Steam beer is a historic american beer style, perhaps originating at the time of the western Goldrush. At that time it was a cheap beer, the beer of labourers. Nowadays the style, also known as California Common is best known through San Francisco’s Anchor Steam Beer, one of the first beers in the american craft brew revolution. The difference between Steam Beer and a normal amber ale is that Steam beer is not brewed using ale yeast, but rather a lager yeast fermented at more like ale temperatures, that is, more like 14-20c than the normal lager range (9-13c or so). We can imagine that the 19th century californians had no access to ice, nor even cold water for brewing, and since they would most likely have come from the German/central European brewing tradition rather than the British, they would be used to the lager technique. Steam beer is thus a compromise under harsh conditions.
Tongue firmly in cheek I hazard to liken myself to them. This time of year it’s just too cold to trust my fermenter to stay up around 19-21c fo my favourite ale styles, indeed, when I checked the temperature of my recently brewed Kölsch before it went out to the cold shed it was only 16c, and that was in the main room downstairs. So, until the sun comes, we must adapt. That means using ale yeasts that like colder temperatures (like Kölsch), or lager yeasts that like the warmer temperatures. I am finding with these sorts of brews that a cool fermentation followed by prolonged cold conditioning (the shed is about 7c at the moment) is producing a really clean and clear beer.
Nobody knows why steam beer was called steam beer. Anchor do not claim that their modern beer is anything other than an appropriation of a “quaint” name, of course, they do brew with a lager yeast, one which thankfully Wyeast offer to us under the guise of “California Lager”. Some mooted explanations are that, since this method produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, it was necessary to vent it before serving, perhaps this appeared to be ‘steam’. Of course, all breweries at the time would have been run by steam power, as the beautiful Brasserie a Vapeur in Belgium still is. This would hardly have been a distinguishing factor however. Another possibility is that, having no better way to cool the wort after boiling, the brewery pumped it up to shallow coolships on the roof to let the cool pacific breeze cool it. The brewery would have often had a plume of steam rising from it in that case. To my mind, the most likely origin is that it is just a translation of “Dampfbier”, literally “steam beer”, which is an old German style. Like Californian steam beer, it is a workingman’s beer, originating in less than idea circumstances. Like its american cousin, it is fermented higher than usual, but with a weissbier yeast. Apparently it foamed a lot during fermentation, giving the appearance of steam. The folk could not afford wheat, hops or lagering equipment, so they made a warm fermented barley beer with weissbier yeast.
Anyway, I brewed the following Steam Beer and called it “Choo Choo! Steam Beer”
Batch size: 35L. OG 1.042 FG 1.012
Grains: 4.7KG Pale Malt, 1.6KG Munich, 200g Caramalt 120l, 40g Chocolate malt.
Hops: 30g Northern Brewer pellets 60 Mins, 30g NB pellets 15 Mins, 23g Homegrown NB whole 5 Mins.
The mash was at 67c for 1 hour, but this was hard to maintain given the cold weather. Yeast was a Wyeast California Lager Activator Pack.
I tasted the two beers side by side for comparison. I had never meant this to be an anchor clone, I had made up the recipe by looking at several other recipes and researching the style generally. When poured, the two were virtually indistinguishable. when held up to the light, anchor was ever so slightly paler, but that was barely perceptible. My beer was almost 1% weaker than Anchor, which weighs in at 4.8 ABV. As a result mine was slightly thinner in body, and perhaps also as a result mine was bitterer, which may be because of the diminished body. On the nose this was noticeable also, Anchor had an almost apply, fruity aroma, almost reminiscent of Vapeur’s (above) Saison de Pipaix, of course that may have been an off flavour, but I found it quite pleasant. Mine on the other hand had a noticeable hop aroma, perhaps Anchor do not have a hop addition as late as 5 minutes. Probably it is a mix of less hops and more alcohol that gives anchor a slightly fruity aroma and indeed taste that my beer lacked. It could also be resultant from a different mash schedule, perhaps a higher one on Anchor’s part. I aimed to mash at 67c, but I suspect I began to lose heat almost immediately, it can’t have been more than 3 or 4c in the shed that day.
That said, I’d rather drink a pint of Choo Choo!, and at 4% I could have several. The extra hops bitterness and weaker body makes mine the more refreshing drink also, perfect for wily Prospectors, Engine Drivers, Gunslingers and Sheriffs.