By Roger Bergen
The uniquely American hybrid that launched the microbrewery revolution has always been poorly understood. Made by using a lager yeast … at ale temperatures … in odd fermentors … it must be from San Francisco!
“Steam Beer” is often claimed to be America’s only truly native beer style, although that statement ignores the extinct Kentucky common beer and gives short shrift to cream ale. The importance of steam beer in American brewing in the past 20 years can hardly be overstated. The Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco, sole commercial brewer of Steam Beer since 1934, pioneered and inspired the microbrewing and craft brewing industry, and former owner Fritz Maytag was once the acknowledged dean of the trade.
As most now know, the term Steam Beer is the registered trademark of the Anchor Brewing Company. This is only fair: Anchor was not just the sole steam beer brewery to reopen after Prohibition but was the country’s first microbrewer long before the term was coined, has been the pioneer of the craft brewing industry and inspirer of many microbrewers and home brewers, and continues its avant-garde work in interesting beers. Of course, microbrewers can, and sometimes do, work in this style, as do home brewers. The recognized term for the style is now “California common beer
,” an accurate, if pedestrian, appellation. Because this article takes a historical perspective, I use the term “steam beer.”
Volumes have been written in both the specialist and general press about the successful revival of this oncemoribund style, so as usual this article first examines the origins of the style, how it was once brewed, and some differences evident in modern Anchor Steam Beer. Once again, the Wahl-Henius American Handybook of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades from 1908 provides key insights because it contains the only known description of steam beer brewing in its pre-Prohibition heyday. The account in the accompanying box is not a portrait of Anchor before 1965, but a broad picture of steam beer brewing when the style was practiced by perhaps 25 brewers in San Francisco alone. It is unknown whether this account was written from first-hand observation of steam beer breweries or from second-hand information.
The Wahl-Henius account raises a number of interesting points. Although it presents steam brewing in its most developed form some 40-50 years after its obscure birth, the overall impression is one of rough-and ready frontier brewing. The equipment is simple and inexpensive, and the beer is not tied up in long, costly aging. The process seems to be a hybrid of British and Continental (prelager) brewing practices allied with the then-fashionable bottomfermenting yeast, with a dash of Californian ingenuity thrown in for good measure. Simple brewing like this must have been practiced by brewers, both native-born and immigrant, who traveled with their copper kettles and wooden vessels to the next greener pasture or boom town across the Wild West. The most noteworthy feature of steam beer was its high carbonation, but otherwise the narrative raises as many questions as it answers, leaving us to piece together the answers.
The malt would have been primarily made from Bay Brewing barley, a unique six-row
variety then widely grown in California. Compared with Midwestern six-rows, it had 40% larger berries, lower protein content (in 7-12 % range), slightly higher husk content, and was considered similar to two-row barley in character in the finished beer. Two-row barleys also were grown in California and the Northwest and may have been used by some steam brewers. Although some larger brewers had their own maltings, freestanding maltings operated in San Francisco at the time. Nowadays the pale malt used by Anchor is a two-row blend from Great Western Malting of Vancouver, Washington, some of which is grown in California’s Tule Lake region.
Either “roasted malts,” presumably caramel
and/or black malts
, or caramel coloring were used. What is unclear is the meaning of “the favored amber color of Munich beer.” This might have been the amber of Märzenbier but is more likely the deeper color of Münchner dunkles; otherwise the color would have been compared with that of Vienna beer. Modern Anchor Steam uses caramel malt to achieve its copper Viennese color.
The use of adjuncts was probably uncommon. Wahl and Henius were great advocates of adjunct brewing, which they felt was the key to chill-stable bottled beer (the adjuncts dilute the protein and tannin content). At the time, however, adjunct brewing was only about 30 years old, and most Eastern and Midwestern brews for local draft consumption were still all-malt. We have no reason to believe that conditions were any different in San Francisco in this regard, and brewhouses designed for raw adjunct use are on the whole more expensive and complex than the relatively simple plant most steam beer brewers would have possessed.
The hops used would have been almost exclusively California hops, primarily from the Russian River growing area, which at the time was the prime hop growing region in the United States. Downy mildew pushed hops out of the Russian River area completely by the late 1950s, but one farm hung on near Sacramento in the Central Valley until the mid-1980s. California hops were a variant of Cluster
, and Russian River hops in particular were considered to be of very fine quality. My own experience with Sacramento hops confirms their excellent quality and finer flavor and aroma than modern Yakima Clusters.
The role of α-acids in brewing was just being discovered in 1908, when chemical analysis was in its infancy. The only analysis provided in Wahl-Henius gives 4.7% α-acid resins and 8% β-acid, which we can use to arrive at a typical bitterness for steam beer. At the recommended 12 oz/bbl, added all at once at the beginning of the boil, we get about 40 IBU; added in three equal increments during the boil we get about 28 IBU. Alpha yields were highly variable, however, and although the benefits of refrigerated storage of hops were known, refrigeration was not widely used. Modern Anchor Steam uses whole-leaf Northern Brewer hops
at about 0.5 lb/bbl, some of them added late for aroma, and has a bitterness of 30-35 IBU.
