Steam Beer

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 that style.

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


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