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Steam Beer

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Steam Beer was a style of beer popular in the area around San Francisco (and drunk all along the West Coast) in the nineteenth century, brewed with bottom-fermenting yeasts but at higher than ordinary lager fermentation temperatures.

Today, the only surviving brewery among those who made historical steam beer is Anchor Steam, and the beer brewed by Anchor is actually a derivative of historic steam beer, not a faithful copy of the old style. Because Anchor claims a trademark on the name "Steam Beer", modern commercial examples must be referred to as California Common instead. However, the historical examples are still properly referred to as Steam Beer.

Most modern examples of this style are really more like Anchor Steam clones, usually copying Anchor's trademark Northern Brewer hops as well as potentially using a yeast strain most likely derived from Anchor's own brewery. Effectively, Anchor Steam is the definitive example of the California Common Beer style, so ironically, it is not a true steam beer at all, but an example of California Common. Where the two diverge is sometimes hard to pin down, but steam beer was a rougher, frontier-type beverage, whereas California Common is more refined and better suited to Anchor's identity as a quality craft beer. Historic steam beer was also exclusively served on draft, whereas Anchor Steam is bottled for shipment around the world. Not least important, Anchor Steam (and most other California Common beers) enjoys a consistent high-quality output not shared by historical steam beers. [1]

Contents

History of Steam Beer

There are many theories surrounding the name Steam Beer; for example, some say that the high carbonation of this style created a whistling sound in the kegs, or that the coolships used by the breweries gave off clouds of steam on brewing days.

However, many early American brewers were German, and a separate German regional beer style named Dampfbier, literally "steam beer", existed. Dampfbier, like American steam beer, was fermented at unusually high temperatures with a nontraditional yeast--in that case, a Weizen yeast used for an entirely barley-based beer. The result was an extremely active fermentation, which reportedly made the fermenting wort appear to be steaming or boiling. This is perhaps the most likely explanation for the American name.

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Brewing Steam Beer

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The most important ingredient in a modern steam beer is the yeast--you must use a California common yeast, otherwise the typical characteristics will not be produced. For a hop bill, Northern Brewer is the recommended hop to use, for all additions. This is because steam beers are characterised by the 'woody' flavors that come with Northern Brewer. (Traditional steam beers would most likely have used California-grown hops of the day, which were a variant of Cluster.[2])

Competition Styles

Both the BJCP and the GABF style guidelines recognize this style, each referring to it for legal reasons as California Common.

BJCP Style Guidelines

California Common Beer

7B. California Common Beer Vital Statistics
BJCP Style Guideline Definition (2004)
IBUs: 30-45 SRM: 10-14 OG: 1.048-1.054 FG: 1.011-1.014 ABV: 4.5-5.5
Aroma: Typically showcases the signature Northern Brewer hops (with woody, rustic or minty qualities) in moderate to high strength. Light fruitiness acceptable. Low to moderate caramel and/or toasty malt aromatics support the hops. No diacetyl.
Appearance: Medium amber to light copper color. Generally clear. Moderate off-white head with good retention.
Flavor: Typically showcases the signature Northern Brewer hops (with woody, rustic or minty qualities) in moderate to high strength. Light fruitiness acceptable. Low to moderate caramel and/or toasty malt aromatics support the hops. No diacetyl.
Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied. Medium to medium-high carbonation.
Overall Impression: Typically showcases the signature Northern Brewer hops (with woody, rustic or minty qualities) in moderate to high strength. Light fruitiness acceptable. Low to moderate caramel and/or toasty malt aromatics support the hops. No diacetyl.
History: American West Coast original. Large shallow open fermenters (coolships) were traditionally used to compensate for the absence of refrigeration and to take advantage of the cool ambient temperatures in the San Francisco Bay area. Fermented with a lager yeast, but one that was selected to thrive at the cool end of normal ale fermentation temperatures.
Comments: This style is narrowly defined around the prototypical Anchor Steam example. Superficially similar to an American pale or amber ale, yet differs in that the hop flavor/aroma is woody/minty rather than citrusy, malt flavors are toasty and caramelly, the hopping is always assertive, and a warm-fermented lager yeast is used.
Ingredients: Pale ale malt, American hops (usually Northern Brewer, rather than citrusy varieties), small amounts of toasted malt and/or crystal malts. Lager yeast, however some strains (often with the mention of "California" in the name) work better than others at the warmer fermentation temperatures (55 to 60°F) used. Note that some German yeast strains produce inappropriate sulfury character. Water should have relatively low sulfate and low to moderate carbonate levels.
Commercial Examples: Anchor Steam, Southampton West Coast Steam Beer, Old Dominion Victory Amber, Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager

GABF Style Listings

California Common Beer

30B. California Common Beer
GABF Style Listing (2007)
California common beer is light amber to dark amber in color, and is medium bodied. There is a noticeable degree of caramel-type malt character in flavor and often in aroma. Hop bitterness impression is medium to medium high, and is balanced with a low to medium-low degree of fruity esters and malt character to give an impression of balance and drinkability. Hop flavor and aroma is low to medium-low. California common beer is a style of beer brewed with lager yeasts but at ale fermentation temperatures. Diacetyl, and chill haze should be absent.
Original Gravity (ºPlato): 1.045-1.056 (11.2-14 ºPlato)
Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (ºPlato): 1.010-1.018 (2.5-4.5 ºPlato)
Alcohol by Weight (Volume): 3.2-4.3% (4-5.4%)
Bitterness (IBU): 35-45
Color SRM (EBC): 12-17 (24-34 EBC)

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