American Breweriana Journal  November/December 2017

From The Western Brewer: San Francisco Steam Beer and the 1906 Earthquake

By Rich Wagner

The Western Brewer and Almanac of the Barley Malt and Hop Trades is one of the most valuable resources for learning about breweries and interpreting trends, technology and all things associated with the brewing trade. Over a fifteen year period, I traveled to Washington, D.C. one or two days each year to examine copies in the board room of the Beer Institute. Now it has become the mission of the ABA to have an entire run of The Western Brewer (subsequently Brewers Journal) accessible to members online!

Most of my attention was paid to all things pertaining to Pennsylvania, but sometimes I couldn’t help but get side tracked, and copied other items of interest. Two articles pertaining to San Francisco’s unique beer style and the effect of the Earthquake of 1906 on its breweries form the basis for this story.

As I look back, the first time I ever heard about “steam beer” was when I was seven or eight years old. My friend and I sat in rapt attention as his grandfather regaled us with stories of his life as a merchant seaman. He had a tattoo to commemorate each voyage, and while blurred and faded, each one helped bring his tales to life. His description of the fog in San Francisco transported me there. Maybe it was an anchor tattoo that prompted him to tell us about a very unusual but really good beer you could only get in San Francisco called steam beer. Fast forward to my first visit to the bay area twenty years later when friends took me out to have a fresh draught of Anchor Steam Beer. I also vaguely recall one of them telling me about some guy “up north” who had started a brewery in a garage.

When I finally visited Anchor Brewing Co. in 1986 - a huge plant, formerly a coffee factory -- the first thing I noticed in the tasting room full of breweriana was a tray from the Philadelphia Brewery. Upon closer inspection I saw that it was advertising John Wieland’s brewery in San Francisco.

In researching this article, I saw San Francisco breweries named: California, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis. The index of American Breweries II reveals that five breweries named Chicago were outside of Illinois: just over half of those called Milwaukee were in Wisconsin, and less than half of “St. Louis Breweries” were in Missouri. I assume that naming a brewery after a city respected for its beer would add perceived value to the product. In the case of John Wieland, it was also a nod to the city he inhabited briefly before getting gold fever.

The Anchor tour guide explained that steam beer is a “hybrid” brewed with lager yeast fermented at an uncommonly warm temperature. It dates back to the “Forty-Niners” when Sacramento’s pioneers had to brew lager beer without mechanical refrigeration. Today, the history link on the company’s website says wooden mash tubs were common, and one brewer had a wooden brew kettle with a tin bottom heated by flame! It also states that in 1860 the city had 27 breweries, all making steam beer.

I thought back to one brewer who, when asked to describe the difference between ale and lager fermentation explained that warm ale fermentation was like improvisational jazz while cold lager fermentation was like a symphony orchestra. With this analogy in mind, steam beer fermentation would be like symphony musicians going to the jazz club after the concert for drinks.

Anchor had moved from their original plant at 8th and Bryant seven years previous, and was working to increase production to 40,000 barrels. I went to see the original Anchor brewery for myself. It was located under the interstate highway, home to a mattress store. I don’t know if I even took a photograph. Yet this was the humble birthplace of the craft brewery movement over fifty years ago, when an heir to a family fortune bailed out San Francisco’s vestigial remnant of a once thriving steam beer industry.

You can imagine my joy at finding an article entitled “California Steam Beer. Nature and Character of Steam Beer...”(The Western Brewer February 1898) by John Buchner, brewmaster at Wieland's Brewery which takes us on a virtual tour of the plant:

The Preparation of the Wort


In a typical steam brewery the buildings are all constructed of wood, the mash tub likewise. As the steam beer mash is made according to the English downward mashing method, a considerable amount of water is employed during mashing, and therefore the mash tub has to be comparatively large. Raw grain or other substitutes are used but seldom; old timers use malt exclusively, which produces an article just the right thing for pure malt beer apsotles! The wort is boiled in a copper kettle with direct fire, and the first wort usually weighs from 12 to 14 per cent Balling.


Ice machines or any other construction of beer cooling devices are unknown in a steam brewery. All the refrigeration necessary is brought about by a wooden cooling vat lined with tin, and in some breweries a fan set in motion at intervals, so as to withdraw the hot air and bring the cool air in contact with the surface of the hot wort, which should lie from two to three inches high in this cooling vat. At about 2 to 4 o’clock the following morning after brewing, the wort is cooled down to 58° to 60° F., whereupon it is run into the fermenting tub. Should there be any exceptionally hot nights, which is very seldome the case, swimmers with some ice are hung into the beer when it enters the fermenting tub.


