I recently had the pleasure of returning to sample an old favorite, indeed what could easily be called the original craft brewed classic: Anchor Steam Beer. It maybe difficult for younger beer enthusiasts to imagine what it was like back in 1965, when a young Fritz Maytag became a fledgling brewer, purchasing an operation headed for oblivion.
What was the appeal? Well at that time the American brewing industry was chiefly concerned with moving “product”, which basically meant cereal based concoctions now commonly known as American lager. What brewers call adjunct lager. The pale golden coloured beers loved by so many millions of people, and, despite any inroads from the craft beer segment, are not going away anytime soon. The fact that Bud Light is 25% of the world beer market is really all that needs to be said.
The revival of regional recipes, the so-called retro movement, has reintroduced many of those all grain lagers, before marketing greed had corrupted their formulas. Thus beer brands remembered with nostalgic fondness have returned. Beers consumed at baseball games by a generation’s parents or grandparents, or once again available. In the case of Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Old Style, it never left.
This throws me back to when I was 10 years old, attending a Cincinnati Reds game at Crosley field. In those days, beer vendors lugged around cases of bottled beer, expertly pouring the entire bottle into paper cups, using sales pitches such as: “get moody with Hudy!” and what now would be considered irresponsible “One for the road!” since there was no cut off point for selling beer in those days: beer for all 9 innings.
So bland tasting, sometimes foul smelling adjunct lager was an accurate description of the American beer scene in 1965, when Fritz Maytag began the arduous task of keeping alive Steam beer, an all barley malt beer linked to the West coast of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1971 that the modern Anchor Steam was first bottled. Years before Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams even existed. So is Anchor Steam the grand daddy of them all? I would have to say yes.
A sampling of Anchor Steam reveals a beer with enormous character. It is most certainly wise not to serve this beer at the taste numbing temperature called ice cold. In fact, at a warmer temperature, Steam pours with luxurious natural carbonation. In other words, do not hurry when enjoying this beer. This beer produces what in old school language can be called a rocky headed pour. But what truly makes Steam the remarkable beer that it is, can be found in the dry finish. A gentle bitterness that is oblivious to a culture acclimated with soda pop.
The evolution of flavorful beer has seen the explosion of aggressively hopped beers. Perhaps the grace and nuance of recipes such as Anchor Steam are missed by a younger generation of beer drinkers. In fact I have heard people display an aversion to anything called lager, Which is unfortunate because this denies the possibility of experiencing an expertly made pilsener, or an exquisite rendition of bock. And of course, the lager referred to as California common, trademarked in San Francisco as Anchor Steam Beer.