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Steamy Brewday: Wonmisan Vaporizer

I’m surely not alone in saying that Anchor Steam is the beer I associate with California, though there are, doubtless, plenty of other good beers brewed in the state. But when I first was in San Francisco, I’m pretty sure the first beer I had there was an Anchor Steam. This is fitting, since the Anchor brewery is one of the few that (re-)started production after the Prohibition.

I picked it simply because the name was so unusual, which tells you something about the issue of the name of the beer. The style is one that has a long history, though as with many beers, the history and the present diverge significantly. Most contentious, perhaps, is how the beer got the name “Steam.” Wikipedia’s page for the style includes a few theories:

Explanations of the word “steam” are all speculative. The carbon dioxide pressure produced by the process was very high, and one possibility is that it was necessary to let off “steam” before attempting to dispense the beer. According to Anchor Brewing, the name “steam” came from the fact that the brewery had no way to effectively chill the boiling wort using traditional means. So they pumped the hot wort up to large, shallow, open-top bins on the roof of the brewery so that it would be rapidly chilled by the cool air blowing in off the Pacific Ocean. Thus while brewing, the brewery had a distinct cloud of steam around the roof let off by the wort as it cooled, hence the name. It is also possible that the name derives from “Dampfbier” (literally “steam beer”), a traditional German beer that was also fermented at unusually high temperatures and that may have been known to 19th-century American brewers, many of whom were of German descent.

Personally, I suspect the latter is true, though Ray Daniels, in Designing Great Beers, seems to hold with the first theory.

Daniels also discusses the issue of terminology, because of course, “Steam” is now a trademarked brand name, and can no longer be used as a style designation. Basically, only Anchor Brewery can call its beer “steam” beer on the commercial market, at least in the USA: everyone else has to call beer in this style a “California Common.” (That’s not qute true: the Sleeman brewery actually introduced a “Steam” branded beer to the Canadian market; Anchor sued and lost, despite having a trademark in Canada, because their beer had never been available there. I don’t know if Sleeman trademarked the beer, but it’s out of production. So I suppose an enterprising Canadian brewer could introduce another “Steam” brew to the market!)

Either way, “California Common Beer” is a name that is both less interesting and less colorful, and while the author of the first page linked (on the history of the style) argues this is fair since Anchor was the only brewery to make the style for a long time, I have my doubts.

I mean, imagine if someone had trademarked style names like “porter” or “stout” or “India Pale Ale” — it seems to me that styles, and their traditional names, ought not to be something someone can trademark; I find it as absurd as trademarking musical styles — “I hold the trademark to the 12-bar blues, and I will sue you if you claim to be singing anything in that style!” or “I have trademarked the fugue, and forbid you to compose in the form.” That’s what beer styles are like — not songs specifically, but types of songs: a 12-bar blues, an AABA-form Broadway tune, or some whirling piece based on the “rhythm changes” — there’s something recognizable, and something slightly different, in each iteration of the form.

However, my opinion on trademarks is irrelevant to the legal issues, and I wonder if there’s more a sense that, after all, Anchor kept the style alive (if in narrowed form) and it would be in poor taste to fight the logical fight.

In any case, nobody is about to sue me in Korea for homebrewing a “steam brew,” and since I got a chance to try a few more bottles recently, and have the proper yeast and stuff on hand, I figured I’d give it a go. (Though, to be a bit SFnal, I’ll call it my “Vaporizer” beer.) Only a small reluctance held me back —  the issue of temperature control, as it’s important not to let the wort get too warm. This is, after all, not an ale yeast but a lager yeast (Wyeast 2112, the California Lager yeast), used at a much higher temperature than normal lager yeasts are commonly used — up to 18°C (65°F) to be exact. I will probably aim to keep it between 15-17°C, though on days when I need to go out, the temp might have to go as low as 13-14°C in order to avoid it getting over-warm before I return in time to cool it again.

In any case, this beer will have probably the simplest of all the beers I’ve made this year: the grist (which totals 5 kilograms) is approximately (depending on what I have on hand) as follows:

The hops were a pain when I was planning this. Northern Brewer is the signature hop in this style, but I had used up all of my stock of that on other brews, leaving me with only one ounce on hand, and no adequate substitute hops… far too little to do the bitter and late-hopping and get the right bitterness and flavor.

