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Tina Caputo

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Petaluma, California

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In her day job, Tina is the editor-in-chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, a wine business magazine based in Northern California. Before joining V&WM, she was the managing editor of Wines & Vines magazine. Throughout her career Tina has written about wine and lifestyle topics as a freelancer for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Review Online, US Airways magazine and Decanter.

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Irish Cooking With Surprising International Accents Image

Corned beef and cabbage. Irish stew. Soda bread. These are the foods Americans associate with Irish cooking, especially on St Patrick’s Day. But while these dishes are certainly old favorites, they have little to do with modern Irish cooking.

According to Nuala Cullen, culinary historian and author of the new cookbook “The Best of Irish Country Cooking,” contemporary Irish cuisine is both a rediscovery of the country’s rich culinary heritage and a reflection of its international influences.

“Food was generally simple and used seasonal homegrown produce,” said the Dublin-based writer of her childhood in post-World War II Ireland. “Even in urban areas, many families grew potatoes and salad vegetables. Soups and homemade bread were common, and there was no such thing as preprepared food.”

Today the approach is much the same, but with a creative twist.

“The ‘new style’ of Irish cooking incorporates a lot of outside influences, such as Asian and Thai, as well as all sorts of ingredients from continental Europe,” Cullen said. “It is a merging of these ingredients with a pride in fresh, quality Irish products to produce something fresh and exciting.”

Visitors to Ireland these days are often surprised to discover that there’s more to eat than corned beef and potatoes. “Many tourists expect lots of ham, cabbage, potatoes and fried food,” Cullen said. Instead, they find wonderful Irish cheeses, butter, fresh seafood, meats and vegetables.

Forget the green beer

While no particular dish is traditional for St. Patrick’s Day, a roast dinner around the family table is the typical format.

“For many years pubs and bars were closed on the day, so celebrating was done in the home,” Cullen said. “Most families will have their favorite Sunday dinner. The appetizer can be a warming soup or smoked salmon. The entrée is often roast chicken, beef, turkey or salmon, usually served with roast or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.”

And no, Cullen confirmed, they do not wash it all down with green beer.

"The Best of Irish Country Cooking" is Nuala Cullen's fourth Irish cookbook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

“The Best of Irish Country Cooking” is Nuala Cullen’s fourth Irish cookbook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

Although Cullen’s cookbook does include traditional favorites such as corned beef and Irish stew, most of its recipes showcase Ireland’s fresh seafood, meats and produce.

Baked salmon encrusted with herbs; crab soup with saffron; mussels with bacon and red wine; and ham wrapped in pastry are just some of the unexpected dishes featured in “The Best of Irish County Cooking.”

And if you still feel the need to consume something green on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s always Cullen’s brightly hued “spring green soup,” or cream-simmered peas with little gem lettuces.

Baked Salmon Encrusted With Herbs

For maximum effect and not too much effort, this baked salmon has it all. Ask your fishmonger to split your fish lengthwise into two long fillets. A 3-pound fish will be enough for six with side dishes. From “The Best of Irish County Cooking” (Interlink Publishing, March 2015)

Yield: 6 to 7 servings

Ingredients

1-inch cube of fresh ginger

6 canned anchovies, drained

8 tablespoons butter, divided

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions

Grated zest of 1 lemon

3 to 5 pounds salmon, filleted

¾ cup bread crumbs made from day-old bread

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce

3 egg yolks

1 ¼ cups cream

5 to 6 sorrel leaves, ribs removed, leaves chopped

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro or parsley

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Mash the ginger to a paste with the anchovies, 5 tablespoons of the butter, the parsley, scallions, and grated zest of half the lemon. Butter a sheet of parchment paper that will fit the salmon and use it to line a large baking sheet. Lay one salmon fillet on the paper, skin-side down, and spread with half the herb butter. Lay the other fillet on top, skin-side up, reversing the wide end over the narrow end of the bottom fillet. Spread the remaining herb butter on top. Cover the salmon with the bread crumbs, patting them down lightly, season well, and dot with the remaining butter.