Cellar Management


When the beer reaches the fermenting tubs it may either be pitched at once or after a couple of hours with from one-third to one-half pound of yeast per barrel. In almost twelve to eighteen hours the beer comes into kraeusen, where it is kept for several (six to eight) hours, when it is run into the clarifier, where the fermentation is allowed to continue until completed.


The clarifier is a four-cornered wooden vessel about twelve inches deep, and large enough to hold the contents of one fermenting tub. The objects of the clarifier are two fold.

    1. Avoiding a high rise in temperature during the fermentation by the large surface of the beer which is exposed to the temperature of the surrounding air.

    2. Accelerating the clarification of the beer through the low depth of the clarifier.


The temperature in the clarifier never rises above the temperature of the cellar, which is usually kept during the summer between 60° and 70° F., and during the winter it seldom goes below 45° or 50°  F., in which case it would be necessary to heat the cellar.


The fermentation in the clarifier is usually completed in two days, when the cellars are kept at a temperature of  60°  to 70°  F. Should the temperature run somewhat lower than this, three days will be sufficient. The beer, if otherwise properly brewed, should, after the fermentation is completed should have an apparent attenuation of 50 to 60 per cent, and be quite clear in appearance.


From the clarifier the beer is racked directly into half barrels, where it receives about 15 to 20 per cent of kraeusen, together with some fining. In four to six days the beer has raised the sufficient amount of steam (a pressure of fifty to sixty pounds per square inch) in the package, and it is therefore necessary that the kegs are well made and sufficiently strong to resist this high pressure. When the kegs have been filled for about three days they are brought to the saloon in lots of from twelve to twenty half barrels, and placed in two rows upon a long stand or rack, where they are allowed to remain for one or two days, when they are tapped by the saloon keeper.


The way in which to draw the beer from these half barrels requires some skill and experience, and is best accomplished in the following manner: The faucet key should be held firmly and raised slightly upward without turning the same, to release the exceedingly high pressure.


When steam beer is cleanly and properly brewed from good material, it is a pretty fair drink, when the weather is not too warm, which is not often the case here. At any rate, it tastes better than the raw hopped, bitter and turbid ales. Steam beer is allowed from ten to twelve days from the mash tub to glass.

The American Handy Book of Brewing (Wahl-Henius, Chicago, 1901) offers a few additioinal insights in a section on Special American Beers, which differs only slightly from Bruchner: ...“California Common and Steam beer, light in color, hop aroma and bitter taste not very pronounced; very lively and not necessarily brilliant.” Hops were added three-quarters of a pound per barrel. Yeast was pitched at a rate of one pound per barrel. Up to 40% of the volume of a keg (half barrel) was composed of kraeusen (actively fermenting beer), added to carbonate the beer in the keg. This was twice what Buchner stated the practice was at Wieland’s. It stated that kegs develop 40-70 pounds of pressure. It also mentions the use of threaded iron bungs, which could be turned to reduce pressure before tapping. “If this beer is properly brewed and handled it makes a very clear, refreshing drink, much consumed by the laboring classes. It will keep for some time in trade packages, i.e., from 2 to 6 months, but is usually brewed and consumed within a month or three weeks.”

As both a brewer and someone who interprets brewing methods of antiquity, I found this story of steam beer quite remarkable. Essentially, being thrust into a “make do” situation, brewers during the Gold Rush had no choice but to brew in an unconventional manner, not unlike earlier pioneers who brewed “Kentucky Common” beer. The thing that intrigued me the most was the use of a clarifier tub.

Traditionally beer would clarify through a column of beer contained in a tall tank, a period of time measured in months for lager beer. A small three-barrel brew of 100 gallons would require a container 15 cubic feet. A starting tub or primary fermenter capable of holding that much beer could have a diameter of 2 ft. and be 4 ft. tall. To make a “pan” to hold that volume at a 1 ft. depth would have to measure 3 ft. by 5 ft. and take up much more floor space than a tank. Imagine the size of a clarifier that could handle a 15 barrel batch. Such is the case when necessity becomes the mother of invention. I’m sure there were plenty of trough builders supplying the miners, and this innovation just gave them another trade to supply.

