A couple of reference to steam beer flitting around today. Anchor has a new web ad for a line of new beers leaning on its research of early California brewing. And it came up in the comments from Saturday's post about... what was Saturday's post about? I like the references cited at wikipedia from late 1800s writing, especially those in the book McTeague, showing how steam beer was low end stuff, drunk by the pitcher left behind for bottled beer as you moved up in life. Conceptually, it is funny stuff. It goes from being that drunkard's brew to worth fighting a court case over to the stuff (or the cousin of the stuff in Anchor's case) of dreamy web vid ads.
Is it because steam beer is really an idea and not really a beer at all? And an idea that has shifted to serve each era's needs? At some point, labels can pretty much abstract themselves completely away from the substance upon which they are placed. Which make them both flexible and unreliable, prone to being pushed in one direction or another. I thought of that unreliability when I read about this annoucement for a contest to brew the best 1812 era Toronto beer. The rules of the contest appear to bears little resemblance to any reading I have done about beer in this part of the world. Toronto - then called York - had a normal British empire style commercial brewing economy at that time. Water, yeast, malt and hops. That's what brewers in old York likely mostly used 200 years ago. The British defended the right of even prisoners to not suffer unadulterated foods in these parts in the early 1800s.
What made steam beer rough then not? What now litters Toronto's actual skillful brewing history with "herbs and root vegetables"?