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Into the Brew: Steam Beer Was Born

Feb 15

This article appears on page 12 of the February 2011 issue.

STEAM BEER WAS BORN — A look at the past and present of a uniquely Californian beer style

I have a couple of posters up in my apartment, both depicting scenes from 19th century San Francisco. The first is from 1843 and shows several sailing ships anchored in the bay and on the shore stands a scattering of rustic buildings. These buildings make up the town of Yerba Buena, which was renamed “San Francisco” in 1847. Only a year after that, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and thousands of “49ers” embarked on the long and treacherous journey from the east to the gold mines. Along with their hunger for fortune, they brought a thirst for beer.

The second painting dates from 1876, showing a view of San Francisco from Telegraph Hill. The transformation over this period of time is incredible; what was once a small trading and fishing town became the gateway of California.  The surge in population brought with it brewers eager to satisfy the demand for beer. These brewers adapted European brewing traditions to fit local ingredients and process constraints. Previously confined to its native home of Bavaria, lager brewing was quickly spreading by the mid-1800s. The golden Pilsner, which originated in Bohemia, was beginning its march across the world, destined to evolve into the dominant style of beer in nearly every part of the globe. Local brewers brought with them the new lager yeast but lacked ice or refrigeration in order to cool the fermenting beer to its typical 45-50 degrees. Lagering the beer at near freezing temperatures was out of the question for the same reasons. What brewers did have in San Francisco was the naturally cool and foggy weather, which allowed them to ferment their beer at slightly cooler temperatures than was typical for ale brewers. Steam beer was born.

Pat McIlhenney of Alpine helping with the creation of San Diego Brewers Guild UnCommon Lager in 2009. Photo courtesy of Colby Chandler

Those two posters I have are from Anchor Brewing Company. Anchor is the only surviving steam beer brewery from the 1800s, and despite the brewing renaissance of recent decades, remains one of the only breweries in the world to regularly produce the style. They ferment their steam beer from a wort made of North American 2-row pale malt, caramel malt, and Northern Brewer hops. Their yeast strain is a special type of lager yeast that has adapted to fermenting at typically warmer ale fermentation temperatures in open, pan-like fermentors that are 12-18 inches deep. Fermentation temperature is regulated only by the ambient room temperature of 61 degrees, and the large surface-area-to-volume ratio of the fermenting beer. Anchor Steam Beer is a dry, malty, and bitter beer of moderate alcohol content that has a distinct woody and spicy hop flavor and a unique fruitiness from the warm lager fermentation. It’s also the only beer that you will see actually labeled “Steam” because Anchor hold a trademark for the name. Nowadays beer brewed in the steam style will be labeled something like “California Common” or “Common Lager.”

There are some descriptions of Steam beer from before prohibition, but because Anchor is the only brewery that survived into the modern era, our understanding of the style is greatly influenced by Fritz Maytag’s vision for it once he bought the struggling brewery in 1965. Before then, the beer was brewed with adjuncts such as corn grits or sugar syrups, and a dark version was brewed with caramel coloring. It was a cheap and inconsistent beer that was often infected, too. Older sources tell us that the style was krausened in casks to a very high level of carbonation and had to be vented before serving to release the immense levels of pressure. The beer would still pour very foamy into the glass and is likened to trying to pour a glass of steam. This is one possible source of the steam beer name, though it has also been said that it comes from the sight of steam rising from the wort as it cooled in shallow coolships in the attics of the local breweries. The boiling wort would be pumped up into these shallow metal pans to allow the cool San Francisco breeze to do its thing and bring the wort down to fermentation temperatures.

The donated ingredients for the 2009 SDBG UnCommon Lager. Photo courtesy of Colby Chandler

Brewers in San Diego have taken a few cracks at the style but it remains mostly unknown as of late. Two versions called San Diego Brewers Guild UnCommon Lager have been brewed for purchase by Guild Allied Members and for pouring at various San Diego beer festivals, including the Guild Fest. The first of these beers was brewed in 2007 at Karl Strauss in Carlsbad with brewer Matt Walsh, and the second was brewed at Alpine Beer Co. with owner Pat McIlhenney and Chuck Silva from Green Flash in 2009. Colby Chandler from Ballast Point/Home Brew Mart had a hand in both beers and is a fan of the style. “I like it,” he said. “We brew clean and crisp beers in San Diego County. The ‘Steam’ yeast strain, a lager yeast fermented at 60 degrees, is great for achieving a clean and crisp beer.” Those beers deviated from the Anchor model because they were brewed with a myriad of hop varieties donated by Guild Brewery Members, but used the White Labs-provided San Francisco Lager yeast strain, which is the same type that Anchor uses. Hop Union also donated choice Cascade hops for dry hopping, while Brewers Supply Group came through with the necessary malt.

For homebrewers who don’t have temperature control allowing them to brew normal lagers, the White Labs 810 San Francisco Lager strain is perfect during this time of year. “In the middle of this frigid, skin chilling San Diego winter you can usually find a five day stretch that averages 60 degrees. Perfect temperature for home brewing a California Common,” said Chandler. “Let’s hope a version of the San Diego Brewers Guild UnCommon Lager could make a come back for the 2012 Craft Brewers Conference and World Beer Cup being held in Mission Valley?” I’ll throw in my request for another version as well. Steam beer is one of America’s few unique beer styles, and something that I hope we’ll see more of in the future.

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