Before I delve into this week’s beer, let’s talk about beer in general to develop some context. These days, most beers can be distinctly classified as either ales or lagers. Ales are usually fermented and aged warm, around the low end of room temperature. Ale yeasts are happiest at this temperature, and they convert the beer’s sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide quickly and efficiently. They produce a wide range of noticeable compounds, including flavors reminiscent of fruits and butterscotch (esters and diacetyl, if you must know).
Lagers, on the other hand, are typically fermented at lower temperatures than ales and are aged, or “lagered,” at temperatures that sometimes approach freezing. The history of lager can be traced back to the cool underground cellars of Bavaria used to store beer for later consumption (“lager” is German for “storage”). These Germans noticed that the colder conditions of the cellars led to a cleaner, crisper beer than they had previously enjoyed. The yeasts they had used adapted to the colder temperatures and produced less flavor compounds than their traditional ale yeast cousins. This resulted in a mellower, smoother-drinking brew.
The modern craft beer market is dominated by ales due to the simple fact that they are highly cost-effective at the microbrewery scale. The time from when an ale is brewed to when it is enjoyed by the consumer (from “grain to glass,” as they say) can be as short as two weeks. Lagers, on the other hand, take a minimum of six weeks of preparation. I read somewhere that small startup breweries should double their expected capital costs if they intend to brew lagers!
This is why I get so excited when I get to try a well-brewed craft lager, which is a rare thing. And among craft-brewed lagers, one stands out from the rest. It’s the sort of odd man out — I’m talking about Anchor Steam Beer from Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco. Remember how I said lagers were fermented cold? Well, of course, recognizing that there are no rules in beer brewing, Anchor did it slightly differently.
Anchor uses a special type of lager yeast that can tolerate slightly warmer temperatures, creating a unique flavor profile not usually associated with lagers. Anchor purports to use highly traditional brewing methods, including fermenting in shallow, open-air vessels, which is virtually unheard of at other craft breweries. According to the brewery, the name “steam beer” was given to beers from the West Coast in the 19th century. These beers were said to have been fermented in rooftop pans that “steamed” from evaporation during cool California nights.
I poured a pint from Anchor’s unique wide-bottom 22-ounce bottle (which cost me $5 at the bottle shop) into a glass. The slightly hazy amber color of the beer is complemented by the thick, lasting, off-white head. As I poured the beer, I noticed grainy, beery aromas with little hop presence in the nose. There is definitely a punch of hop bitterness in the taste of the beer, but it is complemented by the abundant sweet caramel and biscuity flavors.
This beer has a light to moderate body and goes down easy at 4.9 percent ABV. It’s at once highly drinkable and surprisingly nuanced, and it’s certainly a pleasant beer to drink. Anchor Steam Beer is a great-tasting, highly unique beer and definitely an awesome starting point to delve into craft lagers.