Whenever I visit the San Francisco Bay area, I always make sure to have some draught Anchor Steam Beer. This is California’s monumental contribution to America’s great beer heritage, and a cornerstone brew in our ongoing craft beer revolution. California common beer, as the style is known, remains one of my favorite styles, but finding it on draft outside of San Francisco is fairly rare.
Nevertheless, California common is, in my opinion, closely related to another favorite of mine: Düsseldorf-style altbier. Common beer is fermented with lager yeast at warm ale-temperatures and aged in lager style, also at warmer temperatures; whereas alt-bier is fermented with ale yeast and aged lager-style at much colder aging temperatures. They make an interesting comparison, mostly because the two styles are so similar to each other.
Steam beer was a bridge between ales and lagers of the nineteenth century and also a bridge to the twentieth.
California Steam Beer a.k.a. California Common Beer
California steam beer was the bridge between those old styles and the new craft beer movement. This beer type, introduced in the later part of the 19th century, only reached its full potential in the 1970s as the last great American style of the old days and the first great American style of the new craft beer era.
Steam beer originated in about 1851, a little after the California Gold Rush started. It is actually an ale, warm fermented, but with bottom working (lager) yeast instead of the usual top working (ale) yeast normal for that beverage. These mid-nineteenth century immigrant German brewers finished out their beer, in warm California, as they had been taught: that is by lagering it in cool cellars (but not as long, and not as cold). Those German brewers were lager-addicted. In Germany, they had even started lagering their top fermented ales (altbier) and in this new country they were forced to brew bottom-fermented beer at warm temperatures, where cold ferments and lagering were unfeasible.
As time went by, this new beer came to be kräusened in the German (lager) style, rather than primed in the English (ale) fashion. Priming is the addition of sugar to the finished beer, which then causes a ferment in the container, resulting in a small increase to the alcohol content and the carbonation of the finished beer. German brewers felt obligated, even in this new country that had adopted them, to follow the ancient Reinheitsgebot purity law. Sugar was verbotten, so a small volume of kräusen (new fermenting beer) was added directly to the casks before bunging (closing) and delivery. This additional ferment gave the product a rich, creamy head, especially so because the beer was served warmer and therefore under much heavier pressure (carbonation) than we are accustomed to seeing these days.
A beer writer of the time, John Buchner, writing in the Western Brewer, in 1898, gives us the scoop: “Steam Beer is bottom fermenting at high temperatures of 60-69F/15-20C… [the beer] is allowed 10-12 days…from mash tub to glass.” “Steam” refers to strong CO2 pressure 50-60-lbs/in2 caused by kräusening with green beer as priming, thus building steam. Buchner was no fan: “not a connoisseur’s drink… tastes better than raw hopped, bitter and turbid ales.”
Steam beer was a bridge between ales and lagers of the nineteenth century and also a bridge to the twentieth. Even though ice machines became available by the 1870s, steam beer remained popular in San Francisco and other parts of California and, indeed, the nation.