Pros: Nice character, complexity, originality
Anchor Steam is one of the great success stories of American brewing, a microbrewery that came before the boom and brewer of what is considered to be the only beer style indigenous to the USA. This brewery is of such fame that at least some part of every American beer guide seems devoted to it.
Steam Beer ? Common or Uncommon?
Steam beer is something that may conjure up great images of industrial manufacturing. However it is believed that the name ?steam? referred simply to the hiss of natural carbon dioxide escaping from the casks when they were tapped. Others would argue that the name was merely one applied to raise interest during the steam age.
There is a unique method of manufacture to this beer, which has led to its protection by trademark. This beer goes back to the Gold Rush of 1849, at a time when lager beers were becoming the latest craze on the eastern side of the country. Lagers are bottom fermented and stored for maturation at lower temperatures. Unable to keep their fermenters cold, west coast brewers decided to use bottom-fermenting lager yeasts in very shallow fermenting vessels, which would help the brew to cool faster. That makes this beer something of a lager/ale hybrid. Having become the last survivor of this technique, the company applied a trademark to protect it.
Common is a name given to any American beer, not utilizing standard brewing methods, and steam beer fits into that. As you will remark, it would make more sense to call the beer uncommon.
The Success Story
In 1965 this small brewery was only producing 700 barrels a year and on the verge of closing. Fritz Maytag, heir to the Maytag fortune and Anchor Steam drinker, is the man wholly responsible for the rescue and subsequent turnaround. He initially sold some of his family shares to become a partner and eventually owner. At that time he was at least 10 years ahead of the microbrew revolution, and is seen as a pioneer of that movement.
The brewery took 10 years to reach a profit and by 1988 was producing 82,000 barrels a year (I have no idea what the figure is today but with it would be higher)
Anchor Steam pours to a deep orangey-amber color with a slight haziness. There?s adequate carbonation and a thin fairly tainted white foam. The nose has a clean maltiness at first but it?s a little more complex than that. There?s a light fruitiness as well as little peppery spiciness in the hop.
The palate is very interesting; it carries a fair weight combined with a good sharp spritzy fizziness. The initial flavor is also clean and malty, while it turns drier and spicy in the back of the palate, leading up to a dry bitter finish. There?s a nice hoppiness in the finish that has a citric sourness. The citrus lingers, but mellows out with a little spiciness in an aftertaste that also blends in a more subtle peachy flavor. A further point to add in the tasting was a strong alcohol flavor which certainly gave me the impression of something stronger than the 5% ABV quoted.
This beer certainly carries a complexity that attracts a lot of interest. It transcends the style of both an ale and a lager. It?s comparable to an amber ale in some ways but maybe even more complex than that. As a lager it certainly carries a good full body as well as a nice blend of flavors.
This is definitely a beer that anyone should try once, just to understand what all the talk is about. It certainly carries a complexity and originality that make for more interesting drinking than your average American lager. As I noted in the start of my review, as the only style indigenous to the USA, you have to give it a try. I should also add that unless you understand a little about beer you might not get it, i.e. the difference between the brewing of an ale and a lager.
In spite of my enjoyment, however, it?s highly unlikely that I would buy this beer again, although I do intend to visit the brewery some day. It is an excellent beer, and a style all of its own, but at $9+ for a 6-pack it?s just a little overpriced. This beer will probably always have a novelty appeal, and I?m sure they?re pricing within the brewery?s capacity. A sensational beer, just a little too expensive to attract regular drinking.
Just as a final note, Flying Dog makes something similar with its Old Scratch Lager (not advertised as such due to the trademark). This is another excellent, if not better, beer to try. I don?t know of other USA examples or similarities, but there are many more characterful lagers becoming more readily available (thanks for your comment on my GB Marzen review, Lew).