By Mike Retzlaff
Normally, when the term “steam beer” comes up, we think of San Francisco and Anchor Brewing. “Steam Beer”, surprisingly, isn’t peculiar to the San Francisco Bay area. It may have even been one of those fads that come and go. Here in New Orleans, from 1869 to 1887, there were at least 5 breweries with “Steam” as part of the brewery name. An example is Old Canal Steam Brewery (1871-1878) which was located at Toulouse & Villiere. The proprietor was George Merz; the father of Valentine Merz of Dixie Brewing. Others included Star Steam Brewery, Hope Steam Brewery, Pelican Steam Brewery, and Marais Street Steam Brewery.
A little research revealed that during the same general period in this country, there were a number of breweries with “steam” in their name. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s as to how and why the term “steam” was applied. Was it due to the steam rising from the roof of the brewery? Was it due to the hissing of highly carbonated kegs when they were tapped? Had these breweries utilized a coal fired steam boiler to heat the wort and drive a steam engine to power the facility? Was it just an advertising ploy to make the brewery stand out from the competition? Strong opinions and convincing arguments abound but we may never have a definitive answer.
It is interesting to note that most industrial businesses of the time utilized steam power until cities established an electrical infrastructure. Electric motors generally took over as the power source at the turn of the 20th Century. A “state of the art” brewery built in 1904 here in New Orleans was outfitted with both steam power and electrical generators so the transition wasn’t yet complete.
There was a brewery in Mobile, Alabama which used the term “steam” in its name. There were several in NYC that did the same thing. Hartford, Ct. was home to another. Breweries in Iowa, California, Indiana, and Idaho laid claim to one or more steam breweries. Other homes included Pennsylvania, Texas, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Most of these “steam” breweries operated in the 1870’s and 1880’s. A few started before that and others were brewing later. Of course, none of these were related to the Dampfbier breweries of Germany but that’s another story.