The Story of Anchor Steam Beer
by Jack R. Carson
From an article by Tom Acitelli
If American craft beer has a liquid godfather it’s probably Anchor Steam. To many experts and beer historians it's
the first craft beer, Even more than that, Anchor Steam is a singular achievement in American food and drink: It’s
the sole commercial representation of the oldest indigenous beer style in the United States. Few people realize
that steam beer is one of the few styles born in the U.S. The others readily recognizable today are cream ale, kept
alive in its dark ages 60 years ago by Rochester, New York-based Genesee Brewery; and modern light beer,
introduced by Miller in 1975.
The at-least-150-year-old steam style chugged along uninterrupted, save for a Prohibition-related disruption from
1920 to 1933. It owes that survival in large part to Anchor Steam, a slightly sweet, caramel-y standout. In the mid-
1800s, especially after the discovery of gold, Americans started pouring into territorial California. Most were of
northern European descent, and so lager was one of their choicest drinks. Lager dates from perhaps the Middle
Ages, but really started to boom in the 19th century, when Bavarian brewers started experimenting with bottom-
fermenting yeasts and, colder fermentation and aging using deep caves and cellars full of ice. (That was a
departure from the top-fermenting yeasts and warmer temps that defined much older ale).
The cold requirement made lager difficult to come by in the newly settled West Coast because, unlike back East,
there were no ready sources of lots of ice. Plus, mechanical refrigeration would not emerge in the American
brewing industry until the 1870s. What to do when the new arrivals wanted beer? Rudimentary breweries like
Anchor started cobbling together what ingredients they could, and brewing at ale-like temperatures with lager
yeast, chemistry be damned.
There is no agreed upon etymological back story for “steam” beer, but many theories. It could have been that
pressure, or the sound that release of that pressure made when barrels were tapped and bottles opened. There’s
also the theory that early batches of the brew were cooled on San Francisco rooftops, and the Pacific breeze
collided with the just-boiled, pre-fermentation beer, throwing off clouds of steam. Then there’s the one about
American brewers of German descent naming this ad-hoc creation after dampfbier back in the old country. Dampf
means “steam,” and that beer was born in a remote area of Bavaria with whatever ingredients were readily
Anchor Brewing Co., which debuted in 1896, limped into the 1960s with antiquated equipment and a single
employee — probably the smallest working brewery in America and likely the only one making steam beer in large
quantities. Then in 1969 Fritz Maytag, an heir to the home-appliance fortune his great-grandfather founded had
the idea of owning the last small-batch, traditional brewery in San Francisco — maybe in America. He ditched the
sugar and food coloring that the old Anchor was using, and switched to all malted grains,. Then he started using
the Northern Brewer hop, a relatively young breed from England. Finally, Anchor introduced a yeast strain
specific to its steam beer. The end result of these changes was a consistently delicious and unique beer ready
for bottling, which Maytag finally did in April 1971.
Maytag’s brewery received federal permission to trademark “steam beer” in August 1982. Stylistically vestigial or
not, steam beer was Anchor Steam, Anchor Steam was steam beer. Any imitators since have used the “common”
or “California common” on their own interpretations of the Americanstyle, perhaps a franker and more accurate
nod anyway to the style’s origins. Some have incurred Anchor’s legal wrath for using “steam.” and were duly sued.
Maytag, who’s now 79 years old, hasn’t been involved day-to-day with Anchor since 2010, when he sold control of
the brewery to a pair of investors best-known for popularizing Skyy vodka. It was those investors who sold the
brewery to Japanese giant Sapporo earlier this year. According to the brewery, the new owner has no intention of
meddling with Anchor Steam’s recipe. It would be incandescently stupid to do so.
Lastly, note that Anchor Steam is not the brewery. The brewery is called Anchor, one of their beer's is called
Steam. It's one of the most common mistakes made when talking about the brewery.
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