San Francisco has always had soft water. Well water from the San Francisco Presidio is reported to be soft with some sulfate — perhaps 50 mg/L calcium — and well water similar to this was the original water for steam beer. At the time Wahl and Henius were writing, the Hetch Hetchy water system had just come on line, supplying the city with extremely soft snowmelt water from the Sierras; today this water has a total dissolved solids content of 15 mg/L.
How California Steam Beer is Made
This beer is largely consumed throughout the state of California. It is called steam beer on account of its highly effervescing properties and the amount of pressure (“steam”) it has in the trade packages. The pressure ranges from 40 to 70 pounds in each trade package, according to the amount of kraeusen added, temperatures, and time it takes before being consumed and the distance it travels from saloon rack to faucet, etc. Usually 50 to 60 pounds’ pressure is sufficient for general use.
Strength of Wort: 11 to 12½ Balling.
Materials: Malt alone, malt and grits, or raw cereals of any kind, and sugars, especially glucose, employed in the kettle to the extent of 1 33 3 per cent. The barley is malted as for lager beers. Roasted malt or sugar coloring is used to give the favored amber color of Munich beer.
Mashing methods vary greatly. Some brewers employ English mashing methods, but the double mashing methods employed in a great many lager breweries, starting with low temperatures, in fact, mashing as though for lager beer with the exception of stopping and mashing at 158 F. (56 R.*) until all is converted, will give very good results. But as a rule the initial temperatures are taken about 140 to 145 F. (48 to 50 R.) then to 149 to 154 F. (52 to 54 R.), mash 10 to 15 minutes, and then raise to 158 F. (56 R.) as final temperature.
The raw materials are cooked and added in the same manner as if conducting a lager beer mash.
The mash is allowed to rest about 45 minutes, and the same precautions taken as to running off wort and sparging as in other mashes, the sparging water to be about 167 F. (60 R.)
The hops used depend upon the quality. Of a good quality, three-fourths of a pound per barrel is used and added in the usual way.
The wort is boiled as soon as the bottom of the kettle is covered, and after the kettle is filled, boiling is continued for one to two hours. The wort is then pumped to the surface cooler, and the over the Baudelot cooler and cooled to about 60 to 62 F. (12 to 13 R.). In breweries where no cooling apparatus is used, the wort is exposed over night, or until it is cooled to the above temperature.
Fermentation: The wort is now run into tubs of the starting tub style and size, where it is pitched with about one pound per barrel of a special type of bottom fermenting yeast, and well aerated. In about 14 hours a thick, heavy kraeusen appears from which the beer to be racked off is kraeusened. The temperature of the beer is now about 2 or 3 F. higher, or about 62 to 63 F. (13 to 14 R.) if pitched at 60. After kraeusen have been taken it is run into long, wide shallow vats, called clarifiers, which are made of wood, about 12 inches high. Precautions are taken that clarifiers, in which the beer stands six to eight inches high, are not too cold, so as to give the wort running out of the tubs a sudden set-back which may check fermentation. This can easily be avoided by sprinkling the clarifiers with hot water previous to letting wort run.
The wort then ferments in the clarifiers for two to four days. Precautions are taken against exposure to sunlight, and the fermentation should not rise too high. The matter which rises to the top is skimmed off continuously.
When indications are the same as in lager beers, viz., dark color, yeast well settled, good, clear break, etc., it is ready to be racked directly into trade packages, or if for some reason it is deemed expedient, it may be racked into small casks of 5, 10, 15, or 20 barrels’ capacity and kept there at a moderate temperature until wanted, then kraeusened and racked off. If racked off directly from clarifiers, the kraeusen is added with a quart measure to the trade packages, according to the amount of carbonic acid desired, the weather, etc., usually about five gallons per one general trade package called one-half barrel or 15 gallons, or, in general, 33 to 40 percent.
Finings are also added to each keg in about the same proportion as for lager beer. Trade packages are then gone over with a special filling can, filled completely and closed with iron screw bungs. After two days they are ready for shipment. The beer should be about 5 or 10 days old before leaving the brewery when it has obtained the necessary pressure. In the saloon it is laid up for two days to allow settling, the bung being opened, as a rule, over night, to allow just a small amount of gas to escape, so as to be able to draw from the faucets without getting too much foam. This is done if drawing directly from the keg, while, if using beer apparatus, “steaming,” as the escape of gas is called, is unnecessary.
If this beer is properly brewed and handled it makes a very clear, refreshing drink, much consumed by the laboring classes. It will keep for some time in trade packages, i.e. from 2 to 6 months, but is usually brewed and consumed within a month or three weeks.
BREWHOUSE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT
The suggested mashing process with the main conversion at 158 °F (70 °C) must have produced a full-bodied beer. At the time, upward infusion mashes were often conducted in a separate mashing vessel, but live steam injection into a mash/lauter tun was also common in small breweries. Today, Anchor uses an upward infusion mash much as described by Wahl and Henius, with initial temperature around 140 °F (60 °C), but the exact mash program is a closely guarded secret.
