of the “ale” range.
Whether Anchor Steam is a valid example of the traditional beer is open to debate. Nineteenth century steam beers likely covered a wide range, based as they were on a variety of German-style lagers, and subject as they were to different ingredients. Like many American beers, they undoubtedly made good use of corn as a fermentable and in all likelihood used American-grown hops (Cluster) for much of their bitterness. They may have had some imported hops used to enhance their flavor but quite possibly not a great deal. Steam beers brewed for the gold miners were likely as rough and ready as their consumers and would certainly raise an eyebrow among modern connoisseurs.
Anchor Steam is an all-malt beer, brewed from two-row pale and caramel malts and well hopped with Northern Brewer (always loose hops, never pellets). The beer is copper colored and was, long before the notion was popular, very clean, slightly fruity, and with a hop flavor and bitterness that was once shocking. At the time I toured the brewery, distribution was severely limited. Draft outlets, in particular, were grandfathered in from old accounts, most in the immediate area and with only a few in isolated cities in the West. The beer was flash pasteurized before bottling or kegging and held in refrigeration after packaging. At the time the brewery made a significant effort to ensure that the beer stayed cold until it reached the retail end (but not too cold; efforts were also made to ensure that the draft product wasn’t half frozen when it was poured).
Over the intervening years, however, distribution has increased considerably and Anchor is now available across the country. Like any beer, though, it is fragile, and East Coast drinkers who find it failing to live up to its reputation need to make a pilgrimage to San Francisco to better understand the ruckus.
There is no question that early microbrewers were inspired by the example set by Fritz Maytag and Anchor Steam Beer. Maytag had proved that a market for distinctive beers did exist (or could be created) and that adherence to principle would pay off in the long run. Over the years Maytag has been most supportive, not only of microbrewers but homebrewers, often speaking at homebrew conferences and offering his years of experience to eager ears.
As the craft-brewing industry grew, beginning in the mid-’80s, it was natural that a certain amount of imitation would appear. If Maytag could brew steam beer, it was reasoned, so could others. It’s not possible to trademark brewing technology, after all, and fermenting with the right lager strain at warmer temperatures might well produce a flavorful beer worthy of note. The hitch came when brewers attempted to define their beers as steam beer. Maytag maintained that the years of effort and expense he had put into establishing his beer had earned him the right to trademark the term and that new brewers were attempting to profit from his hard work. The counter-argument was that steam beers had been produced by scores of breweries in the 19th century and that everyone using the technology should be able to identify their beer as a steam beer.
To date Maytag has won the argument, either by virtue of his rectitude or his financial advantage. For now the inelegant term California common beer has been accepted as a reasonable substitute. What’s interesting, of course, is that the style is defined by a single beer — Anchor Steam — since there are no surviving steam beers from the 19th century. For the most part homebrewers are interested in replicating that single, distinctive beer, and it is the standard by which common beers are judged in competition.
Other breweries are producing common beer (although not necessarily in California) and grumbling about the appellation. For a while this year, it looked as though Colorado’s Tabernash Brewing Co. might make an issue of the restriction, but it is no longer referring to its Tabernash Amber as a “steam beer,” while using a similar approach. Somewhat farther afield is St. Croix Maple Ale, originally intended to be noted as a “Steamaple” beer. St. Croix is contract brewed by Minnesota’s New Ulm Brewery, where the all-malt beer is warm-fermented with a lager strain, then cold conditioned before packaging. Unlike San Francisco’s beer, St. Croix uses a portion of maple syrup in the kettle, although the maple reportedly makes a small contribution to the beer’s flavor.
Brewing steam beer at home is relatively straightforward, although the question of shallow, open fermenters is a problem. At Anchor Brewing
the fermenters are protected in rooms with filtered air, a tough proposition in most homes. Adherence to Anchor’s levels of quality, however, is important. As noted the beer is brewed from two-row malt (from Great Western Malting) and a portion of caramel malt (perhaps 40° Lovibond). Although Anchor likely uses an upward-step infusion mash, a single-step mash would be adequate. Hops are Northern Brewer throughout, reportedly in three additions — hop flavor is always apparent in Anchor Steam, although the hop aroma is not huge. Original gravity is 1.048 to 1.051 and fairly dry in the finish, primarily from the hopping rate. Homebrewers will want to experiment, but Wyeast’s 2112 lager strain is generally conceded to be the best approximation of Anchor’s own yeast.
Unless you’re brewing for competition, however, a strict adherence to Anchor’s version is not essential. Very good steam beers (or California common beers) can be brewed that aren’t precise clones of the original. One of this month’s recipes, in fact, is a spin-off of the style, a sort of steam bock brewed as an experiment in a couple of techniques. The result was very malty, very hoppy, and thoroughly enjoyable. For a time I could find a Bavarian version, Maisel’s Dampfbier (steam beer) here in Oregon. This wonderful beer was fruity, malty, and full of flavor. Jackson reports the use of a triple-decoction mash, four malts, two Noble Aroma hop varieties, open fermentation with a lager strain, followed by a period of cold conditioning. Perhaps more like an altbier than a steam beer, but at some points the distinctions tend to blur. Like Anchor, Maisel has protected the name.