Friday Froth: Steam Heat

James Gribbon

The business of craft beer is expanding rapidly. Every Friday Froth column I've ever published on this site has been a celebration of that fact. I - and I'd guess you, if you're reading this - revel in the vast landscape of offerings which slake our thirst, delight our palette, and expand our notions of what beer can be. An article in the March issue of Forbes stated there are over 2,700 craft breweries in the U.S. right now, and the industry is currently worth roughly $100 billion per year. Unfortunately, that's money worth fighting for. 

Lawyers in the employ of San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing Company have taken legal action against Hartford craft beer touchstone City Steam Brewery over the use of the word "steam." As of this week, I am officially boycotting Anchor beers until they drop this petty lawsuit, and I encourage anyone who cares about the craft beer landscape of Connecticut to do the same. Here's why...

Anchor, as many of you already know, produces a recipe they call Anchor Steam Beer. It looks like this:

I like it, and I've bought many of them in my life. It is a good beer. 

There was little to no refrigeration in the final years of the 19th century, so Anchor used coolships - essentially huge, flat pans - to cool its freshly brewed wort before fermentation, like setting a hot pie on a windowsill. The coolships were on the brewery's roof, and the hot wort gave off steam, hence "steam beer." Anchor makes many beers these days, but this style retains the old name. 

In 1877, H.H. Richardson constructed an immense Romanesque brownstone in Hartford to house the biggest department store in Connecticut, Brown Thompson And Company. The name is still on the building, which I think remains one of the better looking edifices in Hartford. 

Brewing with steam heat is the equivalent to cooking with gas - it's a reliable, even source of heat which creates a more uniform, replicable product. It's ideal, in other words. That's why, in the mid-1990s, a group of brewers and investors worked with The Hartford Steam Company to install a steam-powered brewery/cafe in the Brown Thompson building. This has been City Steam Brewery's only home since it opened its doors in 1997, years ahead of the current craft beer boom. 

There are very, very few steam-powered breweries in existence. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three: Steam Works brewpub in Vancouver, Brasserie a Vapeur* in Belgium, and City Steam. Anchor's lawyers are have alleged "City Steam Brewery Cafe" to be confusingly similar to "Anchor Steam Beer," and are trying to get a Connecticut judge to force City Steam to change the name of their entire operation. This aggression will not stand, man. 

So I'm out. I'm done with Anchor beer until this lawsuit goes away, and in City Steam's favor. 

First of all, no one is going to confuse this...

...with the above. Absolutely no one. 

Second: notice the fact that City Steam names its beer recipes (Naughty Nurse, Innocence, Colt 46, etc.). The only use of the word "steam" anywhere on that bottle is in the name of the brewery that made it. 

Anchor was somehow allowed to trademark the term "steam beer" in 1982. Steam beer is now considered to be a style, like ale, lager, saison, porter, or any of the other types of beer which are not trademarked because the very idea of doing so would be ridiculous. Yet this is the wet paper bag which constitutes the foundation of Anchor's lawsuit against City Steam, an actual steam-powered brewery.

I have actually agreed with craft brew lawsuits in the past, most notably the Magic Hat/West Sixth what-have-you last year. West Sixth's logo was way, way too close to the look of Magic Hat #9: calling it "derivative" would have been on the kind side. But the two sides were able to work it out with very little harm done. That's not the case here, if Anchor has their way. 

You don't need to be a local expert to know Hartford has been in rough times for a while now. There are sporting events and concerts, sure, and The Wadsworth Atheneum is a local treasure, but the culinary upswing of the 2010s seems to have made a real difference in the financial and cultural welfare of our state capital. And there, right downtown, in a 137-year-old building they are keeping vibrant, stands City Steam: a name which is literally part of the landscape. This gets to the heart of what really pisses me off about Anchor's lawsuit: they're screwing with the craft beer culture of Connecticut. Anchor doesn't just want some design work changed around or a beer renamed, they want to completely extinguish a 17 year old brand. 

You know the expression "not if I have anything to say about it"? Well, I just have. You can, too. Make your voices heard if you agree - reach out to Anchor via email and social media and tell them you don't support this lawsuit. Vote with your wallet and let them know you won't be buying any Anchor beers until they call off their dogs. Let them know there's room in the market for both their beer and City Steam's. 

Rant over - thank you for reading. I'll be back with news and reviews of beers from Victory, Smuttynose and Two Roads next week. 

*Vapeur, by the way, is an ultra-small batch nanobrewery which still uses ancient 18th century brewing equipment and puts out beer only sporadically, because the brewmaster holds a full time job as a local teacher. Vapeur Saison de Pipaix is the beer equivalent of a unicorn, and bless B. United for finding and importing it to America.