A Good Beer Blog


Have you read The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer - A Rant in Nine Acts by Alan and Max yet? It's out on Kindle as well as Lulu.

Maureen Ogle said this about the book: "... immensely readable, sometimes slightly surreal rumination on beer in general and craft beer in particular. Funny, witty, but most important: Smart. The beer geeks will likely get all cranky about it, but Alan and Max are the masters of cranky..."

Ron Pattinson said: "I'm in a rather odd situation. Because I appear in the book. A fictional version of me. It's a weird feeling."


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Gary Gillman -

"What made steam beer rough and then not"?

I'd argue it was changing times. As compared, circa-1900, to imported German and Bohemian beers but also Budweiser and other high-class American interpretations of the lager style, it was a bit of a roughneck: it wasn't long-aged, it was fermented relatively warm and therefore a little estery and aleish, and it was a draft product, sold locally and not shipped afar with the benefit of the emergent brand advertising.

But by 1970, Anchor's version, the only one left, was all-malt, used a decent amount of hops, and retained the kind of emphatic flavour most American lager had lost. Also, it was available in a bottle by then. People liked bottles, then. (I think that's changed somewhat and draft beer today enjoys a status higher than it ever had before, IMO).

Steam beer came into its own, in a word. But also, it acquired a romantic image, assisted probably by the fact of its unlikely survival and the beautiful city in which it is made.

Since the early 70's, more emphatic beers have emerged including from Anchor itself, e.g. the iconic Liberty Ale, or the beautifully-named Old Foghorn, and so the bar has shifted, but many would still argue that Anchor Steam hits the sweet spot for beer.


Pivní Filosof -

Could it also be that Steam Beer was, well, crap? Or had a very shot shelf life or didn't have as much drinkability as the European style lagers?

The top fermented beers that for centuries had been a staple in Bohemia would disappear by the end of the 19th century, driven into extinction by the new lagers.

Gary Gillman -

Fritz Maytag himself (legendary former owner of Anchor Brewing) always said that before he bought an ownership position in the brewery the beer was inconsistent. The brewery was old and small, the output was draft, and it did not pasteurize IIRC. I’m not sure if it used corn or other adjunct before the take-over but traditional recipes for steam beer did usually call for it, in line with American lager generally. Steam beer is a lager because it uses lager yeast but ferments at ale-like temperatures. Indeed the beer partly is ale-like, and the analogy made above by Pivni with top-fermentation plants in Europe disappearing in favour of methodical lager producers is a good one.

Contrast this situation with the big American lager breweries of the day with their thorough pasteurisation, advanced laboratories, and mass market advertising: next to them steam beer looked old-fashioned and was, but I’d argue it was not inferior to regular lager, just an odd corner of the lager world which took root on the California coast and survived only in the form of Anchor due to the relative isolation of northern California. It was a bigger world then, truly…

Michael Jackson clearly was enraptured by the romance of the beer. Walking around San Francisco can do that to you, it is a lovely city with all kinds of interesting aspects to it, of which the steam beer was not (to the bibulous-minded) the least important. So this assisted too I think the reputation of the beer, the way he wrote about it in the late 70’s made all beer fans anxious to try it as soon as possible.

I like it as I said earlier on draft in the U.S., ideally in SF but they ship it across the country now and tonight I’ll be in NYC and probably will see it there. If I do, I’ll raise one to Mr. Mcleod and his blog!


jesskidden -

Piggy-backing off Gary's posts, there's a great interview with Fritz Maytag by Lew Bryson in which Maytag confirms that Anchor Steam Beer wasn't all-malt when he bought the company. http://www.lewbryson.com/talkmaytag.htm

It also contains one of my favorite Maytag quotes:

"Unfortunately, [Anchor Steam Beer] was frequently not very good. It was sour. That’s one reason I can’t drink Belgian-style beers. I realize they are perfectly legitimate, but I made beer like that by accident for quite a while, and I just can’t stand it. I say that almost like a joke on myself, I just don’t have an open mind in that field. The beer was pretty bad most of the time."

In another interview, in Will Anderson's From Beer to Eternity (1987), Maytag jokes that originally their Dark Steam Beer was just the regular beer with caramel coloring added and when bars complained about it not being as dark as it used to be, they just added more.

Pre-Maytag Steam Beer would have not been pasteurized, since flash pasteurized draught beer, possible only after the creation of the Sankey keg in the UK in the '60's, came late to the US. Even by the mid-1980's only half the US breweries used it (and many still did/do not pasteurize their draught) but Anchor was one of the early adopters of F-P for both kegs and bottles.

Maytag has discussed going to the Lone Star Brewing Co. in TX to study their FP system in the '70's. Lone Star used NR glass bottles with a wrap-around Styrofoam label for a time (known as "Texas Cooler" bottles), which couldn't undergo traditional tunnel pastuerization.

Mark Dredge -

I just about steam beer in Stanley Baron's Brewing in America and he describes it as 'not a connoisseur's drink'.. There's also a quote in there from an 'expert' at the time, Buchner, who said: 'It is a pretty fair drink... At any rate, it tastes better than the raw hopped, bitter and turbid ales.'

No indication of why it wasn't a connoisseur drink, though. Perhaps the yeast threw off all kinds of weird stuff being pushed out hard and fast by the higher temperatures?

Alan -

Interesting stuff. I find it interesting that we really don't know what the experience of the beer or its make up is really even understood.

Gary Gillman -

Jack London in John Barleycorn confirmed that the beer was not a high class beer by the standards of the day: it was an inexpensive saloon beer which he distinguished from bottled beers of more allure, probably lagers such as Budweiser and other bottom-fermented beers which were the stars of their day. Brewing texts of circa-1900 (that I have seen) suggest the same thing, that the beer was not too bitter, not too turbid (thus not too much like the old pale ales), a mainstay of the draft trade but not something to be spoken of in connoisseur's terms.

Steam beer was probably likened by drinkers to so-called present-use ales, which were going out too. Why? Hard to say. I think mainly it was changing taste, but a subsidiary factor was clearly inconsistency. Without pasteurization and lengthy cold-conditioning, the ales were probably often tart if not sour. Maytag himself noticed this before taking over and instituting various quality controls including pasteurizing - even the draft.

Ales could only really come into their own again, and ditto Anchor Steam IMO, when technology allowed California common beer to be a reliably stable drink.

But finally too, we know that when things become old-fashioned, it doesn't mean they are bad, in fact what replaces them often isn't as good. IPAs such as Ballantine's didn't disappear due to any issue of poor taste or quality: on the contrary these were fine beers, but people allowed them to languish through neglect or changing tastes. It got turned around finally, but unfortunately these old brands have not come back, at least not under the original names.` Anchor Steam beer has never gone away and has thrived since Maytag's pioneering work, for which praise be.

Thanks Alan too for that link about future developments at the brewery, very interesting.


Lawrence Tkac -

A thought, I am old enough to be drinking yacht club beer in my younger day .Cheap at that time 3.98 a case.Low end yes great dry beer though yes not a beer to impress .Low end beers have their place with the working class .Maybe not your Bud or other high end .It probably tasted really good going down after work .I think it was a style maybe a little sour from time to time but that did not matter .It was made with quality ingredients and I am sure with pride as these early German brewers brought their skill with them . I am a home brewer and really enjoy the slant that each put on this topic .