2. Bake for 12 minutes per 1 pound of fish for smaller fish, but a 6- to 7-pound fish will not require more than an hour.

3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Season the egg yolks with salt and pepper and beat them together. Bring the cream to a boil with the sorrel leaves and lemon zest and cook to reduce for a few moments. Cool slightly, then pour the cream mixture slowly into the yolks, stirring all the time. Return to the saucepan and over a low heat, cook, stirring continuously without allowing it to boil, until the sauce thickens slightly.

4. When the fish is cooked, use the parchment paper to lift the fish onto a heated serving dish and strain the buttery fish juices into the sauce. Add the cilantro or parsley and serve.

Note: If the sauce shows signs of becoming lumpy, scrape immediately into a blender and purée for a few seconds.

Main photo: Nuala Cullen’s herb-encrusted salmon is a show stopper for St. Patrick’s Day, or any other day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group Inc. 

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Friday Night Fish Fry Is A Delicious ‘Sacrifice’ Image

The slogan “Fish Fry Fridays” is a familiar one to Catholics this time of year. On Fridays during Lent, which falls from Feb. 18 to April 4 in 2015, meat is strictly off limits.

This practice stems from the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday: Because he sacrificed his flesh for the sake of mankind on that day, Catholics (and members of other Christian denominations) are asked to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. The period of sacrifice ends on Easter Sunday, usually with the devouring of a large ham.

While the Lenten season may sound a bit somber, churches have found a way to turn meatless Fridays into community celebrations. They’re called fish fries, and for decades, these events have brought people together in church basements and event rooms, where they enjoy heaping plates of fried fish, French fries and coleslaw.

Friday fish fries are occasionally held on the West Coast and in other U.S. regions, but they’re ubiquitous in the Midwest. When I was a kid in Michigan, my dad brought home take-out fish fry dinners from our church nearly every Friday during Lent. It was something my sister and I looked forward to each year with gluttonous relish (so much for sacrifice). But when I raise the topic with Californian friends who grew up Catholic, I’m met with blank stares. Or undisguised envy.

The epicenter of the Midwest’s fish fry tradition, I’ve come to learn, is St. Louis, Missouri. Fish fries abound in that city, so much so that a local man was inspired to create a website called FridayNightFish.com, devoted to reviewing Lenten fish fries.

A parish volunteer serves homemade coleslaw at a St. Pius V fish fry. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

A parish volunteer serves homemade coleslaw at a St. Pius V fish fry. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

The site is run by Stephen Ibendahl (a.k.a. Fish Fry Guy), owner of a St. Louis-area consulting firm that specializes in community and urban planning. Each Friday during Lent, Ibendahl heads out with his family to sample and review a fish fry. After the season ends, he names a Best Fish Fry winner for the year, along with a Fan Favorite.

According to Ibendahl, who has attended at least 50 different fish fries over the years, St. Louis is a fish fry hub because the city’s residents have a strong spirit of community. “It gives parishes and churches a chance to come together,” he said, pointing out that most of the events are run by volunteers. “You’ll see everyone involved in a parish fish fry, from the men frying the fish to teenagers clearing tables.”

What makes a great fish fry? “You have to have great fried cod,” Ibendahl said. “That’s essential.” Tasty sides are a plus, he added, along with special touches such as “real plates” or live music.

Ibendahl’s Best Fish Fry winner for years running is St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis, which hosts its annual “Fabulous Fish Fry” every Friday during Lent. The fry not only features two kinds of fried fish, but homemade sides and desserts, live music and beer. For each weekly fish fry, volunteers prepare meals for about 700 people, including take-out orders. An adult meal costs only $8.

“We prepare fried cod loins, huge fillets of fried catfish and baked cod,” said St. Pius V parishioner Kathy Donahue, who estimates a typical weekly fish order at 350 pounds. “We hand-bread both the cod loins and catfish, and the catfish is breaded with a special mix of regular and Cajun breading to give it a little kick.”

The fish is served with homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, and fresh lemon slices.

