San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Co. is one of America’s most venerable craft breweries. It was turning out craft beer before the phrase even existed; people probably called it “microbrew” or just “fancy.” Fritz Maytag, of the Maytag appliance dynasty, bought the flailing brewery in 1965 and became one of the most respected pioneers in American craft beer. Much of that legacy has to do with a little creation called Anchor Steam.
My dad would order Anchor Steam if he saw it at a restaurant; it was one of the few beers that could convince him to deviate from Yuengling (his mother, my grandmother, grew up in Yuengling’s hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania). This was during the ’90s, when craft beer wasn’t yet a thing, at least not in suburban New Jersey. Anyway, that Anchor Steam is still regarded as a great beer is a testament to its staying power, and the enduring legacy of Fritz Maytag, who has since stepped away from Anchor.
So what’s the appeal? Anchor Steam is technically a California Common, a little-known style of beer that originated out West during the Gold Rush era. Brewers in that Wild West time were a ragtag bunch, making use of the conditions and materials at hand: They began fermenting beer outside, in large vats, to take advantage of cool coastal nighttime temperatures. Without reliable access to refrigeration or ice, this was the only way brewers could find temperatures cool enough to ferment their lager yeast strains. Still, it was rather warm for lager fermentation, and that elevated temperature helped create the California Common or steam beer style. Anchor Steam is one of the only widely available styles of this beer, plus it holds the trademark to steam beer, so it’s come to be synonymous with the style.
Fans of amber lagers will find much that’s familiar in Anchor Steam, but with a bit more fruitiness thanks to those higher fermentation temperatures. It’s above all an easy-drinking, balanced beer, with rustic, earthy hops balancing out the toasty malt sweetness and just a touch of pear-skin flavors from the yeast. The beer finishes rather dry, which only enhances its drinkability (at 4.9 percent ABV, these go down quite easily). It’s a uniquely American example of a great backyard or lakeside beer, with the fun added bonus of conjuring images of old-timey, Gold Rush-era brewers snoring while guarding their vats of beer under the moonlight.
Oh, and as of June, it’s available in cans! (Jeez Anchor, it only took you three decades.) A beer like this begs to be in a can so that it can go to beaches and parks and on boats. And these aren’t your standard 12-ounce cans either; they’re hefty 19.2-ounce tubes—just the way those ragtag Wild West beermakers would have wanted.
Where to get it
Anchor Steam is available at most major beer retailers nationwide. Find the nearest one to you here.
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