steam beer

Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Nov 10 17:35:33 UTC 2001

    My thanks to Douglas Wilson for clarifying the meaning of
"steams." I had never heard of steam beer.

    The quote which puzzled me was: "They're going to charge only $200
a seat at the big polo match at Newport, which shows that sport to be
an extremely cheap one.  The purchasing power of $200 is only 4000
(in:  _San Francisco Bulletin_, March 29, 1913)

     Douglas Wilson replied:

>I read this as "$200 will buy 4000 'steams'". Last time I was in San
>Francisco I drank several [Anchor] Steams at $2.00 and up, but probably
>this or another brand of steam beer was available for five cents in 1913.
>See for example

    Here now is the result of a bit more checking. OED2, under"steam,"
noun, #17, says
        "Special comb.:  ...steam beer, a Californian effervescent
beer;..." The examples given  are:

1898 Western Brewer XXVIII. 278/1 *Steam bottom
fermenting... The steam beer mash is made according to the English
downward mashing method.
1941 American Neptune Oct. 402 Claus Spreckels is the reputed
inventor of the great San Francisco speciality, steam beer.
1959 San Francisco Chron. 28 June 1 There won't be a drop of steam beer in
Northern California after a few more days.
1974 W. R. HUNT North of 53° xv. 102 Many saloons served the 'choicest
goods' and steam beer at two bits a glass.


Also, I've read the helpful source which D. Wilson cited, entitled
"Head of Steam," by reporter Robert Sullivan. and here are the most
relevant excerpts:

1) "Thirty-one years ago, Fritz Maytag bought an ailing San Francisco
brewery and launched the microbrew revolution. What's next for the
man who ships Anchor Steam to 48 states and three continents? ..."

2) "What Maytag bought was a dump of a building, a special recipe and
a grand 60-year tradition of brewing under the Anchor name. In the
late 19th century, several "steam" beers, as they were called, were
brewed throughout San Francisco. Early in the 20th century, Anchor
entered the game. It passed through various ownerships to Lawrence
Steese in 1959, and was about to gain notoriety as the last specialty
brewer in the country to close when Maytag stepped in hoping to make
it the first to survive and thrive. ..."

3) "...and so I switch [from rye] after one glass to Steam, which is
as good as ever. I'm sitting there, looking at that wonderful,
colorful label and I think to myself: I never did ask him. I never
asked him about "Steam." What the hell is a steam beer?

        "I've heard all the theories: That an old miner named Pete
Steam used to make beer hereabouts. Other accounts say he was Jack
Steam, or Frank Steam. I've heard that, in the prerefrigeration days,
the pressure in the kegs used to get so high the beer would gush
forth steamily when tapped. I've read that the open vat settling
would give off an aromatic steam. But I never did ask Maytag which
theory he subscribed to."

---(G. Cohen): OED2 is silent on the origin of the term "steam beer."
This question still seems to be open.

---Gerald Cohen

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