To go along with the fish, volunteers make about 100 pounds of potato salad and 40 to 50 pounds of coleslaw each week. There are also “tons” of macaroni and cheese, applesauce and a variety of scratch-made desserts. Dinners are served on real china, not paper plates.

And that’s not all. “A popular draw is our live band Clan Jameson — all parishioners who play Irish music,” Donahue said. “Plus we have a wide assortment of craft and regular beer served by ‘The Precious Bar Maids,’ who are really the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. We also have our very own Frying Nun, a sister of the Precious Blood, who fries our catfish.”

The "Fabulous Fish Fry" at St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis draws 700 people each week. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

The “Fabulous Fish Fry” at St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis draws 700 people each week. Credit: Courtesy of St. Pius V

This extravaganza is a far cry from the simple fish fries of my childhood, which featured only fried cod, fries and coleslaw. But that’s the fun of the fish fry — no two are exactly the same.

“When you travel around to different fish fries,” Ibendahl said, “each one is a little different.”

To find a fish fry near you, check out these regional “Fish Fry Finders”:

St. Louis

Milwaukee

Cleveland

Chicago

Pittsburgh

Flint, Michigan

Central Indiana

Main photo: A Friday night fish fry typically includes fried cod, french fries and coleslaw. Credit: Tina Caputo

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7 Kitchen Gadgets To Rescue In A Fire Image

As a food writer and obsessive home cook, I own an array of kitchen tools and gadgets that, in the eyes of some people, may qualify me as a hoarder. I have devices created specifically for removing the pits from mangoes, picking up and serving stalks of asparagus — only asparagus! — and stamping out perfect ravioli one at a time.

I scored my most recent acquisitions as part of my quest to make authentic Detroit-style pizza in my California kitchen. These items included a specialized square pan, a plastic lid to cover the pan while the dough is proofing, two pizza stones (you need two to simulate the deck ovens used by Detroit pizza cooks) and a cutter designed for square pizzas. My husband said I was insane.

Although his comment seemed a bit unfair — I didn’t hear him complaining of my madness while he was inhaling the delicious pizza I created with my new tools — it did get me thinking. How much of this stuff do I really need? If our kitchen was on fire and I could rescue only a few items, which ones would they be? I ended up with seven, in no particular order:

Microplane grater/zester. Why did it take so long for someone to invent a tool that can make quick work of a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, zest an orange in minutes flat and easily transform a hunk of ginger into a finely grated mound, all without grating your knuckles in the process? $10 well spent!

Chef’s knife. I have a block full of knives of different sizes, weights and serrations, but the one I almost always reach for is a classic chef’s knife. When I bought it, it pained me to have to fork over $100 for a single knife, but it’s proved itself worthy of the investment in its usefulness and longevity. Here’s my justification: I use my chef’s knife at least three times a week, and I’ve had it for eight years. That means I’ve used it 1,248 times, at a per-use price of only 8 cents. A bargain!

Immersion/stick blender. Before this small appliance came into my life, I wasted untold hours ladling tomato sauce and soups into a blender, in several batches, just to puree them into the desired smoothness. Now I just stick this clever device straight into the pot and blend soups and sauces into submission — no time wasted, no messy clean-up. Blender, who?

Stand mixer. When I was in my 20s my mom gave me a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas. As a single girl with no roommates, I wondered what I would do with such a grown-up appliance. As it turned out I found plenty of things to do with it, from whipping up mom’s recipe for buttercream frosting to rolling out and cutting fresh pasta dough (using the mixer’s pasta-making attachment) to mixing up Detroit-style pizza dough.

Pressure cooker. I own both a pressure cooker and a slow cooker/crock pot, and I’d let the crock pot burn in my theoretical kitchen fire every time. Although it may sound effortless to throw a few ingredients into a crock pot, plug it in and have a succulent dinner waiting six hours later, the reality is far more labor intensive. Before those ingredients go into the pot there are vegetables to chop and meat to brown, and there is no way I’m doing all that at 6 a.m. before work. Using a pressure cooker, a beef stew that would have taken all day to simmer in a crock pot is ready (and equally delicious) in less than an hour.

