Earlier this month, members of the Oakland Heritage Alliance learned about beer at an event called On Tap: Oakland's Beer Brewing History. Adam Lamoreaux, founder of Linden Street Brewery, showed us around the brew house and gave us a brief history of beer in the Bay Area.
Beer itself is fairly simple, with water, barley, hops and yeast combined in different ways to make a wide range of styles and flavors. Yeast is what makes the magic happen, converting grain sugars into alcohol and CO2. The type of yeast dictates the type of beer; lager yeast ferments at cooler temperatures near the bottom of the fermenter, while ale yeast ferments at a higher temperature at the top. The cooler temperatures for lager yeast could easily be found in caves and cellars in Europe much of the year, but in the mid-1800s, immigrants to the Bay Area found things a bit too warm. So they adapted by creating steam beer. Steam beer uses a lager yeast, but at the warmer ambient temperatures of the Bay Area. That plus the choice of available barley and hops makes for a uniquely flavored beer style, probably best known today because of Anchor Steam.
The yeast was influenced by the wild yeasts in the Bay Area, which are part of what makes sourdough bread around here unique. A small amount of active yeast was added for the beer to finish in the cask, which gave it a higher level of carbonation. That is likely the source of the name, as tapping the high-pressured kegs would sometimes blow off "steam" (CO2). Apparently sloppy stocking practices by some publicans and variations in production even lead to the occasional burst keg. In any event, the term "steam beer" is now a registered trademark of Anchor Brewing. That might rankle some people if were any other company; Fritz Maytag who bought and saved Anchor in 1965 is considered the father of the modern craft beer movement.
By 1890, there were four breweries flourishing in the city of Oakland. At a time when Oakland's population was 48,682, breweries in Oakland alone turned out 35,000 barrels of beer annually.Several of those breweries produced steam beer, including The Brooklyn Brewery:
[It] was a local product. Even after Brooklyn became part of Oakland, people liked to use the name to distinguish their neighborhood. The Brooklyn Brewery began 1872 under A. Miller at Eighteenth Avenue and East Fourteenth Street.At its peak during summer months, Brooklyn produced 35 barrels of Brooklyn Steam Beer a day. That's over a 1,000 gallons a day. One of the longest lasting breweries was the Golden West Brewery (ever noticed the sign at Heinhold's?), later Goebel Brewing Company, which sponsored radio broadcasts of the Oakland Oaks baseball team.
Steam beer was considered a blue-collar beer and that was reflected in the literature of the time. Beer in general was cheaper than other drinks, and safer to drink than water because the brewing process killed most germs. Oakland history and Mountain View Cemetery fans may be familiar with the name Henry Cogswell, who constructed water fountains to try to reduce the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Jack London writes about how he started drinking in John Barleycorn:
The first day I worked in the bowling alley, the barkeeper, according to custom, called us boys up to have a drink after we had been setting up pins for several hours. The others asked for beer. I said I'd take ginger ale. The boys snickered, and I noticed the barkeeper favoured me with a strange, searching scrutiny. Nevertheless, he opened a bottle of ginger ale. Afterward, back in the alleys, in the pauses between games, the boys enlightened me. I had offended the barkeeper. A bottle of ginger ale cost the saloon ever so much more than a glass of steam beer; and it was up to me, if I wanted to hold my job, to drink beer
This history of beer in Oakland is part of what inspired Adam when he started Linden Street Brewery a few years ago. While brew pubs (like Pacific Coast Brewing) have been part of Oakland for a while, Linden Street Brewery was the first production brewery* in Oakland since 1959 (*production brewery = makes beer for consumption at restaurants and bars, not on the premises, though Linden Street now has a tap room.) Linden Street has been growing at a healthy pace, and now is an incubator for other beer entrepreneurs like Dying Vines Brewing. Future plans include using a unique strain of hops grown in by farmers in Hopland, California, which bottomed out at the same time smaller brewers around the U.S. did in 1959. Linden Street already makes a beer in partnership with Tartine Bakery using the yeast from one of their breads, and recently released "Supafly" rice lager, a custom brew for Hawker Fare. Hopefully there will be more such custom brews featuring local ingredients in the future.