It was born of necessity, the legend has it, in the days of California's gold rush. Surely no one then ever thought that nearly a century and a half later there would still be such a thing as steam beer - or that it would be one of America's finest and most distinctive beers. But what does the name mean? What could beer possibly have in common with steam? Of all of steam beer's mysteries, the name is the most impenetrable; to even make a good guess we need to take a look at the style's history. And since steam beer wasn't considered a classic style in its day (some insist it was never a style at all), it's not such an easy thing to do. Beer styles, as a rule, don't just appear. They're always the result of something, such as a characteristic of local brewing materials (especially water) or local tastes. Steam beer seems to follow the rule here, with the remarkable twist that the original steam-beer brewers made not just one or two but a whole series of alterations to their brewing methods in adapting to the conditions they found. The prevailing legend is that along with the huge number of fortune hunters in the massive migration to California following the news of the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill, there came many who had less interest in gold itself than they had in starting businesses to meet the miners' needs. These often became the most successful of the settlers, digging the miners' gold from their pockets as fast as the miners dug it from the ground. Knowing that life without beer would be just as unthinkable to the miners as it is to us, brewers came west in the migrations of 1849. In the years before the California gold rush the "lager revolution" had changed the face of American brewing dramatically, so most of these brewers were firm believers in lager beer, and they brought with them pots of the lager yeast they'd been using in the more settled areas of the country. California just wasn't the place for that yeast, though, as they learned a little too late. California weather tends to be temperate. Much of California never freezes, and other than in the high Sierras there are few winter ice-fields where ice can be harvested and stored for later use. There is nothing at all like the system of rivers and lakes convenient for that purpose in the midwestern and eastern US. For more than 20 years after the miners arrived, there was no transportation capable of bringing adequate quantities of ice down from the Sierras. Naturally, mechanical refrigeration was out of the question. This was disaster, as there was no practical way to ferment at real lager temperatures. It's not recorded who made the discovery that beer fermented in the shallow cooling tun had fewer off-flavors, but by the time the first technical articles were written about steam beer in the final years of the 19th century, fermentation in these shallow pans (usually made of lacquered wood) was a common feature of the style.
From the beginning steam beer was beer intended to cut the serious thirst of people who worked hard, and as an 1893 article in Western Brewer magazine dryly noted, was "not a connoisseur's drink." Apparently to make it more thirst quenching, most brewers seem to have hopped it very heavily. That would also have helped maintain stability in a beer brewed under primitive conditions and stored in a warm climate without refrigeration. There seems to be no remaining record of the type of hops used, but it's reasonable to conclude that the bulk of the hops would have been grown within California, again because of the difficulties in transportation. In fact California was for many years the seat of the majority of America's hop production, but there are only a few hop cultivars that find the latitude of California congenial, most preferring the day-length pattern found further from the equator. During California's hop-growing years the primary variety grown was Cluster, and the California hop industry collapsed when consumer preference shifted to favor the more delicately flavored strains derived from Hallertauer. Some Fuggles were grown in coastal areas of northern California, but it seems likely that on the whole the hops available to steam beer brewers were a rough lot. Barley grows well in California, especially in the northernmost part of the state, but malting facilities apparently lagged far behind their eastern and midwestern counterparts throughout the first two decades of the steam beer period. Transportation, always a problem, made it next to impossible to ship beer far from the brewery, so a large number of very small breweries dotted the state. It was about this time that breweries in the rest of the US began to use such adjuncts as rice and corn to lighten the body of their beers (the economic advantages of adjuncts didn't become the dominant concern in brewing texts until after Prohibition), but the technique seems to have caught on more slowly among the less technically advanced steam beer brewers.
Very little is known about the flavor characteristics of steam beer until the 1890s. By that time mechanical refrigeration had appeared in the more settled areas of the West Coast, and the range of steam beer had grown considerably. One authority has traced the production of steam beer as far north as Alaska and as far east as Wisconsin, but brewers still considered it to be primarily a California phenomenon. Lager beer, especially bottled lager beer, had completely taken over the " high end" of the beer market, leaving steam beer as the cheapest swill a saloon was likely to sell. In his 1891 novel McTeague, Frank Norris has the doomed dentist spend his Sunday afternoons drinking steam beer. Readers of the day understood that steam beer drinkers were creatures utterly without taste and refinement. A mug of steam beer generally cost five cents in San Francisco then, while bottled lager beer was three times as expensive. Turn of the century brewing texts describe the steam beer of the day in terms that sound familiar a century later. It was generally an amber beer, often compared to Munich beer. The color was due to caramel malt, roast malt, caramelized sugar, or any combination of these. Specific gravity was in the range of 1.044 to 1.050. The grist (mash ingredients) was sometimes all malt but often contained corn grits, and sugar was very frequently added in the kettle, sometimes comprising as much as 33 percent of the total fermentables. The hopping rate was approximately equivalent to two ounces of hops for a five-gallon batch, though it would be difficult to make an effective guess at the alpha-acid content of the hops of a century ago. Many different mashing schedules and methods were used, but it was very common for the final conversion temperature to be at or near 176 F. The boil was generally from one to two hours. After the boil the wort was cooled in the usual way, and about one pound per barrel of a bottom-fermenting yeast was pitched. Interestingly, several texts make a point of calling this a "special" yeast; the maintenance of a special yeast strain for steam beers appears not to have survived Prohibition. Pitching usually took place in tanks with a relatively high aspect ratio, and high kraeusen (the peak of fermentation) was usually established within 14 hours. The beer was then run into the shallow fermentation tuns to ferment for two to four more days at temperatures generally in the low 60s. From there it was racked into trade packages, usually wooden barrels. Surviving steam-beer barrels are impressively strong vessels, made with very thick staves and lined with pitch. Some 30 to 40 percent of the volume racked into the kegs was fresh beer at high kraeusen, depending on the desired degree of carbonation. The unfermented reducing sugars in this kraeusen beer would condition the beer in the keg during five to 10 days of aging at the brewery. Finings would be added along with the kraeusen. At the saloon, the keg would be allowed to settle for two days, and then it would be ready for serving, except... Except for the fact that with all that kraeusen, it's running some 40 to 70 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure! That might be fine if the keg's kept in a cellar several floors below the taproom and the beer lines are extremely long. But as a practical matter, there's just no way to dispense a beer with that much pressure. So the practice was to open the bung the night before the keg was to be put on line, and the first rush of carbon dioxide would look and sound like steam being released from a boiler. So strong was the resemblance that the practice was called "steaming" the beer. Could this be the origin of the name? We'll probably never know, but it seems to be a reasonably good guess.
