By Gregg Smith
One of the true American beer styles, steam beer was born of necessity.
Understanding its origins requires a trip back to California in the late
1840's, when lager's popularity was ripping through the beer world like the
gold rush in California.
The 49'ers who participated in the 'Gold Rush' literally came from all
walks of life, all of them seeking a quick fortune. Aside from gold, their
other common thirst was for the new style of beer called "lager".
Unfortunately, the conditions in California didn't favor the production of
Lager beer requires fermentation and aging at cold temperatures. In Germany
brewing lager was possible because of the availability of cool caves and
the naturally cold climate during German winters. Unfortunately, the
temperate environs of San Francisco provided neither; the Bay had moderate
conditions of about 60F. For brewers the obvious solution was to import
ice, but the already crowded ships held space at a premium, leaving no room
for a cargo with such low priority.
Out of desperation brewers decided to use a lager yeast in their cool, but
not cold brewhouses, while they crossed their fingers and hoped for the
best. What they got wasn't exactly lager, but the parched mix of miners and
sailors didn't seem to mind. In fact it soon gained popularity throughout
the Pacific Coast and interior Northwest.
It was this rather warm conditioning that resulted in Steam beer's name.
The relatively high temperature (compared to lager) imparted a lively
carbonation to the finished beer and when a new keg was tapped it sprayed a
fine mist of foam, thus earning the name "Steam Beer".
A misconception about Steam beer centers on the modern example of the
style. A search through texts dating back to the 1880s shows that the same
forces of desperation, combined with shortages of equipment and
ingredients, led to a style which varied widely. As with the case of the
early eastern colonists, the brewers would use whatever was available. In
general the name "steam" was a venacular for the style which relied upon
lager yeast fermenting out the beer at warmer than usual temperatures.
But the lack of cooling, which created the Steam style beer, was solved by
the late 1800's as commercial refrigeration units became a common piece of
brewing equipment. When this happened the popularity of the style and the
number of brewers producing it both dwindled. The last surviving producer
was near closing in the 1960's when Fritz Maytag decided to take a look
before it was gone. Little did he know he'd become the brewery's white
knight. After that visit he became part owner, and then owner and rebuilder
in rapid succession.
Today's steam style beer is, of course, built around what Maytag saved and
what he was able to resurrect from old brewing records. First you notice
the color - a light amber, sometimes a touch cloudy, but always with a high
level of effervescence topped by a dense head. An aggressive hop nose is
the primary aroma trait but beyond it are hints of fruitiness, light
butterscotch and some traces of phenol\fusel (sometimes described as light
solvent) is a result of the warm fermentation.
Taste closely follows the nose. Bitterness is achieved through copious use
of Northern Brewer hops which provides assertive, yet balanced, bitterness.
All those hops are restrained by additions of caramel malt which along with
the fruitiness and butterscotch yields a delightful balance of complexity.
If that weren't enough, the carbonation dances across your tongue,
stimulating your taste buds.
Take a look at Anchor's label and you'll see why 1996 is such a big deal
for the company. Not only was it 30 years previous that Fritz Maytag made
his purchase, but it also marks the brewery's 100th year. What better way
to celebrate than with a steam beer.
© Gregg Smith