Steamin’ Up The Kitchen…

I remember very well my first taste of Anchor Steam. I was in grad school, living in grad student housing. In the basement of our tower, there was the GCB – the Graduate Center Bar. A little hole in the wall, with a pool table, two or three pinball machines, a dartboard. Neon beer lights, and a bar with about eight stools. Six or seven tables scattered around what had most likely been a storage room not many years before. Spartan, simple, and yet… My friend Paul and I went down once or twice a week, when we had any money, to shoot a game of pool and have a beer. To pretend we were not stressed-out grad students for an hour, pretend we had lives other than the books. The bar featured a few beers I had never tried before. I think they catered to the tastes of the regulars, most of whom seemed to be from other parts of the country. I think I remember seeing a list that included Red Stripe, Sierra Nevada, Shiner Bock, Negra Modelo… and Anchor Steam. This was in the mid-80’s, so pickings were much slimmer than they are now. Anchor was a revelation. The crisp bready flavor of the golden malt balanced by an assertive hoppy nose, the smoothness of a lager with the intensity of an ale  – I am judging all this in retrospect, with almost 30 years of brewing, tasting and evaluating experience… At the time I probably just thought, hmm, this is really good.

When I began homebrewing, Anchor Steam was one of my first attempts at cloning. I have brewed something like this a dozen or more times, each time a little differently. I have had some success – in fact, I think the best beer I ever brewed was my first all-grain try at it. I have also had some not-quite-drinkable/not-quite-dumpable results…

There are two key ingredients that are a must in brewing this beer. It must be hopped primarily with Northern Brewer, and you must use a similar warm-tolerant lager yeast. Also key is the temperature – warm initial fermentation (lots of CO2 production, hence the “steam” reference), followed by very cool aging and conditioning.

Anchor Steam Clone

5 gallons, all-grain

Ingredients:

  • 10 lbs. Munton’s lager malt
  • 1 lb. Weyermann Cara-hell malt
  • 1/2 oz. East Kent Goldings hop pellets (@ 5.0% aa)
  • 1 oz. Northern Brewer hop pellets (@10.6% aa)
  • White Labs San Francisco Lager yeast (WLP810)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure:

Crack grains. Heat 14 quarts water to 165°F. Mash in grains and hold at 152°F for 60 minutes. Heat another 13 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 25 quarts sweet wort. If volume is low, add water to kettle. Bring to boil and add the EKG hops and 1/4 oz. of the Northern Brewer. Boil 30 minutes, add 1/2 oz. Northern Brewer. After 15 more minutes, add last 1/4 oz. Northern Brewer. Boil 15 more minutes (60 total) and remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading, and pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch SF Lager yeast, seal and ferment at 65 – 70°F for eight to ten days. Rack to secondary, age cool (45 – 50°F) for two weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition two weeks at 45°F.

OG: 1055

IBU’s: 37.7

Note on style: Beer historians usually describe this style as a “necessary invention”. During the California Gold Rush days, long before refrigeration, brewers making beer for the miners and those who accompanied them used a lager yeast but couldn’t keep the fermenting beer cold. Others claim that the first Steam beers may have been made with the equivalent of a sourdough yeast. Either way, it is a hybrid, with an ale-like malt and hop profile but lager-like conditioning. The last of many breweries at one time producing this style, also known as California Common Beer, Anchor Steam nearly went out of business in the 60’s before Fritz Maytag (heir to the appliance fortune) bought it, revived it and made it a very profitable brewery.

Note on yeast: I love this WLP810 yeast – not only for Steam beer but it can be used for almost any lager style when you can’t be sure of colder temperatures. It is understood that White Labs’ culture comes from Anchor themselves, so you can’t choose a more authentic yeast for this recipe.

Note on this version: I brewed this a little bit stronger than usual, a “standard-strength version” would have had only 8 to 8-1/2 lbs. of the lager malt in the mash. The addition of a small quantity of Goldings hops at the beginning of the boil was the idea of Greg Noonan, who felt that it needed another hop for complexity, even if at a barely noticeable level.