After hop separation in a hop back, cooling began in the surface cooler, also known as a “coolship,” a wide, shallow vessel of copper or iron. Better-equipped breweries would have had a Baudelot cooler. This was a completely open heat exchanger in which the wort was trickled over a series of horizontal pipes carrying coolant, aerated by its splashing as it went, then collected in a pan at the bottom and sent to the fermentors. Anchor now uses a whirlpool tank and a plate heat exchanger with injected aeration.
FERMENTATION AND YEAST
Up to this point, steam beer production was fairly conventional, if a bit primitive. The unique part of the process was its fermentation without attemperation (forced cooling), made possible by special clarifiers. It has been said that steam beer brewing was developed as a brewing technique not requiring ice; that is, as a sort of debased form of lager brewing. I find this view dubious; commercial lager brewing was so new in the 1850s and 1860s that few outside Bavaria and the Austrian Empire really understood it.
Steam beer brewing is best understood as an adaptation of ale (and perhaps alt) brewing techniques to the new bottom-cropping yeast. It is true that California never developed an extensive ice-cutting industry. San Francisco did, however, have its famous cool, moderate climate, allowing brewing at ale temperatures throughout most of the year — if a way could be found to dissipate the heat of fermentation.
Enter the clarifier, unique to steam beer breweries. Some unknown brewer must have been inspired by the coolships used for wort cooling; perhaps the first clarifiers were coolships pressed into service for fermentation. The great surface-to-volume ratio of these vessels allowed the heat of fermentation to simply dissipate into the air. Another benefit, and possibly the root of the name, is that yeast would have settled quickly in the shallow vessels, enabling the beer to be racked immediately for quick consumption.
Because bottom-fermenting yeasts do not form a protective “pancake” on the surface as true ale yeasts do, constant skimming must have been essential to remove airborne contamination before it could fall into the beer. Anchor still practices skimming to remove cold trub and hop resins. Although the use of starting tubs was universal in all breweries in the old days, Anchor now runs the cooled wort directly into beautiful stainless clarifiers, housed in clean rooms that are supplied with sterile-filtered, positive-pressure air at ambient San Francisco temperature.
The yeasts required to make this fermentation system work needed special characteristics. First, they would have to produce acceptable flavors at temperatures that were far higher than normal for lager yeast at the time. Second, they would have to remain in suspension long enough in the extremely shallow vessels to complete fermentation, then settle quickly. Third, it was essential that the yeast cooperate with the finings to create a firm sediment in the kegs; unfortunately lager yeasts have generally poor attraction to finings compared with ale yeasts, and many lager strains are unaffected by isinglass. Given the demands made on the yeast and the primitive conditions, I suspect that yeast problems were common in steam beer breweries.
The source of Anchor’s present yeast strain is a deep mystery. Those wishing to make a California common beer in conventional fermentors will find many suitable modern lager strains with good high-temperature performance. I recommend Wyeast #2124
and Wyeast #2308
This is the area in which modern Anchor Steam diverges most from its origins. As a draft-only cask-conditioned beer with a very high carbonation level, steam beer was quite singular. The quoted pressures and kraeusen rates seems absurdly high to us today, but there may have been method behind this seeming madness.
The large number of actively fermenting yeast cells and the high pressure may have given some protection from wild yeast and bacteria for a while. On the other hand, until the beer had been cellared for a week or two, considerable acetaldehyde, diacetyl, and hydrogen sulfide must have been present — the usual primary-fermentation characters associated with kraeusened beer, although warm storage temperatures would have hastened their reduction.
Pouring steam beer in a saloon must have been a chore far beyond that associated with today’s product. I theorize that a slow, careful “German” pouring style must have been used, resulting in a billowing head and gentle carbonation in the mouth. Many volatile green-beer compounds would have been blown off by the excess carbon dioxide during the pouring. It was, in its first life, a rough-and-ready working man’s beer and must have been especially enjoyed by the many English, Irish, and German immigrants who built the turbulent city by the bay.
This process was essentially unchanged in 1965 when Fritz Maytag took over Anchor Brewing. Even after sanitation and process control were improved. Anchor realized that the market required a stable and consistent beer and gradually introduced modern processes. Modern Anchor Steam has about 10-15% kraeusen, is cellared at cold temperatures for three weeks, centrifuged, polish filtered, and flash pasteurized before bottling. Carbonation is still high, at approximately 2.8 volumes for draft Anchor Steam and 3.0 volumes for bottled beer. Despite concessions to the modern world, Anchor Steam Beer remains both distinctive and authentic.
Steam beer brewing spread throughout California and as far as Seattle, enabling the entire West Coast to partake of this heritage. At the time that Wahl and Henius were writing, California steam beer was already an endangered species under increasing pressure from lager breweries brewing the new, fashionable Bohemian pilsner style. This was less the result of the advent of mechanical refrigeration than we may think. Rather, it was due to the end of West Coast’s isolation from the rest of the country, and to the passing of the wild and woolly days of old San Francisco with its colorful idiosyncrasies.
Let us thank the gods of brewing that Anchor Brewing survived long enough for a young Stanford graduate to let the whole world in on a great thing.
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