My wife and I have talked to many people over the years during our colonial brewing demonstrations, and we’ve given a great deal of thought to how things were done in the past. I wondered aloud about who introduced, or, more importantly, how the idea of clarifiers answered the need of rushing the beer to market. I asked what other process or industry might use a shallow column of water to speed up sedimentation to which my wife replied, “Panning for gold!” It was a Eureka moment in more ways than one! And as a retired earth science teacher, it was embarrassing that all those labs with stream tables and lessons on mining technology did not come to my own mind.

The idea of using shallow clarifiers was probably not lost on John Wieland, who struck it rich enough to start a brewery. Is it any wonder that a man who spent untold hours sluicing and panning for his fortune, might be inspired to apply the exact same technology to reduce the time it took to get beer to an exponentially expanding market? The rush of beer to market was necessitated by the rush to gold.

1906 Earthquake: Breweries and Malt Houses in San Francisco

000_Map Caption Map Showing Breweries and Malt Houses in San Francisco

Key to Map/Analysis







Capacity (bbl.)




*Broadway Brewery


Steam beer





*California Brewery


Lager beer





*Consumers’ Brewery (Tornberg)







*Eagle Brewery


Steam beer





*Enterprise Brewery


Lager, porter and steam beer.





*North Star Brewery


Lager, porter and steam beer





*Union Brewing & Malting Co.


Lager beer





*Wunder Brewing Co.


Lager and steam beer





Alabama Brewery P. Blondberg







Albany Brewery


Steam beer





Albion (Burnell)


Ale and porter





American Railway Brewery


Union B.C. Bottling Plant





Anchor Brewery


Steam beer





Bauer-Schweitzer Malt House







Chicago Brewery (SFBL)


Ale and steam beer





Hibernia Brewery


Porter and steam beer





Jackson Brewery (#1)


Steam beer.





Jackson Brewery (#2)


Lager and steam beer





Milwaukee Brewery (SFBL)


Steam beer





National Brewing Co.


Lager. Porter and steam beer





New York Malt House







North Beach Brewery


Lager and weiss beer





Phoenix Brewery


Ale, stout and malt extract





Red Lion Brewing Co.







South Park Malt House







St. Louis Brewery (SFBL)


Steam beer





United States Brewery (SFBL)


Lager and steam beer





Vulcan Iron Works







Washington Brewery


Lager and steam beer





Wieland Brewery (SFBL)


Lager and steam beer





Willows Brewery (SFBL)


Lager beer







Lager beer, stout



M# - number identified on map,  ABII number - identified in American Breweries II (Van Wieren 1995)

* Not Destroyed            ** Estimated      *** Not mentioned in article   Did not reopen

Two stories in The Western Brewer (May and June 1906) chronicled the devastation to the breweries as a result of the earthquake and subsequent fire on April 18, 1906. What impressed me was that the photographs were taken by Mr. H. W. Noethig, chief engineer of the Union Brewing & Malting Co., San Francisco, who was described in the article as “an amateur photographer of more than ordinary ability.” The accompanying table offers a deconstruction of the information in the article and is keyed to the map.

San Francisco Breweries, Ltd. was one of a number of British Syndicate brewery corporations. Formed in 1890 with over $7,000,000 in capital, it acquired ten of the largest breweries in California, having at that time a combined output of over 300,000 barrels. They lost all four San Francisco plants as a result of the disaster: their only remaining breweries being their steam beer plant, the Brooklyn Brewery at Oakland, and the Fredericksburg plant at San Jose, which was severely shaken but was put in operation again by May 5.

In the same way that the Chicago Fire fueled Milwaukee’s brewing industry, brewers from Washington and Oregon supplied San Francisco while its breweries rebuilt.

001 The Jackson Brewery (1428 Mission), known as the “old plant” was seriously damaged by the earthquake and later entirely destroyed by fire.

001a The new lager beer plant of the Jackson Brewing Co. (11th and Folsom), which was in course of erection, was totally demolished by the earthquake. It was also in the fire zone, but there was nothing left to burn except the plasterers’ staging. A new 75-ton De La Vergne refrigerating machine was buried in the ruins. The building was five stories high and practically completed.

