It’s a mistake to talk about California musical tradition without acknowledging Laurel Canyon, the secluded Hollywood Hills neighborhood that once housed a countercultural music community often compared to the Greenwich Village scene.
Laurel Canyon had previously been a sort of getaway destination for silent movie stars. Later, in the mid-1960s, it became known for the abundance of rock and folk songwriters who either lived in the Canyon or were associated with somebody who did. (Think: Frank Zappa. The Doors. The Byrds. Joni Mitchell. The Mamas and the Papas. Jackson Browne. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The Eagles. Carole King. James Taylor.)
Laurel Canyon essentially became a creative hub for late-1960s and early-1970s musicians in the newly minted folk rock canon. According to producer Lou Adler, it’s where rock made its transition from cool to mellow. Vanity Fair, in a video that’s only slightly tongue-in-cheek, suggests Carole King’s album art for Tapestry embodies the spirit of Laurel Canyon: pop’s natural woman, in her Laurel Canyon home on Wonderland Avenue, sitting beside her cat, Telemachus, who is sitting on an exotically upholstered pillow. (Compare this to the Greenwich Village scene’s album art paragon, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which reflects a more urban and arguably less mellow bohemianism.)
As Laurel Canyon mellowed out, many of its artists gradually fell out of vogue while hard rock took over elsewhere. While the canyon itself isn’t a nexus of folk rock today, a number of artists have recently emerged that draw influence from what has been called the Laurel Canyon sound.
Nobody has captured this sound with as much purity as Dawes, who debuted in 2009 with the appropriately Angeleno album title North Hills. Dawes, whose lyrics routinely acknowledge their “Californian side,” are a quintessential contemporary example of Californian folk rock. To hear Jackson Browne’s influence in Taylor Goldsmith’s songwriting would be perfectly astute: early in their career, Dawes supported him on tour, and he sang backing vocals on their song “Fire Away,” which would be perfectly in place on Browne’s 1977 album Running On Empty.
I wanted to find a somewhat approachable beer that reflects Angeleno brewing as well as Dawes embodies the city’s musical tradition. This, it turns out, isn’t an easy task.
According to an article by KCET in Los Angeles, beginning in the 1880s, several factors converged that shaped L.A.’s pre-prohibition beer economy. The arrival of German immigrants brought skilled brewers into the area while advancements in transportation and refrigeration allowed those brewers to make lagers–bottom-fermenting beers which require colder fermentation temperatures. Lagers, which are largely associated with German brewing, were popular in the American Northeast but previously difficult to brew somewhere with a consistently warm climate like L.A.’s.
Elsewhere in the United States in the 19th century, brewing was dominated by top-fermenting ales. This is can be attributed to a lack of refrigeration, limited access to ice (which at that point had to be imported from Canada in massive blocks), and preferences for beer inherited from the ale-loving British. Thus, it was unusual (and perhaps a product of the later settlement of the American West) that L.A.’s early brewing scene would be dominated by lagers. (Although it is conceivable that Angelenos, of whatever descent, would prefer the light, refreshing qualities associated with lagers.)
Joseph Maier and George Zobelein were among the city’s first wave of brewers. The two partnered in 1882 but eventually parted ways and oversaw Maier Brewing Company and Los Angeles Brewing Company respectively. For years, these breweries dominated L.A.’s young market, but, like all of the nation’s breweries, they were stymied by prohibition. Maier Brewing Company in particular was devastated: federal agents seized the brewery’s equipment after it was found to be operating illegally, selling beer containing alcohol well above the 0.5% cap imposed by the Volstead Act (possibly against then-owner Edward Maier’s knowledge). It took Edward Maier another seven years after prohibition ended to regain control of his company.
After the ratification of the 21st amendment formally ended prohibition, both Maier and Los Angeles Brewing Company prospered. This continued through the end of World War II, but in the post-war period both companies faced insurmountable competition from national brands. Maier was acquired and relocated by a San Francisco businessman, who continued to produce its flagship beer for another fourteen years. Los Angeles Brewing Company was purchased by Pabst, who rebranded its Eastside beer as a cheaper alternative to Pabst Blue Ribbon. In 1979, out-competed by Anheuser-Busch and Miller, Pabst ceased its L.A. operations and discontinued the Eastside brand.
Despite the craft beer revival of the 1990s and 2000s, L.A. was slow to open new breweries. (According to an LA Times article on the resurgence of microbrewing in the city, Eagle Rock Brewery, which opened in 2009, was the first brewery to open in L.A. since the 1950s.) That being the case, no contemporary beer nor brewery has emerged that strikes me as quintessentially Angeleno. Even while a small handful of breweries have opened, none are especially recognized for brewing the lagers for which L.A. was once known.
Instead, I want to suggest a beer that isn’t produced in L.A. In fact, Anchor Steam is produced a few hundred miles north in San Francisco but shares some similarities with the earliest beers produced in L.A.
A German immigrant named Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and promptly established a brewery, which was soon purchased by another German brewer, Ernst Baruth, and his son-in-law, Otto Schnikel, Jr. They renamed the brewery Anchor in 1896.
Anchor, or the brewery that would become Anchor, produced a style of lager known as steam beer, which was common across California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially, steam beers were lagers brewed without refrigeration. This was necessary to keep the beer inexpensive: at the time, mechanical refrigeration wasn’t widespread, and ice wasn’t produced locally.
While there are conflicting explanations for the origin of the term “steam beer,” it is likely derived from steam created by the unconventional methods by which brewers were forced to chill the beer. Without access to ice or mechanical refrigeration, brewers still needed a way to chill the wort quickly after boiling. Anchor’s solution involved pumping the hot wort to the brewery’s roof. There, it would sit in a shallow, open top bin called a coolship (which was traditionally used by Belgian lambic brewers) where it would be chilled by the cool Pacific air. As the wort chilled, steam would rise from its surface and therefore appear to rise from the roof of the brewery.
Anchor was beset by a number of tragedies and inconveniences in the early 20th century (including the San Francisco earthquake, prohibition, and a fire) and later struggled to compete with larger national brands. That said, despite several moves and a short closure, it remains open today and is recognized as one of the nation’s oldest breweries and in modern times as one of the nation’s first craft breweries.
Anchor holds a trademark on “Steam” beer, but that trademark is more reflective of the brand than the style. Today’s Anchor Steam isn’t a traditional steam beer at all (that style being effectively extinct due to the advent of mechanical refrigeration) but is instead a style known as California common beer. The California common style resembles, in some ways, steam beer for a modern palate: it essentially incorporates hops more prominently and is fermented by a special lager yeast that performs well at slightly higher temperatures. Essentially, it’s a controlled way of producing a good lager at a warm temperature.
In many ways Anchor Steam is a fresh and novel product of California’s sesquicentennial brewing history. Steam, and the California Common style of beer, are distinctly Californian. In that way, Anchor Steam strikes me as a suitable companion to Dawes. I suggest enjoying it with either of the band’s first two albums, North Hills and Nothing Is Wrong.