Of all the boat-loads of beers lining shelves and filling taps at Americas many bars, only 3 styles were born-and-bred in the USA. All the rest have European roots.
Steam Beer, Cream Ale, and Light Beer. That is all we can truly stake claim to, my fellow countrymen.
Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco holds the trademark for steam beer and is the oldest craft brewery in the country. When California Steam Brewery popped up in 1979, Fritz Maytag (Anchor’s owner) warned off the newcomer, who disappeared soon after.
What is Steam Beer? It’s the nickname given to a particular style of brew because of the supposed steam that rose from popped caps or tapped kegs of beer that a 19th-century California company produced. Steam beer, by definition, is an effervescent beer made by brewing a special strain of lager yeast at higher temperatures. According to the Journal of Gastronomy, the steam is attributed to the “volatile, foamy” behavior of warm beer. Breweries, when anxious to cool their wort (the boiled ingredients before fermentation), stored the contents in open rooftop tanks where the wort emitted steam as it cooled. Another theory: its inventor was named Pete Steam — but who really knows.
Regardless, steam beer probably came to be out of necessity. Since there was no refrigeration in 19th-century America, brewers fermented lager yeast strains (the kind used for ales) at high temperatures, which produced a hybrid beer: one that was darker-looking and heavier-feeling than lagers, yet lighter than most ales.
When refrigeration came to California in the early 20th century, brewing distinct ale or lager-style beers were favored over necessity-born steam beer. But, Maytag saved the style by continuously producing effervescent, semi-sweet, and deep amber Anchor Steam Beer.
Cream Ale is native to the Northeastern states, where the green cans of Genesee Cream Ale are a familiar sight. The Rochester, New York-based brewery introduced cream ale in 1960, when Clarence Geminn (Genesee brewmaster) discovered the secret to brewing a lighter-tasting ale was to use corn or rice to lighten the body. It’s Americas version of kölsch, the German counterpoint to Czech pilsner. But, truth be told, the invention of cream ale actually predates Prohibition, though its initial creator is unknown, as well as its original recipe.
Unfortunately, Genesee was basically buried after the rise of Budweiser and Miller Lite — lighter-tasting lagers that dominated over lighter-tasting ale — which is why we don’t see so many cream ales anymore. Nonetheless, the lighter, golden brew is the second of the American-born beers.
Last but not least: light beer.
In the year 1972, John Murphy, President of the Miller Brewing Co., and George Weissman, Chairman of Philip Morris International, dined together in what was then West Germany. As the story goes, Weissman told the waiter he was on a diet and it was recommended that he try a ‘diat pilsner’ (a German beer marketed for those with diabetes). After a sip, the seeds were sewn.
Miller Lite, the low-calorie, lighter-colored beer, came to be just three years later. Though lower-calorie beers existed for years prior in the US and Europe, Miller Lite’s debut generated nearly $250 million in revenue by the 1980s. Much of its success was attributed to masterful marketing efforts (not using the word ‘diet’): “Great Taste, Less Filling” or “Everything You Always Wanted in a Beer. And Less.”
Of the three US-originals, light beer is by far and away the most popular. Countless craft and regional breweries have evolved a recipe in the last 3 decades.
But, regardless of your personal preference, as you prepare to celebrate the birth of our nation in a few weeks, it might benefit you, nay America, to bear in mind these three American-born styles of beer.
Steph is a native New Yorker with a love of culture, creativity, and communications. She’s a foodie, nutrition junkie, yogi, wine-lover, bookworm, world traveler, style-addict, and people person. She also runs her event planning company, Orchard + Broome.