The style appears to have altered little in the period between the turn of the century and the beginning of Prohibition. A few breweries, mostly in northern California, brewed steam beer regularly. Many others brewed an occasional batch. After Prohibition only one seems to have brewed steam beer primarily: a small San Francisco brewery called Anchor. After Prohibition, many others still brewed the occasional batch, and a few surviving texts give recipes for steam. These recipes are strikingly different from the pre-Prohibition steam recipes, in that they never seem to mention anything that would create the amber color previously considered a defining feature of the style. Most specify a grist composed solely of pale malt and corn grits, a few adding sugar in the kettle. There seemed to be little enthusiasm for steam, though, and by the 1950s it had disappeared from the brewing schedule of virtually every brewery - except Anchor. At Anchor, steam beer was being interpreted in a fashion the miners would have recognized. Its principal characteristic may have been inconsistency, with individual kegs ranging from superb to undrinkable. As demand fell off, they brewed less frequently. Rather than culture their own yeast, on a day they planned to brew they would send an employee with a pail to one of the large breweries in the area, visiting each in rotation so that none would feel the visits were too frequent. Finally, demand fell below the minimum required to keep the brewery alive, and the few remaining Anchor draft accounts were told that the brewery was closing. This was the beginning of what's probably the most familiar story in craft brewing. News of the brewery's closure reached a young man named Fritz Maytag. Yes, one of the appliance-company Maytags. It had never previously occurred to him to have anything to do with the brewing business, but he looked into the situation at Anchor. Conventional wisdom was certainly that the best thing to do was to let it die. The process of major national producers forcing smaller brewers out of the marketplace had been steadily thinning the ranks of breweries since the end of Prohibition. A small, poorly run, poorly equipped brewery producing an irregular style for which there was little apparent demand must have seemed an extraordinary risk. Maytag wasn't intimidated by conventional wisdom, though, and sold stock in the family business to finance the purchase of the brewery. Over the next few years he threw himself into personally running Anchor, and in the process transformed the brewery, the beer, and the face of the brewing industry. Most of today's craft brewers were inspired at least in part by his example. With Maytag's transformation of the steam-beer style, it became for the first time a beer worth seeking out, and remains so today. The deep amber color and high hopping are back, though the hop used now is Northern Brewer, and the gravity's in the same range it occupied 100 years ago. Highly carbonated, this new form of steam beer is kraeusened in bulk rather than in the trade package and is cold-aged far longer than the original steam ever was. Once again a special bottom-fermenting yeast strain is used, and fermentation is done in shallow pans. The result is a beer with a singularly assertive flavor and a delightfully spicy hop bouquet. It's a beer with a certain edge to it, but one that from the first sip proclaims itself as one of the world's classic beers. One reality that an article such as this one can't ignore is that "steam beer" is a registered trademark of the Anchor Brewing Co. It's possible to imagine at least one rationale Anchor might have for this: As mentioned before, steam beer as a generic style had a very poor reputation, and with the exception of a single example had died out all together. Anchor reinvented the style, keeping some parameters but dramatically changing the overall impact of the beer. Very few people now living can claim to have tasted a steam beer not inspired by or actually made by Anchor. Therefore, it could be argued that the term has passed out of the general usage and into the specific, and further, that anyone else using the term for a commercial product could expect to benefit by Anchor's prior use of the name. Not long ago an Anchor spokesman advanced another argument in a trade journal, to the effect that "steam beer" had never referred to a specific style of beer but was rather applied to beer in general by Californians of the Gold Rush days. There's too much evidence to the contrary, though, to give this argument much consideration. The legal control over the use of the term is sometimes a nuisance to those of us with the task of sorting out beer styles one from another, but it's difficult to see how it could be of any harm to the industry.
Whether it's called "steam beer" or by the much more generic name "California common beer," this can be a very satisfying style to brew. For those looking to get just "in the ballpark," an amber wort similar to a bitter or an India pale ale represents a good starting point, and hopping with Northern Brewer and fermenting with one of the excellent yeasts available for the style will get you close enough to the original to begin the tuning process. Grain brewers will find that if they have very soft water a little gypsum can be quite helpful. One to 2 percent of rye malt in the grist seems to add just that touch of sharpness that's so pleasing in the commercial example. If you're thinking of kraeusening in a Cornelius keg though, make very, very sure that the safety pressure-release valve is functioning correctly! And please, don't even think of trying the kraeusen levels described above in bottles. When (not if) they explode, the flying glass fragments can easily injure or kill!