001b The Jackson brewery was rebuilt and today provides housing and is a success story in brewery preservation. (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

002 The Milwaukee Brewery before the earthquake. (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

002a After the earthquake. The Milwaukee Brewery (Tenth) was only slightly affected by the earthquake, but later entirely destroyed by the flames. The company’s safe is seen lying in the foreground. The fire was successfully blocked in the rear of this plant.

004 The Anchor Brewery before the earthquake. (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

004a The Anchor Brewery, (Pacific) was only slightly damaged by the earthquake but later entirely destroyed by fire.

005 The Chicago Brewery (Pine) of the San Francisco Breweries, Ltd. was slightly damaged by the earthquake and later entirely destroyed by fire.

006 The United States Brewery (Fulton), of the San Francisco Breweries, Ltd., was badly wrecked during the earthquake by the falling of its brick stack and was afterwards entirely destroyed by the fire.

007 The Albany Brewery before the earthquake. (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

007a Plant of the Albany Brewery (Eighth) was seriously damaged by the earthquake and later entirely destroyed by fire. The company says, “We are anxiously awaiting settlements from the various insurance companies and shall then rebuild, probably on the former site, and as soon as plans can be drawn.”

008 The National Brewing Co. before the earthquake. (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

008a The plant of the National Brewing Co. (Fulton and Webster) was quite seriously damaged by the falling of its stack and the brick walls were badly cracked, but it was outside the fire zone and was in operation two weeks after the disaster. Its malt house was damaged to such an extent that rebuilding may be necessary.

010 The Washington Brewery, built only a year ago (Lombard and Taylor) was slightly damaged by the earthquake and for a time was thought to be safe from flames but later was entirely destroyed by fire. We are in receipt of a letter informing us of their intention to rebuild at once on the same site.

011 The St. Louis Brewery (2118 Powell) was burned down after having been slightly damaged by the earthquake. In the foreground can be seen several glass lined steel tanks installed by the Pfaudler Company.

012 Willows Brewery, San Francisco Breweries, Ltd.

013 The plant of the Union Brewing & Malting Co. (18th and Florida), escaped the fire and was but slightly damaged by the earthquake. The American Railroad Brewery at (Valencia) is owned by this company but used only for bottling purposes and was completely destroyed by the fire.

013a Hauling Water From Union Brewing & Malting Co.’s Plant. The power plant remained intact and has furnished water to the sufferers ever since, oil wagons, street sprinkling wagons and everything which would hold water being pressed into service.

014 View of Bauer-Schweitzer Malt House from Chestnut St.

016 Bauer-Schweitzer Hop and Malt Co., Drum House.

017 The Enterprise Brewing Co.’s plant (Folsom) was slightly damaged by earthquake and was near the edge of the fire zone. All hope of saving this district was entirely abandoned at one time. The plant is now in full running order. One refrigerating machine was thrown about nine inches out of level by the ‘quake but continued to run in that condition. Several ammonia pipes were broken.

018 Wieland Brewery before the earthquake. (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

018a Wieland Brewery after the earthquake. The Wieland Brewery (Second), the largest of the plants operated by the San Francisco Breweries, Ltd., was seriously damaged by the earthquake before burning out. The fire walls on stock house fell in through roof and wrecked the upper fermenting cellars. The brick chimney was only slightly cracked and was one of the very few that survived the earthquake. The fire completed the destruction. In the view the engine room is shown at the right and the brew house at the extreme left. In the center is the old malt house.

018b The new Wieland Brewery. (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

019 As the Wunder Brewing Co. writes us, “the spirit of San Francisco, although badly shaken, remains unbroken. We all have faith in our city, and we look for a better, more prosperous, richer and more beautiful San Francisco. The old ’49 spirit will not die out, and the city will rise in all of its splendor above its ashes.” (San Francisco Public Library Digital Collection)

025 Bill Yenne’s new book San Francisco Beer, A History of Brewing by the Bay (The History Press 2016) includes a contemporary picture of the “Albion Castle” which was built just outside the city as an English style ale and porter brewery with vaults dug into the side of a hill. Albion is the ancient name for Britain. It stands today as a success story of brewery preservation.

025a Albion cellar. (100 Years of Brewing)

Ironically, the “guy up north with a brewery in a garage” that I heard about forty years ago was Jack Macauliffe, who started the nation’s first “microbrewery” from scratch, called the New Albion Brewing Co. in Sonoma (1976-82).

026 A twentieth century pioneering brewer debuted in the nation’s bicentennial year. New Albion Ale label. (Wagner)