Enameled cast iron Dutch oven. There is a time and place for taking it slow, and this pot is the ideal vessel for doing just that. Cast iron has excellent heat distribution and retention, which makes it better than stainless steel for cooking long-simmering soups and marinara sauces. I wouldn’t cook my spaghetti sauce in anything else. As a bonus, the enamel coating means there’s no need to season the pot, and it’s super easy to clean.

A kitchen calculator makes it easy to customize recipes to feed fewer people. Credit:Tina Caputo

A kitchen calculator makes it easy to customize recipes to feed fewer people. Credit: Tina Caputo

Kitchen calculator. Want to cut a recipe down by half or a third, but don’t know how many tablespoons are in 1/8 cup? Need to quickly convert tablespoons to teaspoons or liquid cups to dry cups? Presto! This little calculator does it all. Sure, there’s probably an app for that, but I’d rather spill chicken broth on a sturdy $30 gadget than a $600 tablet.

Sadly, my new pizza slicer didn’t make the cut.

Main photo: The author would rescue these well-loved kitchen tools in a fire. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Toast The New Year With Healthy Kombucha Image

There’s something about drinking cocktails on New Year’s Eve that makes the occasion feel extra festive. But on New Year’s Day, there’s often something about those very same cocktails that feels like a big mistake. One way to avoid starting off the New Year with a blistering hangover is to steer clear of the offending drinks altogether. Another, some say, is to make healthier cocktails, using kombucha as a mixer.

Dating back more than 2,000 years, kombucha is a fermented beverage made by adding a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast to sweetened tea. The resulting drink has a slight effervescence, and a pleasant sweet-tart flavor, but that’s not the main reason people drink it. Because it’s rich in probiotics (“good” bacteria), unpasteurized kombucha is used as a digestive aid that can offer protection from harmful bacteria and boost the immune system.

It also makes a delicious cocktail.

“Kombucha is really complex and interesting, more flavorful than soda, and drier,” said Jasmine Dravis, co-owner of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar in Petaluma, California.

It also has less sugar than soda and juices, which, along with kombucha’s gut-health benefits, may help prevent morning-after suffering.

“That’s the thing when people drink traditional alcoholic cocktails,” Dravis said. “Most of the hangover is the result of a battle between the alcohol and the sugar. With sugary cocktails, you’re going to be very out of balance the next morning.”

When Dravis and her husband Joseph, a kombucha brewer, opened Native Kitchen in October, they created a list of sophisticated kombucha cocktails that are not only a pleasure to drink, but potentially healthful.

“We thought, if we came up with a low-sugar way to mix our cocktails with kombucha, which supports your gut health, we’d be bringing some balance to the table,” Dravis said.

“OK, you’re still drinking alcohol, but you’re not going to feel the harsh effects that you normally would,” she continued. “The perfect example is our Ginger Mule. We use fresh ginger and kombucha and some vodka, and I can tell you that when I drink it I feel much better than if I had just consumed a high-sugar cocktail with ginger beer and vodka.”

The bar also serves a kombucha mimosa, which replaces half of the orange juice with fermented tea.

“I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I drink regular mimosas I can get a headache, or I feel low after drinking them,” Dravis said. “There’s definitely going to be a more sustained, balanced feeling when you drink a kombucha mimosa because you don’t get the sugar crash.”

Dravis isn’t the only one who believes kombucha can help prevent hangovers. Eric Childs, founder of Kombucha Brooklyn, claims that drinking kombucha between alcoholic drinks results in “reverse toxmosis,” and that drinking it the morning after can cure a hangover thanks to kombucha’s detoxifying properties.

Native Kitchen's kombucha mimosa substitutes kombucha for half the normal amount of orange juice. Credit: Tina Caputo

Native Kitchen’s kombucha mimosa substitutes kombucha for half the normal amount of orange juice. Credit: Tina Caputo

For those who are already suffering from a hangover, Native Kitchen offers kombucha on draft, along with kombucha elixirs such as the Pommy, a mixture of pomegranate juice, kombucha, local honey, lime juice and bee pollen.

