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August 17, 2006
Written by Oakes
So when I asked for a few column ideas one of the things I got was the question of Steam as a legitimate beer style. The writer put forth that it was more of a technique than a style. Something that, like cask-conditioning, could be applied to any “style”. That makes a lot of sense, actually.
Before even getting into a discussion like this, I have to take a look at the definition of “beer style”, basically the foundation of everything else I write in this column. A beer style to me is a set of beers that share similar characteristics. These characteristics include appearance, aroma, flavour, mouthfeel…well, you know them. These characteristics are similar within a certain range, the size of which varies by style. This range size variance is based on a number of factors, such as the style’s history and what is generally recognized and accepted (unofficially, I mean) by the brewing community and drinking public. (To a point, if you have curmudgeony tendencies as I do and refuse to accept the rampant misuse of the word “pilsner” as anything other than ignorance on a global scale).
In short, there is no set way to determine a beer style. The very concept, while it exists all the world over, exists in a lot of different forms. We like to apply the North American view of beer styles to the rest of the world as if it makes any sense at all to do so. Most people only recognize style in ways we think are a bit silly – like parsing out the beers by colour and gravity only (Czech Republic), with vague descriptors (Gold, Traditional, Classic, Pale in Russian beer), by tax classes (Scandinavia), by product-positioning categories (the US) or a combination of the last two (the “light”, “regular”, “strong” in Canada are tax classes, “discount”, “regular” and “premium” being product-positioning categories).
All of which doesn’t get us very far in figuring out how to easily define the concept. It’s not what Ratebeer says it is – I use a combination of styles and categories and there are many perfectly legitimate styles located within these. It’s not what BJCP says it is – I’m not going to address specific grievances here because this column is not about BJCP bashing and I don’t want my issues to be what anyone takes from this week’s exercise in beer geek intellectual wankery. But the bottom line is – a style is a set of characteristics shared in common by a group of beers. Beers that fit the characteristics are in the style, those that do not fit the characteristics are not. But, it’s important to remember that beer is just like cooking – it takes a certain combination of techniques and ingredients to achieve those similar characteristics. No matter what the pretentious gourmet place down the road says, you can’t make pizza with smoked salmon and fucking artichokes. You can make something, but not pizza. Likewise, you can’t make Bohemian Pilsner with roast barley and Chinook hops. You can make good beer, but it won’t be pilsner, no matter what you put on the label.
So what is Steam beer? Well, most everybody says the same things about it, and you probably can tell me just as easily as I can tell you. But as many times as I’ve seen someone point out the steps involved in creating Steam beer, I’ve never seen anyone take it a step further and ask which of these is truly integral to making Steam beer and which of these is not.
This is of course because all of the descriptions are based on one single product. And right there we have a problem. Well, I have a problem. A style is based on a set of common characteristics shared across a multitude of examples. One beer can be a unique product. The Belgians like doing that. It can fit a loose category. I like loose categories. But it can’t be a style. Not to me. What about the other examples? Sure, there are a bunch listed in Ratebeer, but that’s basically going on what the brewer decides to call their beer. If you look at where Steam Beer’s defining characteristics are supposed to come from, one biggie is the use of shallow fermenters. Is anybody besides Anchor using the “proper” shallow fermenters? Does Anchor still use them? If we assume they do, that still begs the question of who else does? (Before I get the inevitable emails, I’ll just state here that I assume some homebrewer built himself a shallow fermenter just to make Steam Beer, but I haven’t had the beer and neither have 99.99% of the readership if not more, so we’ll also assume that said homebrewer’s contributions to the style are not strong enough to merit further discussion). Breweries might be fermenting warm, ramping up the CO2 and using Northern Brewer, but building a special fermenter? I haven’t actually heard of that. I’d like to see it, don’t get me wrong, but as far as I know Steam Beer is really only made at Anchor.
But suppose the fermenters were out there. Say, at several breweries. What would Steam Beer be then? How much experimentation would there be? Lucky Labrador in Portland does an Imperial Common. Somebody else might do a dark Steam. Or a mega-hoppy one. Or a mega-malty one. Or one with no hops at all. Or whatever. I keep reading about this special fermentation – the warm fermenting lager yeast, the shallow fermenters, etc – resulting in the defining characteristic of Steam Beer. But how crucial are the ingredients? And at what point have the ingredients strayed too far from what is recognizeable to count. And once they’ve strayed too far, how then would you classify the beer then? It’s made like a Steam, but with Stout ingredients…what is that?
That’s why Steam isn’t a style. Anchor Steam is a beer. That’s dandy. But until we have answers to these other issues, we don’t have a style. You can make anything using Steam techniques. In that way it’s no different than cask-conditioning. And last I checked, cask-conditioned isn’t a style. So what’s with Steam? We don’t need a sexy story to sell to American audiences, there’s plenty of those in American beer today. So why hold onto this myth that there is a style called Steam when all we really have is a production technique, no different than decoction mashing, and a historically interesting beer made with this technique?
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Somebody else might do a dark Steam. Or a mega-hoppy one. Or a mega-malty one. Or one with no hops at all.
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