Extract-based version: Steep 1/2 lb. each toasted pale malt and light crystal (or cara-pils) in 3 gallons of cold water. Bring gradually up to 170°F (over 30 – 45 minutes), remove grains. Continue heating to boiling, add 6.6 lbs. light malt extract syrup (or 5.25 lbs. light dry malt extract). Stir well to avoid scorching on the bottom. When boil resumes, add 1/2 oz. Northern Brewer hop pellets. Boil 30 minutes, add 1/4 oz. Northern Brewer pellets. After another 15 minutes, add 1/4 oz. Northern Brewer. Boil another 15 minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Chill, add to sanitized fermenter along with enough chilled pre-boiled water to make up 5.25 gallons. Take a hydrometer reading and pitch yeast (White Labs WLP810 or a dry lager yeast). Ferment/condition as above.

A Beer Made in Heaven

If you’ve read any of my ramblings here over the last few months, it may have occurred to you that I hold Sierra Nevada and Anchor in very high esteem. They are two of the true pioneers in the craft brew world, two of the originals and two breweries who continue to innovate and yet hold true to their roots and to their principles. Any new brew from either of these breweries is worthy of at least a try.

I was very pleased to see an ad a few weeks ago (in Brew Your Own, I think) for the Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Ale. I vowed that I would get ahold of some, come what may, and review it for my legions of followers (how many in a legion, he wondered aloud…). That day has come, the Sierra Nevada XXX arrived in the market today, and I have been sipping at it for the last couple hours. First, I read the label – not only was it brewed by Sierra Nevada, but the “guest brewer” was none other than Fritz Maytag, owner and brewmaster of Anchor. And it’s a big stout, 9.2% abv. What’s not to like? “Fritz & Ken’s Ale” – already, I am inclined to grab another couple bottles to put away for a year or more…

So, the beer itself: DARK, opaque, reddish-black (when held in front of a very strong light), gorgeous tan head, nice thick foam (think mustache-coating)… The aroma is malt, roasted barley, caramel, burnt sugar, coffee… Full-bodied, rich, devastatingly malty… lots of dark malt but lots of caramel/crystal sweetness too. The hops take a while to notice, with all that malt, but they are quite nice – bitter, but in balance. The finish is not dry, nor is it too sweet – again, a nice balanced malty flavor, emphasis on the roasted barley and dark malts… quite a bit of alcohol, very warming… I’m talking out loud here, I realize… Yes, you are witnessing a tasting live, as it happens…

Hey, this is one hell of a beer. Go get some. Period. Unless you don’t like full-flavored beers. Then this is not for you.

Ken, Fritz, you done good. Thank you!

The Call of the Foghorn

A couple weeks ago I posted tasting notes for Sierra Nevada’s outstanding 2010 release of their Bigfoot Barleywine-style ale. Yesterday I got a chance to compare it with Anchor’s entry in the same category, Old Foghorn.

Two differences jumped out before I even opened it. 1) The stated abv on the bottle was significantly less – whereas Bigfoot weighed in at 9.6%, the Old Foghorn is only a “mere” 8.8%.  In the grand scheme of things, not an unforgivable flaw, but nevertheless… 2) Bigfoot was priced at $12.99 per six-pack, Old Foghorn a whopping $17.99. I could do the math out, but you can see that that .8% abv missing from Anchor’s beer flies in the face of the $5 a rack difference…

Anchor’s label proclaims it to be an all-malt beer (one would hope so!) and dry-hopped (most ales of the style are, frankly). Pouring it out, I noticed it was nowhere near as dark as the Bigfoot – merely a medium amber color, ever-so-slightly hazy, with a modest beige head. A huge waft of malt sweetness hit me, sort of a sweet pretzel/cracker aroma. There were some hops in the bouquet, but they were hiding behind the malt. The flavor continued sweet, leaning towards Graham crackers or ‘Nilla wafers – perhaps even too sweet, as there just didn’t seem to be enough bitterness to balance. Just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything, I took a big mouthful and held it at the back of my mouth and breathed through my nose – not much, a bit of alcoholic warmth, some hoppiness but too restrained for my taste. This is just not as complex a beer as Bigfoot, I’m afraid, although it is certainly drinkable.