The key to alleviating a hangover, Dravis said, is to reduce acidity in the body, and kombucha can help with that. “When you’re hung over your body is in a state of complete acidity from the excess sugar and the alcohol, so you’re going to want a quick boost of alkalinity,” she said.

Although there’s no solid scientific proof of these claims, they seem to make a fair amount of sense. And when kombucha cocktails are as delicious as Native Kitchen’s, lining up volunteers for further “research” shouldn’t be a problem.

The Ginger Mule

Ingredients

2 ounces vodka

1 ounce honey

Juice of 1/2 lime

3 ounces kombucha

1 ounce ginger juice*

*If you don’t have a juicer, you can use a ginger-flavored kombucha, or muddle a small piece of ginger in the shaker.

Directions

1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until mixed.

2. Serve over ice in a copper mug or double old fashioned glass, garnished with a lime wheel.

The Pommy

Ingredients

3 ounces pomegranate juice

1 ounce lime juice

1 teaspoon local honey

6 ounces kombucha (any flavor)

Small pinch of bee pollen (available in health food stores)

Directions

1. Add all ingredients except the pollen to a shaker with ice and shake until mixed.

2. Strain into a flute glass and sprinkle bee pollen on top.

Main photo: Jasmine Dravis of Native Kitchen & Kombucha Bar shows off a kombucha cocktail. Credit: Tina Caputo

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Dungeness Crabs are a Bay Area Holiday Tradition Image

As Americans there are certain holiday food traditions many of us share: turkey at Thanksgiving, gingerbread at Christmas. But in addition to these commonalities, regional specialties, from tamales in Texas to kalua turkeys in Hawaii, contribute local flavor to our celebrations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the holiday table wouldn’t be complete without Dungeness crabs.

This succulent bottom-feeder was first harvested commercially from the San Francisco/Bodega Bay waters in the mid-1800s, and Bay Area residents have been feasting on its sweet meat ever since.

The region’s commercial crab fishing season opens just before Thanksgiving and lasts only as long as the crabs do. Often, the supply runs out not long after the ringing in of the New Year. With such a short season, Northern Californians strive to eat as many Dungeness crabs as possible before they disappear — and what better time to do it than the holidays?

Unlike the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey, Dungeness crabs are not associated with a particular winter holiday. Some people have them for Christmas, others for New Year’s Eve, or even Black Friday.

For Joy Sterling, whose family owns Iron Horse Vineyards in western Sonoma County, Thanksgiving is the best time for crabs. “Our tradition is to start with cold, cracked Dungeness crab fresh from Bodega Bay, just 13 miles from us as the crow flies,” she said. It’s served buffet style, as a pre-turkey appetizer, along with the winery’s unoaked Chardonnay. “We like a traditional Louis dressing, which is a Northern California invention, sliced Meyer lemons, bright Rangpur limes and regular limes.”

At the Stony Point location of Oliver’s Market in Santa Rosa, people begin lining up at 6:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve to buy Dungeness crabs for their holiday feasts. Before the day is over, the store will easily sell 1,000 pounds of crab. “It takes at least an hour to get through the line,” crab-lover Kelly Keagy of Santa Rosa said, “but people are nice and in a good mood.”

Keagy’s family has been eating crabs on Christmas Eve for the last 10 years, accompanied by warm sourdough bread and salad. “When the kids were little, crab wouldn’t have been high on their list of favorite foods,” she said. “Now that everybody is older, crab and Champagne are the highlights of our Christmas Eve.”

Supply and demand

Having a family tradition of eating Dungeness crabs at Thanksgiving can be a bit risky, due to supply fluctuations. Some would even call it foodhardy.

“Three things can affect availability at Thanksgiving,” said Scott Lenhart, founder of San Francisco Crabs, which supplies live Dungeness crabs to individuals, restaurants and retailers. “One is a bad crab season, or something like the oil spill a few years ago where they don’t catch any. Second, there can be strikes, when crab fishermen are negotiating for pricing. Then you can also have horrendous weather.”

