The California common beer, nicknamed steam beer for its foamy and effervescent nature, is one of the few truly unique American beer styles. Starting in the Gold Rush era, brewers of steam beer used lager yeast strains from Germany, however they lacked the sophisticated, industrial refrigeration systems normally used to give lager beer its clarity and crisp flavor. The result of this warmer than normal fermentation is a slightly hazy and complex-tasting libation unique to America.
Anchor Brewing has produced its own steam beer formula since 1896, and in many ways it is a window into the time before the big American macrobreweries came to dominate the beer industry. The first tip-off is a light amber hue with a slight haze, not the pale straw yellow of typical mass-produced lagers. True to its style, Anchor Steam is foamy and bubbly beyond most beers, but with small and creamy bubbles similar to Guinness or other nitrogen-infused ales.
The foam gives off a pleasant earthy smell, similar to a forest during the fall. At the first sip the wonderful and creamy foam strongly asserts itself, along with a slightly thicker texture. Second to hit the palate is a strong, yet balanced, bitterness with a slight astringency, but very little secondary aroma. With the unique fermentation process comes a unique yeast flavor somewhere between a subdued American ale and a full-flavored German bock lager. Balancing out, but not overpowering the bitterness, is a subtle and sugary sweetness much like a dry brown rum.
More savory than sweet or hoppy, Anchor Steam would go well with fish and chips or other easily-overpowered foods. It is a quality session beer for those who want an alternative to bland macrobrew lagers or overly-hoppy microbrews, but will likely win over fans from both camps. Without a high alcohol content or extreme bitterness, this is not a superlative beer in any definable way except maybe craftsmanship and attention to detail. Yet it still stands apart from any of the trends that have come and gone in the last 114 years. I give Anchor Steam a B for sticking to its guns.