Steam Beer (long!)

Bapopik at AOL.COM Bapopik at AOL.COM
Tue Dec 25 09:47:15 UTC 2001

   Here, at last, is "steam beer."
   Patrick Murphy's syndicated "The Barman's Corner" mentioned "steam beer" in parts of about ten columns.  I can't find all of the BUCKEYE TAVERN columns, but I found a few TAP & TAVERN columns.

10 September 1942, BUCKEYE TAVERN, pg. 6, col. 3:
   The home of steam beer is San Francisco--the old San Francisco of pre-Prohibition days.  But we have yet to discover a San Francisco bartender who knows just what steam beer really is, or was.

21 March 1949, TAP & TAVERN, pg. 19, col. 1:
   This week, at long last as the writing boys day, we tracked down the origin of "steam beer."  It's a question that's been asked by readers many times in the ten years or so this column has been running in beverage trade papers, and it's a question we have wanted to answer properly, for as a native San Franciscan we had a youthful recollection of "Steam Beer" signs.  These signs you should be told, were to be found above the locked and empty premises of what were "saloons" in the era immediately before 1919 and the Volstead Act.  When the Act became law, in 1920 we believe, the saloons closed their doors, but "Steam Beer" continued to be spelled out above the swinging portals, often in stained or colored glass--now a lost art to all but the church window industry, we might add.
   So, as a kid with an early morning paper route in San Francisco, we often trotted by the various bistros which had so recently been closed by the three large Prohibition groups under the impetus of World War I "patriotism," and we used to wonder just what the term meant.  Our father told us, now and again, about how he and other members of Admiral Dewey's once famed "White Squadron" used to lay in the China Sea or some other far away place with a far away name, and let their minds dwell on good old San Francisco style steam beer.  How their mouths did water for it, or more correctly, how their throats thirsted.  It was, no doubt, quite a topic of conversation among the men who so handily defeated the Spaniards in 1898.
   In these recent years of writing this beverage column, we've come upon several rumors regarding steam beer.  One was that steam was used in the actual brewing prcoess, hence the term; another was that steam was used in cleaning pipes, vats, cases, etc., hence the term.  Still another is that there might have been a "Mr. Steam" who originated this particular brew.  None of these have any basis in fact.   There is, in U.S.A. today, just one steam brewery left in the country, and it is located at 17th & Kansas Sts., San Francisco.  It is a very small brewery indeed, doing less than 1,000 barrels yearly (the large brewers do from 500,000 to 1,000,000 barrels per year--even more in a few notable instances) and it is, so far as we can ascertain, the sole repository of any and all authentic information on steam beer, there being very little literature available on the subject.  From the management of the firm, the Anchor Brewing Co., we have been told that the term "steam beer" is now and always has been used merely to signify that (Col. 2--ed.) this particular beer had a lot zip, foam, effervescence, a lot of "steam" in the slang sense.  We still use that expression today--a pitcher puts a "lot of steam" behind a fast ball, and we "get our steam up" if we're agitated, and so on.  It's a declining slang phrase, no doubt, as H. L. Mencken would probably agree, for steam engines and such are mostly obsolete in th
is gasolene, diesel, electric and jet age.  But a lively, frothy glass of beer, in the 1850's, '60's, '70's and so on, was certainly remindful of a "steamy glass of suds," and this simple and basic explanation is the true one for the origin of the term, the brewery assured me.  And they should know.
_SOME HISTORY_   Just one hundred years ago, as these words are writ, there started from the East a horde of Argonauts setting out for the gold fields of California.  They came from New England, from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, barely waiting for the ending of the winter's snow to be on their way with wagon train, with or without family, to a new start in that fabled land where gold actually laid gleaming bright on the sandy river bottoms of the gurgling Sierra rivers.  These Argonauts, more popularly termed '49'ers, brought with them a native thirst, which was first slaked by native wine and imports of South American brandy (we refer to Pisco Punch in particular), by tequila and rum and by bourbon and rye, brought by the ships left deserted in San Francisco harbor by the ship-jumping, gold-crazed sailors of all nations.  That probably sufficed for the year 1849.  But by 1850, there had been enough building, and enough of a stabilization in the metropolis of all this gold fever--San Francisco--to call for the establishm
ent of one or more breweries, for beer.  So beer was made, and from the start it was, believe it or not, steam beer.
   To a great extent, it HAD to be steam beer.  This beer was made without the refrigeration devices available in established breweries of the East.  It was not made for "laying away," which is what the term "lager beer" really means.  These two slight differences were enough, however, to give it an entirely different flavor and person- (Copy cut off--ed.)
  (Col. 3--ed.) chener and so on.  In short, the steam beer that came in 1850 (and it was made in 1850, records indicate) was really a product of the situation which confronted the early horde of gold seekers and adventurers.  The particular type of brew that evolved, with its zestful "steam" head, became the pattern for San Francisco, which is to say the pattern for the West, since Los Angeles was then, as the remark is so often made, a "sleepy Spanish town."  Even Oakland didn't figure in early steam beer, but we think Sacramento might well have, along with Reno.
   Anchor Brewing supplied your correspondent with a thesis written by Messrs. Gale and Dixon, of the U. of California, in which they observe that, and we quote pertinent points:
   "Steam beer is kegged with its own fermentation--evolved carbon dioxide (this) supplying sole carbonation and pressure."
   "More than 22 breweries for steam beer operated in S.F. alone until the fire and quake of 1906.  Thereafter, although many of the breweries resumed operation, the socially elite had taken to bottled lager beer, and left steam beer for the working classes."
   "Prohibition put most of the steam breweries out of business.  (Col. 4--ed.)  In 1933, when Repeal became effective, few (steam breweries) reopened."  Lager beer sales and merchandising were just too tough, competitively.  (What happened, of course, wa that some of the steam breweries converted to lager.  Your correspondent notes that Welland's, a famed California brwer today, was a steam beer maker in the early 1900's, for instance.)
   While the embryo savants of U.C. who wrote the above paper quoted from do not say so, a factor which certainly has worked against steam beer on the West Coast today is the lack of any draught beer in the region.  This is just bottled beer country and that's all there is to it.  As a result, a draught product such as steam beer we have discussed has a couple of strikes on it right away quick.  This would not be true "back East."  Few bars in California have draught dispensing equipment, believe it or not.  So, the "future" of steam beer seems limited to its present outlets in the S.F. region.
   Such outlets, we relate for such visiting firemen as may come to San Francisco this 1949 A.D., are scattered, but the mainmost one is the Crystal Palace Market, on S.F.'s broad Market St.
   One local firm did try putting "steam beer" in bottles, but it didn't work and--or, as the lawyers say, didn't catch on.
   In general, these things are true: steam beer is fermented faster, is aged much less, places no sales reliance on calrity or sparkle.  It contains, per keg, a small portion of "green beer" which, when introduced into the keg, causes a secondary fermentation.  The keg, being sealed, holds in the gases given off by this fermentation, and these gases--just as in the instance of champagne--cause the pressure and foam which are present when the steam beer barrel is tapped.
   So much for a great institution of the U.S.A. this past century, which is now almost extinct.  We find the subject so intriguing we'd like to write more, and will certainly welcome your observations or comments on this glorious suds of yesteryear.