International orders can also cut into the local crab supply. “China’s taken a huge amount of crab from us, and that’s one reason the prices are going up,” Lenhart said. “There’s a huge Asian market for Dungeness crab for special occasions, and for the rising middle class.”

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis.

Nick’s Cove crab cakes. Credit: Justin Lewis

And because Northern California’s Dungeness crab season opens before those in Oregon and Alaska, out-of-state crabbers head south to get an early start. “They come to our waters and scour our crabs,” Lenhart said.

Even so, he always has Dungeness crabs on his Thanksgiving table. “I’ve been having Dungeness crab with turkey for a long time,” he said. The crabs are simply boiled with a little sea salt, and eaten without embellishment. “You don’t need garlic or butter. It’s good right out of the pot as soon as it’s cool enough to eat.”

Getting creative with crabs

At Nick’s Cove Restaurant, in the town of Marshall on Tomales Bay, executive chef Austin Perkins gives Dungeness crabs a gourmet twist. For the restaurant’s annual Thanksgiving dinner, as an alternative to the traditional turkey entrée, he serves up wood-fired whole Dungeness crab with fingerling potatoes and rosemary butter.

“Dungeness is a little bit sweeter and a lot milder than most other types of crab,” Perkins said. “We use it in many different ways at the restaurant, from crab cakes to our Dungeness crab mac and cheese.”

For those boiling crabs at home, he offered this advice: “After cooking, you need to remove the top part of the crab’s shell and remove all the intestines. After that, look for grayish gills on the sides and scrape those away as well.” Then the crab is ready to crack and eat, or use in a recipe.

Although Lenhart of San Francisco Crabs prefers his Dungeness crabs unadorned, he said he also likes them deep fried, or simmered in cioppino, San Francisco’s signature fish stew. “There’s nothing wrong with ginger crab at a nice Chinese restaurant, either,” he said. “But for Thanksgiving, you don’t need any sauces. You just can’t beat it.”

Nick’s Cove Dungeness Crab Cakes

Cooking Time: About 6 minutes per batch (3 minutes per side)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3/4 pound Dungeness crab meat, cooked and shelled

2 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 cup panko bread crumbs, plus an additional 1/2 cup for coating

Oil for pan frying (preferably rice bran oil or vegetable oil)

For garnish:

Spicy Paprika Aioli (recipe below)

Arugula and shaved fennel

Directions

1. Place all ingredients in a large bowl and combine with hands until thoroughly mixed.

2. Weigh out 1 1/2 ounce portions and form them into cakes.

3. Roll cakes to coat in more panko, and brown them on the top and bottom surfaces in a hot sauté pan coated with oil (about 3 tablespoons, enough to cover the bottom of the pan).

4. Serve with Spicy Paprika Aioli, arugula and shaved fennel.

Spicy Paprika Aioli

Yield: About 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons smoked paprika

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1/2 tablespoon salt

Directions

Whisk everything together to combine.

Main photo: A live Dungeness crab. Credit: David Gomez/iStock

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American Brewing Steams Along With Crafts Image

In the early ’90s, I worked in a trendy London pub that served beers from around the world. One of those brews, served in bottles, was Anchor Steam. I had never heard of this so-called San Francisco beer and had my doubts that it actually had distribution in the United States. I was wrong, of course. Under various names, Anchor Brewing Co. had been around for more than 100 years by the time I “discovered” it.

America’s beer landscape was just beginning to shift in those days, from a country with only a few hundred breweries to one with an exploding microbrewery scene. (The revolution was sparked by Fritz Maytag, who rescued Anchor from bankruptcy in 1965 and revived America’s craft brewing industry.) By 1996 there were more than 1,000 breweries in the United States. Today there are nearly 3,000, and the surge shows no sign of abating.

Beer tastes have changed a lot since the ’90s, with hoppy brews taking center stage. While I enjoy the occasional IPA, I find many to be over-the-top hoppy, akin to over-oaked Chardonnay. I usually gravitate toward English or German-style beers. They’re flavorful, but also balanced, and low enough in alcohol that I can drink more than one and remain upright.

