Why Anchor Steam Beer Was Like the Sourdough Bread of Brews

Sadly, Anchor Steam Beer is no more. The iconic Bay Area beer company announced that it would close its doors after 127 years.

What made Anchor so special? The company used a unique fermentation method that made its brews a bit like the sourdough bread of beers, capturing the Bay Area’s unique microflora.

Here’s a look at how Anchor made its iconic brew.

A Rich History

Before diving into the technical details, it’s important to understand where Anchor Steam Beer originated. The term ‘steam’ is a nickname that was used to describe beer brewed on the West Coast of America under primitive conditions and without access to refrigeration.

Anchor Brewing Company, founded in 1896, was one of America’s oldest craft breweries, and its signature Anchor Steam Beer recipe can be traced back to this era.

The unique brewing process developed was a response to the geographical and technological constraints of the time, resulting in a beer style uniquely Californian in origin.

Coolship: The Heart of the Brewing Process

One of the key features that sets the Anchor Steam Beer brewing process apart is the use of a ‘coolship.’ This is a large, shallow, open-top cooling vessel that facilitates the cooling of the beer wort.

After the boiling process, the hot wort is transferred to the coolship, where it spreads out, increasing the surface area and allowing for a more efficient cooling process.

The coolship method allows the beer to undergo a process of natural, albeit controlled, fermentation. During this stage, the beer is exposed to the natural microflora of the San Francisco air, resulting in a natural and distinctive fermentation.

That makes the beer very similar to San Francisco’s iconic sourdough bread, which also leverages local microflora for fermentation. Natural yeasts–which abound in our foggy climate–add complexities to both beers and breads.

Steam Brewing: A Unique Fermentation Process

The term ‘steam’ in Anchor Steam Beer refers to a unique type of fermentation known as ‘California Common’ or ‘steam’ beer.

This method utilizes lager yeast, a bottom-fermenting yeast, at higher-than-normal temperatures. Lager yeast usually ferments at cooler temperatures, but because early California brewers didn’t have access to refrigeration, they had to innovate.

Fermenting lager yeast at warmer temperatures results in a beer with the crispness of a lager, combined with the rich, complex flavors of an ale. This unique characteristic defines Anchor Steam Beer and sets it apart from other traditional beers.

A Balanced Use of Ingredients

In addition to its unique brewing process, Anchor Steam Beer is known for its carefully chosen ingredients. It features a blend of pale and caramel malts and Northern Brewer hops. The Northern Brewer hops, in particular, provide the beer with a distinctively woody and rustic flavor, which is an essential characteristic of this beer style.

A Commitment to Craftsmanship

Even as technology has advanced, Anchor Brewing has stayed true to its roots, using traditional methods to create its signature beer.

The brewery’s adherence to its time-tested process, even when more modern (and perhaps easier) methods are available, showcased a commitment to craftsmanship that gives each sip of Anchor Steam Beer a taste of brewing history.

Conclusion: A Beer Steeped in History and Uniqueness

Anchor Steam Beer is not only a delicious brew but also a testament to historical brewing methods. Its unique brewing process, from coolship cooling to steam brewing, coupled with a careful balance of ingredients, results in a beer that stands the test of time.

There’s still time to get your hands on an Anchor Steam Beer before production ceases.

Enjoy responsibly and savor the distinct flavors born from a process steeped in history and uniqueness, while you still can.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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