Although American brewers have come to craft quality beers in a variety of styles, there is only one beer style that originated right here in the states: steam beer. Steam beer is a beer that is brewed with lager yeasts but at higher ale temperatures, resulting in a top based fermentation. Originating in California in the mid nineteenth century due to the lack of refrigeration or ice needed for a normal lager fermentation, steam beer had all but disappeared from today’s beer market until recent years.
Top fermentation typically gives a beer heartier, more aromatic qualities. Using lager yeasts in this manner gives steam beer imparts features typically distinct to either lagers or ales in one beer. In the case of the original steam beer, the result of brewing lager yeasts in this manner resulted in a cheap beer for laborers of reputedly low quality. In more recent years, American microbrewers have returned to the steam beer brewing method and created steam beers of considerably higher quality.
Modern steam beer is also known as California Common beer, which is brewed with strong, woody hops and lager yeasts at ale temperatures. Interestingly, they were commonly fermented in the open vessels called cool ships, just like Belgium lambics and other spontaneously fermenting beers. Anchor Steam beer is the best known example of modern steam beer or California Common beer, although several other examples exist. The Anchor Brewing Company was founded in 1896 in San Francisco, California, where it remains in operation today, and they now hold the trademark to the term “steam” in terms of beer names. Flying Dog brewery, with their distinctive Ralph Steadman packaging, produces an award winning beer in this style called Old Scratch. Both Old Scratch and Anchor Steam can be found at most beer retailers with a decent selection of good beers.
It remains unclear just how steam beer obtained its name. According to beer writer Michael Jackson’s website, the casks of the original steam beers actually steamed when they were tapped. Anchor Brewing speculates that the beer was cooled following the boiling process by pumping into the top of the brewery where an open roof allowed cooler air to come in and lower the temperature, resulting in a cloud of steam in the brewery.
Regardless, the American tradition of steam beer brewing lives on through the Anchor Brewery and numerous other brewers such as Flying Dog. Born of necessity, the mother of all invention, steam beer has become crafted from a cheap but quaffable beer to a high quality beverage that is both uniquely and distinctly American.