San Francisco Stars #2: Old Kan Classic Cali Commons Ale, “Steam Beer” West Oakland, California
Date: June 29 , 2019 —
The Story— “Steam Beer” was once a fairly common name in brewing in California. It was common in other countries too, such as Maisel’s Dampf (steam) Beer in Bayreuth, Bavaria. A steam beer brewery also operated in the 19th and early 20th century in James River, Virginia.
The term steam has several potential origins. Beer in San Francisco was produced in the late 29th century by chilling the hot wort in shallow pans on the roofs of the breweries and allowing the cold Pacific air to chill it to fermenting temperature. The beer “steamed” as it cooled. Another use on both sides of the Atlantic was to refer to a brewery that was using steam power to create artificial cooling. The German steam beers were also fermented at high temperatures, though, and therefore although they were ales not lagers, they shared some of the same flavors. Our favorite explanation is that the warm and quick fermentation led to excessively active fermentation and that when a barrel was tapped “steam” gushed out of the tap. The last explanation gains credibility when you notice that pictures of steam brewery barrels had 7 rings around the barrel instead of the usual 5 to keep the barrel from bursting.
Anchor is not only the sole survivor of the steam breweries of the 19th century, Fritz Maytag trademarked the term “steam beer” — the current designation for that sort of beer is “California Common”, a term that apparently has historical roots as well. Steam beers were considered cheap and rough get-drunk beers for workers and other low income consumers, and were generally scorned. We’ll have much more to say about Fritz Maytag and Anchor Steam Beer in a later post in this series, but for now, we’ll turn out attention to a recent brewery’s take on the style.
Old Kan is an Oakland brewery and kitchen that revels in traditional styles and flavors. Some day we’ll get there, but we were lucky enough to find their “Classic” at Coin Op, an amazing arcade and bar several blocks south of Union Square. It’s made from Admiral Malts — a local maltery that is supplying a number of Bay Area craft breweries– and Northern Brewer hops, which probably are as good as any available hop to mimic some of the hop flavors of the 19th century. The California steam beers relied on home-grown hops and it’s not clear exactly what they tasted like, but it may have been a pretty good reflection of the weeds that hops actually are.
We first encountered Anchor Steam beer in the early 1970s. It had flavor. The brewery no longer claims the steam beer they produce tastes very much like the steam beers of the turn of the 20th century — most probably showed a nasty sourness and by modern standards nearly undrinkable (except for sour fanatics). But it did have a big malt character and some fruit from the high temperatures and open fermentation that Anchor continues to use.
Today, we believe Anchor when they say they haven’t changed ingredients or process since the early days when Fritz was trying to make the beer consistently drinkable, but in a world of Bell’s Hop Slam and even Tuppers’ Hop Pocket, Anchor now seems sweetly caramelized and just a tad dull. (We still rate it a world classic, partly because every craft enthusiast owes so much to this path-breaker and partly because, for what it is, it’s still darned good.)
As we tasted the Old Kan Classic, though, we were transported back to the 1970s when Anchor shattered beer stereotypes and was one (though not the only) spark that ignited the craft revolution. This beer now tastes to us the way Anchor Steam did to us then. We freely admit that we’ve changed far more than Anchor, but we’re still grateful for this tiny brewery across the bay for rekindling the sensation we had in our first years of finding great beers.
The Beer– Clean but not oppressive caramel; slightly nutty with some clean biscuit and some frisky fruit with a lingering clean bitter balance. Just a hint of buttery diacetyl is more of an asset than a flaw in a beer like this. We still respect Anchor — even if it’s owned by Kirin now– and it still defines the style. However the hop balance makes this beer the beer we’d choose if we were to drink a six-pack in a session.
Value — Very good, maybe better. We paid seven bucks for an honest pint. At someone’s happy hour you could probably do better.
Values: “fair” is a good beer at an above market price, “good” is worth the money, “very good” is a bargain, and “excellent” is a steal.
We just got back from a week in San Francisco. We hadn’t been there in eleven years and the remarkably vibrant beer scene we experienced then has become, well, even vibranter. Ellie, poor girl, had to work long hours during the day while I got to roam the streets checking out the best places to find great beers. At least when Ellie got off work I had places to take her before she crashed for the night. We’ll post a week or two of Beers of the Day by the Bay before returning to research for our book on Inns and Breweries of the Mid-Atlantic.
Interestingly, the downtown area of San Francisco, while awash with beers from the surrounding areas, has few brewing spots of its own. In that regard it reminds us of New York, where you have to leave Manhattan and go to Brooklyn to really find a nest of breweries. Away from downtown, several brewery taps thrive and public transportation gets you almost anywhere. Beyond the city limits, of breweries ring the city, and many of them produce exceptionally good beers and the myriad of tap houses all over town tend to focus on local beers. Name the style you like and you can find an excellent version of it, though at a price.
We’re often asked to share our tasting notes on over 33,000 beers; this blog is in answer to those requests. Not all our notes, though. The great beer writer Michael Jackson admirably followed the Thumper Rule, and we’ll try to do the same. (“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.”) All the beers we post are from the top half of our ratings and most are from the top quarter. Of greater value, we think, are the stories behind the beers, and we try to give you enough about the brewery, the style and the places to find great beer to help you on your own beer journeys. At CulturAle Press we try to write books and publish posts that will help you “Drink Well and Travel Safely.”