In my quest for flavorful, well-balanced beers, I recently rediscovered Anchor Steam. How had I forgotten it? With its creamy head, deep caramel color and malty flavor, it’s practically the perfect beer.

Making steam beer

Anchor’s iconic “steam beer” was introduced in 1896, but it wasn’t sold in bottles until 1971.

During a recent tour of Anchor Brewing Co., I was told that the beer was named for the steam that rose from the brewery’s rooftop as San Francisco’s night air cooled the wort (unfermented beer) after boiling.

Anchor Brewmaster Mark Carpenter, who joined the brewery the same year Anchor Steam made its debut in bottles, offered another explanation.

“Steam beer is just a funny name given to this beer that was developed on the West Coast at the time of the Gold Rush,” he said. “With the Gold Rush came a huge influx of northern Europeans and these guys wanted beer. So brewers started setting up crude little breweries. Some wanted to make lager beer, and one of the features of lager was that it was carbonated.”

This was done through a process called krausening (“KROY-zen-ing”), in which an actively fermenting beer is added to an older one to bring about a secondary fermentation. “It carbonates the beer, and it also has an influence on its flavor,” Carpenter said. When these highly carbonated beers were brought into bars where there was no refrigeration to temper the carbonation, they produced a lot of foam when they were tapped.

“Somebody said it looked like they were trying to tap a keg filled with steam,” Carpenter said, and a nickname was born.

Anchor still makes its steam beer in the traditional way, boiling wort and mashing malt in huge copper kettles.

Although the brewery’s production has increased over the decades and its offerings have expanded, Anchor hasn’t outgrown its artisanal methods. “We only use whole hop flowers,” Carpenter said. “We don’t use extracts and we don’t use pellets. Most small breweries these days do.” Another distinction, he added, is that the brewhouse is run “by people, not computers.”

Expanding and innovating

Carpenter does not expect much to change next year, when Anchor opens a second brewing facility at San Francisco’s Pier 48. The new brewhouse will nearly quadruple Anchor’s annual production capacity from 180,000 barrels to 680,000.

“Wherever it’s better for the beer for us to go high tech, we do,” he said. “For instance, our fermenters now are stainless steel, but originally those would have been pitch-lined redwood — just a nightmare to keep clean. So when it’s better for the beer, we do go modern. Otherwise, we try to stick with simple and traditional.”

Even so, Anchor is not stuck in the past. When Fritz Maytag retired in 2010 and sold the business, the new owners asked Carpenter to start developing new beers for the line.

“When I started with Anchor, we only made Anchor Steam Beer,” Carpenter said. “Then we developed our Porter, Old Foghorn Barleywine, our Liberty Ale — and many of those were the very first of their varieties in America. I think we’re still innovating.”

Anchor still has a traditional, all-copper brewhouse. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

Anchor still has a traditional, all-copper brewhouse. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

One such innovation was Anchor’s Zymaster Series. “The idea was that we would do these one-off beers from time to time and just see how they were accepted,” Carpenter said. “It’s a fun thing that shows our creativity. Not every beer has to be a winner.”

The series has included brews such as Mark’s Mild, Fort Ross Farmhouse Ale, Saareemaa Pale Ale, and (coming soon) Potrero Hill Sour Mash IPA.

With the wild popularity of hoppy beers today, one might be tempted to think that Anchor is jumping on the bandwagon with its Zymaster Series IPA. Not so; the brewery’s Liberty Ale, introduced in 1975, was the first modern American IPA brewed after Prohibition. At the time, Carpenter wondered if the public could handle all those hops. “Lots of people, including us at the brewery, wondered if anybody would drink it,” he said. “That was considered a brutally hopped beer when it first came out. Now it’s mainstream.”

Although he says IPAs are here to stay, Carpenter predicts that the style will become less extreme. “I think they will be a little lower in hops and have more body,” he said. “I think those types of beers are going to be around forever.”

His favorite beer, however, is still the classic Anchor Steam, and this beer drinker is inclined to agree.

Main photo: Anchor Steam beer has been sold in bottles since 1971. Credit: Courtesy of Anchor Brewing Co.

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