13 November 1950, TAP & TAVERN, pg. 14, col. 1:
PASSED a sign the other day, on the outside of a roadside restaurant, and got to thinking that to half of the passers-by it was meaningless, to those of us who are adding on the grey hairs regularly, it told a story.  The sign: "FIRPO'S--STEAM BEER."  If the first part of the sign leaves you unblinking, you're either very young or not a fight fan.  If the second part is meaningless, you're likewise either young, or a stranger to the San Francisco of "the good old days."

18 June 1951, TAP & TAVERN, pg. 13, col. 1:ABOUT a year or so ago, this column discussed that almost extinct West Coast institution, "steam beer."  To know about "steam" is a sure indication that a person's background includes a personal acquaintance with San Francisco or the West Coast 'way back when.  Steam fell prey to the inroads of lager beer, a continuing process which has today practically eliminated the former product from the world of beverages.  It was with quite some surprise, however, that we observed last month, in the course of a visit by Charles Kummerlander (Soren J. Heiberg Co., Chicago) to the West Coast, that in 1910 he "made the first lager beer in California."  He did this at the Golden West Brewery in Hayward, Calif.  So, it would seem from the record that California breweries were slow to change over, and that they made the change only after Eastern brewers more or less forced their hand with lager inroads...Speaking of steam, a San Francisco pub carries this chip of an announcement on its shoulder: "Steam Beer--the beer that d
oesn't give a damn about Milwaukee"...But, who's kidding whom?

(Off to Cuba.  Be back January 2nd--ed.)

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