However, my friend Nick, having recently returned to Korea from Canada, was kind enough to pick up several ounces of Northern Brewer hops for me, which will allow me to brew this as a single-hop beer. Figuring on a relatively hoppy BU:GU of about 0.68-0.70 — because apparently Anchor Steam is a rather hoppy beer when fresh — I designed a hop schedule with a certain kind of symmetry:

This should give the beer a solid bitterness while also ensuring a certain degree of Northern Brewer flavor and aroma punch; since in my experience the flavor is more forceful from late hopping than the aroma, I am reserving just a gram more than half an ounce for dry-hopping in the serving keg. I figure on leaving the hops in for four to five days, and then either chilling or racking off the hops.

Infusion mash at 72°C, in the expectation of a fuller-bodied beer and some residual sweetness not just from the Caramunich but also from the Pilsner itself, in order to balance the heavy hopping, as well as a good strong malt flavor to shine through clearly, since this yeast gives such a crisp finish.

(For those curious, I worked out the recipe here.)

UPDATE (same night): Everything went according to plan, except two little hangups:

  1. I didn’t take a gravity reading. (Argh!)
  2. I was overzealous in my assumption that, having gathered 23L of wort, I’d need to boil for 1.5 hours to get down to 19L. In fact, I got down to something closer to 14.5 or 15L. I’ve boiled up some water to add, and will pitch the yeast tomorrow morning whilst adding that water. I suppose, if I have my wits about me, I’ll be able to take a gravity reading then. I don’t know why I forgot.

UPDATE (23 Sept. 2011):

Okay, one more hangup: I got pathetically bad efficiency (like, I’m talking about ~50%), and I’m not really sure why. I haven’t mashed in my boil pot for a long time, and that might have something to do with it. (I decided, since this was a single batch, to go ahead and do it the old way.) Or maybe it was because I attempted a fly sparge instead of a batch sparge. Maybe both factors played into it. Therefore, I will probably just leave my wort at ~ 14.5L at 1.044. That will give me probably a 4%-ish California Common, with a good hoppy character. Since it tastes pretty good in the sampling tube, I am less inclined to make up the difference with LDME and extra water, and throw the hopping out of balance. (The balance that now exists, as opposed to the balance I’d planned.)

UPDATE (26 Sept. 2011): Okay, I know I should have made a starter, but I thought underpitching might allow a little more esteriness to shine through, and figured that since I’m using this yeast more like an ale yeast, the temperatures would be okay. But still no real krausen, no airlock activity, no yeast rafts floating up. I may have overchilled the cool water bath, but not that much. I’ve aerated every day or so, and will keep doing so until it takes off. I’m hoping the shake it got today is enough to set off this batch tonight. Otherwise, I’ll need to start thinking about yeast backup plans…

UPDATE (28 Sept. 2011): Yay, krausen and airlock activity! Last night, there was just a tiny hint of bubbles on the surface, so after aerating my other beer again, I swirled this carboy. Not enough to oxygenate the beer, just to stir up some of the yeast. Then I skipped adding more ice bottles to the cooler, just to let the beer warm up slightly (like, to 18°C) to give the yeast a little help in starting up. This morning, there was a nice, thick, very clean krausen on the beer, so it looks like I did the right thing. No idea how long this will take to ferment out, but I’m still going a bit soft on the chilling (keeping it around 16°C), as this seems about optimal for both this yeast and the Kölsch yeast I’m using in my Lichtenhainer.

UPDATE (14 Nov. 2011): This beer finished at 1.014, and I kegged it quite some time ago. It’s been conditioning ever since, but I didn’t bother to dry hop it until now because, after all, I didn’t want to add the hops too long ahead of time, only to have the aromas dissipate on me. Now, it seems it’s finally time to see how this beer turns out. It tastes alright at room temperature, pre-dryhop, but I’m hoping that afterward, it might even slide up that scale toward fantastic. We’ll see — I added an ounce (28 grams) in a metal soup-boiler cage. I just hope the cage thingie isn’t reactive… I didn’t have problems with the larger tea ball I used for my ESB, months ago, so I think it’ll be fine, but I guess I’ll find out in a few days. Next time… hop sack.

UPDATE (19 Nov. 2011): Well, it doesn’t taste like Anchor Steam, but it does taste pretty damned good. I will have to add some gelatin to clear it, but the dry hopping did its thing and now the aroma (and apparent flavor) are much more in line with the strength I was hoping for. Maybe if I can get it to clear, it’ll be a little more like the model I was emulating, but if not, I won’t mind a bit.

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