Steam Beer: An American Original

By Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com
June 15, 2021 Updated: June 17, 2021

The number of craft breweries in the United States continues to rise, almost against reason. But while the number of beer styles being made may run over 70 (or even 100, depending on who you consult), they are almost all Old World styles, or at least an American take on them.

If you are looking for a truly American original, here’s one for sure: steam beer. Also known now as California common, this brew was the result of special brewing challenges specific to the region, and a need for speed.

Special Climes Call for Special Measures

In the 19th century, cooling off a brew and keeping it at a low enough temperature for the yeast to do its work was a challenge without ice or refrigeration—in particular, outside of winter, or in places that couldn’t harvest and store winter ice. One could cool wort faster with coolships, which are shallow, open-top containers that would lose heat faster due to the greater surface area, but this still didn’t get the temps low enough for fermentation in sunny California.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the cooling effects of the ocean helped. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”—though falsely attributed to Mark Twain, and perhaps altogether fictional, the nevertheless popular quote bears some truth. A summer breeze off the Pacific will shiver your timbers and, in short order, put the cool in a coolship.

Nevertheless, the temperature still didn’t dip down into the typical 48- to 55-degree range necessary for lager (bottom-fermenting) yeast. Ale yeasts weren’t completely unknown in the United States at that time, but likely were much harder to come by, or at least inconsistently available. Plus, tastes were rapidly favoring lagers. Pilsners became a sensation in Bavaria and Bohemia in the 1840s, and began conquering the world as German brewers emigrated in the 19th century. See also all the lager-style national beers throughout the warmer countries in Latin America.

Brewers compromised by using a special lager yeast strain that could ferment at warmer temperatures usually required by top-fermenting ales. In a 1912 article in the University of California Publications in Physiology, Victor Birckner suggested that while a typical lager required “eight to 10 days” to ferment, this steam beer only needed three. He writes of typical coolships being one foot deep and made of wood. These were called “clarifiers,” since the yeast settled out of the beer here. He also credits some of the fermentation speed to the increased aeration of such a large surface.

While the recipes continued to call for a bottom-fermenting yeast, the warmer fermentation changed the yeast a bit. Birckner writes, “The yeast of the steam beer has accommodated itself to these conditions to such an extent that it can no longer be employed for the preparation of lager beer, while lager-beer yeast may without difficulty be used for the manufacture of steam beer.”

Another problem, however, would have been the availability of quality malted barley. Brewers used whatever other cereal grains they could get to provide the sugars for fermentation. Moreover, unlike typical beers, steam beer was kegged immediately following the initial fermentation, without any conditioning time.

Epoch Times Photo
An open-top beer fermentation tank at Anchor Brewing Co., in this file photo. (Picardin/CC BY 4.0)

Steam Beer Is Born

The result … was probably not delicious by modern standards, nor consistent, especially with those open fermentation vessels. But it was basically a crisp, lightly hopped, lightly amber beer.

But the rushing gold miners came thirsty, and the beer could be made quickly, so in the years that followed, it became the working man’s brew. Jack London drank it—he refers to it in his 1913 autobiographical novel “John Barleycorn,” implying it was cheap and low quality. “As its characteristic quality is rapidity of preparation, we may infer that it was intended chiefly for the purpose of meeting the strong demands,” writes Birckner.

The origin of the name is mostly speculation, it seems. There is an old Bavarian beer style called Dampfbier—“steam beer”—but this is brewed with Hefeweizen yeast (top-fermenting/ale yeast), and thus not the same. Some facilities called themselves “steam breweries,” but this referenced using steam to heat the kettles. A plausible explanation is that the vapor of the warm beer hitting the chilly air in the cooling process produced the “steam.”

A Craft Beer Icon

That might be the origin of the name, but the ownership of the moniker now legally belongs to San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing Co., which trademarked the term in 1981. Everyone else is now brewing California common.

Epoch Times Photo
Inside the Anchor Brewing Co. brewhouse, in this file photo. (WolfmanSF/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Anchor Brewing was founded in 1896, and while the brewery wasn’t the first to make steam beer, it continued to do so—regular and dark—for decades. But like many local breweries in the 1960s, Anchor had some financial troubles, and by the arrival of that decade, the brewery’s production was quite small and local, only in kegs. Many other breweries were gobbled up by the bigger brewers—Miller, G. Heileman, Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, Stroh’s, and so forth.

But Anchor had a lucky turn when Fritz Maytag—yes, that Maytag, an heir of the washing-machine empire—bought control of the brewery in 1965, with the aim of bringing it back from decline. Under Maytag’s direction, the brewery modernized their equipment and cleaned up the beer quality with all malted grain. They discontinued the dark brew. The comparatively more flavorful and slightly amber-colored steam beer stood apart in a market of pale American pilsners, and the brewery remained local. In 1971, Anchor began bottling for distribution.

Anchor has often been referred to as the first modern craft brewery, introducing a porter in the early 1970s, and an India Pale Ale that was dry-hopped, a practice that was unknown in the American market at the time. They still use the open cooling bins, but indoors rather than on a rooftop.

The brewery is now owned by a big brewing corporation, Sapporo Breweries, and so is no longer considered craft by the Brewers Association. Be that as it may, Anchor Steam retains its place in the pantheon of American brewing.

Common Drinking

California common is a light, malty amber with a dry, crisp finish and a mildly fruity aroma. The hops bring a light bitterness, but as with the 19th-century style, they are not the citrusy sorts so popular in modern hop varieties. Anchor Steam uses Northern Brewer hops, which impart a hint of mint.

Anchor Brewing’s Anchor Steam is the obvious place to start if you want to try the style. California common isn’t widespread in a market that seems to want bolder brews. While it does show up on beer menus from time to time—Short’s Brewing in Michigan has a California Common brew in their portfolio as a specialty brew, The Village Reserve—it’s not often a year-round or core beer.

One exception: Dorothy’s New World Lager by Iowa’s Toppling Goliath Brewery is one of the flagship brews, named for the founder’s grandmother. Light straw-colored and crisp, it’s a solid offering from a brewery better known for their hop-centric brews.

Epoch Times Photo
Toppling Goliath Brewery’s Dorothy’s New World Lager. (Courtesy of Toppling Goliath Brewery)

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.”  He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com.

Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com