A History In Beer: Pre-Prohibition Lagers & Steam Beer

Posted on November 3rd, 2009

We Want Beer

Despite a growing craft beer movement, American beer is still dominated by the big three brewers: Coors, Miller and Anheuser-Busch, who account for almost 80% of all beer sold in America. The vast majority of their beer is light lager, a poorly regarded style developed by these three companies to maximize profits, not taste. American beer wasn’t always like this though. There was a time when the average beer bought in the US wasn’t a bland, watery beer.

Prior to Prohibition’s ratification in 1920, America was not dominated not by a handful of giant brewers selling lagers but by thousands of small breweries and brewpubs serving all kinds of beers in their own neighborhoods. The styles available varied widely around the country and could be anything from a German style lager to a heavy English stout.

Sadly, all of this was put on hold for thirteen long years.  When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the crippled beer industry was slow to regain its former prominence. Many smaller brewers had given up their craft for other professions. Instead, the big companies who had survived Prohibition by switching to other operations grew bigger, taking the place of the local brewery. This put an end to local variety and regional styles, and soon the light lager was dominant throughout the country. By 1978, there were just 45 brewers in the entire country, a far cry from the 2,700 breweries that existed a century earlier.

anchor_bottleMany styles and flavors unique to certain parts of the country that flourished prior to Prohibition were lost when brewing resumed in America. One such style was the flaked maize lager. As the name implies, this beer was brewed with flaked maize, an unmalted cereal grain, instead of barley. Although the light lagers peddled by the big companies today use corn as a cheap ingredient, flaked maize was hardly a bargain back in the day. It could cost almost three times more than most domestic malts. Flaked maize lagers were said to be strong with a grainy sweetness. Since no one produces this style today, it’s hard to know for sure.

One pre-Prohibition style that is still produced is steam beer. Czech and German immigrants brought their lager brewing techniques with them when they came to California in the 1800’s. The temperatures in California however were considerably warmer than in Eastern Europe. This created a problem as lagers depend on colder temperatures to brew properly. The result was an entirely new style of beer: steam beer. Lager beer brewed at ale temperatures creates a delicious hybrid of an ale and lager, combining the crispness of a lager with the fruity sweetness of an ale.

The style was single-handedly brought back from the brink of extinction by Fritz Maytag, who purchased the fledgling Anchor Steam brewery in 1965. He reformulated the beer’s ingredients, becoming the first in America to brew without adjuncts or fillers since Prohibition, thus making him the first modern craft brewer.

Anchor Steam copyrighted the term ‘steam beer’ so now the style is properly known as California common, although many still use the former term. Whatever you call it, steam beer makes for a great beer any time of the year. Let us know next time you have one by tweeting what you drank and adding the ‘#mybeer’ hashtag.

  • Pingback: Top 5 Most Influential Beers – Beeriety()

  • beerguy

    Very interesting the first craft beer was from California. No wonder they have good micro brewers from there.

  • beerguy

    Very interesting the first craft beer was from California. No wonder they have good micro brewers from there.

  • Daniel E Vasey

    Anchor Steam was not the first US all-malt beer since before Prohibition. When Valley Forge in Pennsylvania made Prior and Prior Double Dark in the 50s and 60s, they advertised them as all malt, and the taste backed the claim.