A Steam Beer, also referred to as a California Common, or even sometimes a Steam Ale is a an interesting style of beer that is losing its history quickly these days. Technically (if we’re talking proper yeasts), a Steam Beer/California Common is a lager, but there’s quite a bit about its production that makes it an ale, so it gets the name Steam Ale on occasion.
On that, many Steam Beers these days don’t strictly stick the lager yeast thing. This makes the style pretty broad. We’ve seen a few Steam Ale recipes using ale yeasts and these technically aren’t a California Common. If you want to go by Beer Judge Certification Program style guide for a California Common, you need to use a lager yeast.
This is not your typical lager yeast. Instead, it’s designed to be able to ferment at warmer (ale) temperatures without creating a beer that’s not good to drink.
Typically, a lager fermented at too high a temperature can turn out tasting of grass, banana, a bit of mint, or sulphur. The California Common/Steam Ale tends to avoid these flavours overtly while also embracing them by selecting the right lager yeast and ingredients to get rid of them, disguise them, diminish them, or a combination of the three.
Basically speaking, brewers are selecting a lager yeast that can deal with the higher temperatures. Combine this with the less pine and citrus oriented American hops and it makes a pretty decent beer with some fruit to it and interesting malt characteristics.
The Name Steam Beer
Firstly, a note on copyright.
Anchor Brewing owns the rights to the name “Steam Beer,” so while the style may be casually referred to as a Steam Beer, the generic term is forced to be Steam Ale or California Common.
As explained, the term Steam Ale is a misnomer as the style is actually a lager, but it’s brewed like an ale. So that’s probably where it gets the “ale” term. We here at Brew in Review prefer the name California Common. It just sounds cooler. Plus we don’t like calling ales lagers or vice versa. It just seems wrong.
But where does the steam in Steam Ale come from? Read on…
The Story Behind the Name Steam Ale
Steam Ale or California Common is a specific style, but hard to pin down because there are many beers referred to a California Common when they’re still using an ale yeast. Add to this the fact that the beer is actually a lazy and incorrect style (as the yeast is being fermented at the wrong temperature), and you’ve got a kind of weird beer.
Drilling down further into the name, why is it called Steam Ale? Why is it called California Common?
Beer has always been the popular drink to have after a hard day’s work. So of course in 1800’s California during the height of the Gold Rush, beer was a popular beverage. However, tastes weren’t sophisticated and neither was the technology. The idea was to just make beer. Something to dumb the nerves that was good enough to drink plenty of after being in the California sun all day.
It was a beer for the common folk. Very far from being a fancy drink. With many California breweries making the style at the time, it was one of the most abundant types of beers you could get in the area during the 18-hundreds; so it was quite literally common and from California. It was a basic drink for Californians.
But the name Steam Ale has a bit more mystery behind it. Stories behind the steam aspect to the name are conflicted at best.
A story that comes up quite a bit is that the style was one of necessity. Lager yeasts were used as they were cheap and easy to get. However, refrigeration wasn’t available in the area at the time and brewers needed to make do with what they had. Many brewers would allow their wort to chill on the roof of their brewery, and the steam from the cooling wort would rise off the building. Is that where the name Steam Ale is from?
Another common story is that as the beer is fairly highly carbonated, when a new barrel was tapped beer would hiss rapidly out of it. This spray of beer looked like steam! The style is known for being of relatively high carbonation, plus, in the conditions of the day, the carbonation was even greater.
A less prevalent story is that the name comes the German Dampfbier style. Dampfbier translates literally to “steam beer” and many 19th Century brewers in America were German. Dampfbier is actually an ale style though, so this story may be less likely. However, if we extrapolate this story, it’s not hard to imagine a German brewer in 1800’s California trying to make a Dampfbier with limited resources. Things get lost in translation, and maybe the Steam Ale is born?
Whatever the story, or what you call it, the California Common is an underappreciated style that needs a bit more recognition. In order to completely appreciate it, drinkers need to understand the story and understand what it was and what is was trying to accomplish.
Sure, it started its life as cheap piss to entertain miners at the end of a rough day, but it’s evolved into something different. There are some excellent examples of the style, most notably Anchor’s Steam Beer. In fact, our friend Brother Rat listed this as his conversion beer.
But because of this, it’s an excellent beer to simply sit back and enjoy. It’s a simple beer for simple folk. But a beer that’s steeped in history and goes beyond the simple pleasures of the time. Just sit back and enjoy this one.
If you liked this story, learn about other beer naming conventions.