Good and Steamed

The curious soul of San Francisco’s steam beer

By Ken Weaver

Published on April 29, 2013

As I settle onto a bar stool at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, the bartender pours me just what I've come here for: a perfect pint of Anchor Steam beer. It's brilliantly clear, deep amber in color, and capped by a bone-white head of foam. Savoring its crystalline-sugar sweetness, all I can think is how far this beer has come.

Steam beer traces its lineage back to the frontier brewing conditions of late 19th-century San Francisco. Back then, efforts to re-create the popular pale lagers of Europe—which required cool temperatures to ferment—were hampered by the city's lack of affordable refrigeration. The solution was to brew a beer with lager yeasts at warmer temperatures, often associated with ales. The "steam" moniker is said to have come from the hissing of kegs filled with the brew, which bubbled with CO2 produced by the over-heated lager yeast. The taste was often sour. Still, nickel schooners of steam beer were a welcome option for San Francisco's laboring class.

As brewing technologies evolved, steam beer became an anachronism. In 1965, the last company making it, Anchor Brewing Company, was near bankruptcy when it was bought by Fritz Maytag. The washing machine heir overhauled Anchor's formula, replacing adjunct sugar and rice malts with pure barley malts, improving quality control, and buying only the choicest hops. Anchor eventually trademarked the term "steam beer," but its essence lives on under the sobriquet "California Common." Lucky Hand Brewing Company in Novato, California, makes a slightly spicy Common that's one of my favorites, while Oakland's Linden Street Brewery bases its entire lineup on steam-brewing techniques, calling them Old California-Style Lagers. "This is a beer style that was born right here in America," founder Adam Lamoreaux says. "We only have a couple of those."

Tasting Notes

Anchor Steam Beer
The modern-day archetype, Anchor Steam ties minty Northern Brewer hops to a deft backing of pale and caramel malts with a subtle, refreshing fruitiness.

Lucky Hand Cali Common
Spicy German hops, Munich malt, and effervescent carbonation yield a mildly bitter and lively California Common-style beer that happens to be certified organic.

Linden Street The 'Town Lager
A crisp, toasty hybrid with an herbaceous finish, this beer is not sold in bottles and is only available at bars within the Oakland city limits. My favorite place to have one is at the English-style CommonWealth pub in the KoNo neighborhood. —K.W.

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