In 1849, some 90,000 people rushed to California in hopes of finding gold. While profits from gold were substantial for some, the sudden explosion in California’s population created business opportunities for others. Shrewd businessmen profited in such areas as shipping, entertainment, lodging, and transportation. Some, such as Gottlieb Brekle, who landed in San Francisco with his wife and infant son in 1849, turned to brewing. Upon applying for U.S. citizenship in 1854, Brekle formally established his brewery. Almost half a century later in 1896, the brewery was purchased and renamed to Anchor. Over the next seventy years, Anchor struggled to stay in business while contending with makeshift equipment, two untimely deaths, two devastating fires, and over a decade of Prohibition. America’s growing taste for mass-market brands like Budweiser in the 20th century also took its toll on business for Anchor. But things began to turn around for the brewery in 1965, when Frederick “Fritz” Maytag III purchased a majority share of the company. Maytag, great-grandson of the founder of the Maytag washing machine company, breathed new life into the company by renovating the equipment with his inheritance, reformulating Anchor’s recipes, and refocusing the company’s image on respect for the art of brewing. What Maytag did for Anchor would later become an inspiration to other brewers, which in turn spawned the U.S. craft beer movement of the 80s and 90s.
Today’s feature is Anchor Steam, a brew based loosely on the steam beer style developed during the Gold Rush. The name “steam beer” is a curious one, but one likely account provides an interesting explanation as to its origin. Without access to refrigeration and unable to afford costly ice, brewers in 19th-century California turned to the cool air blowing in from the Pacific to cool off their products. To that end, they set up shallow, open pans on rooftops to which the wort was pumped after boiling. At night, the foggy air blowing over the warm liquid would create large amounts of steam, giving rise to the nickname “steam beer.” Brewers’ improvisation at the time was not limited to rooftop brewing; another distinctive trait of steam beer stemmed from the use of lager yeast at temperatures used for fermenting ale. Because lager yeast does not usually work well at such temperatures, the brewers, unfamiliar with ale, had to experiment with different strains until they found one that would. The result was a unique lager-ale hybrid. Anchor today continues to draw on these practices to produce their steam beer—fermenting in shallow, open vessels and using lager yeast at ale temperatures. Anchor Steam is also the defining example in the competition category “California Common,” another name for steam beer. Among the style’s characteristic traits is the woodsy, minty quality imparted by Northern Brewer hops, a versatile variety first bred in England in 1934 which can be used variably for bittering, flavor, and/or aroma.
Anchor Steam pours a deep amber hue and a thick, off-white head. The aroma smells largely of graham cracker and caramel with a doughy overtone at first. As the maltiness subsides, the hop aroma comes through and smells cool, earthy, and faintly pine-like. In the first sip, the malty, cookie-like sweetness comes up front, followed by the cool, woodsy, and considerably bitter hops. Strong toasted grain hangs around in the finish. Some creamy carbonation fills out the body and bumps it up to mid-range.
Anchor Steam offers an incredibly satisfying combination of cool, pine-like, piquant bitterness; sweet, cookie-like malt; and both crisp and creamy carbonation. The flavor is firm and delicious but just toned down enough to make for a refreshing, easy-drinking beer. There’s little to be desired in the flavor, though the doughy, buttery quality in the aroma makes it seem slightly off.
Today’s beer was purchased at Yamaya in Ota, Japan.