The Re-Birth of Steam Beer

When you think of Steam Beer today, you’re most likely inclined to think of the beloved Anchor Steam out of San Francisco. This is for a few reasons, but first and foremost because the brewery trademarked the used of “Steam Beer” so other brewers cannot use the term. Make no mistake, however, that Steam Beer existed in California well before Anchor. In fact, Steam Beer was a California commodity from back in the gold rush days and could be found at any number of breweries that dotted the old time landscape.

In fact, Sacramento seemed to be home to a large-scale Steam Beer brewery at the turn of the 20th Century, as seen in the California State Board of Agriculture’s Statistical Report from 1901.

There are two large breweries in the city [Sacramento]. The City Brewery manufactures steam beer and in 1901 produced 50,000 barrels that were disposed of all over California Nevada and Oregon.

Today Steam Beer, or California Common as it is currently referred to, is a beloved product of fine quality. However, it was not always the case. In fact, looking back in literature from the late 1800s and early 1900s you could assume a few things about Steam Beer: 1) It was cheap and of poor quality; 2) It was associated with the rough-and-tumble of our society.  In fact, after reading a few texts of old, it seems like an effective way to describe a person of poor character was to point out his affinity for Steam Beer. Fact is, the oldest references I could find about the beer style had very little good to say – save for the fact it was cheap.

Here are a few excerpts from old text that mention Steam Beer – for your reading pleasure. We’ll start with this excerpt from – “A Poor American in Ireland & Scotland” by Ben Goodkind, published 1913.

We soon learned that the drinking water of Sacramento was not of good quality, for it is taken from the Sacramento River and is impure, therefore we took to drinking Sacramento steam beer straight and found it good.

That’s about as good as the reviews got for Steam Beer, which in this instance was made in Sacramento. How about the less savory mentions? This one is lifted from ”The Nerve of Blaze McGee” by Mortin Parker, published in Boy’s Life in May 1923.

Barlow’s drink dispensary occupied the corner. In days gone by, within the long barroom, had been fought gun duels innumerable. Cattlemen, rustlers, gamblers, Mexican smugglers had come and gone through those swinging-doors. Musty with age, the saloon had succumbed to the great drouth. “Lager” and “Steam Beer” had bleached out completely from the wooden sign over the door.

Then there’s this gem plucked from Overland Monthly and the Out West Magazine, published in 1868.

But he ruled merely by means of ability and not affection. Not like McManus was he admired. The latter was “the whole thing” in the saloons in the Barbary Coast, down where the worst beer flows, where they like everything big and strong and cheap-big schooners of steam beer, big men, big fleas, big watches, heavily gilded, and meals at ten cents, including a big dose of second-class burnt chicory, steaming hot, miscalled coffee.

Still more, this comes out of “Michael, Brother of Jerry” written by Jack London, of all people, in 1917.

In his desperation Daughtry hit upon an idea with which to get another schooner of steam beer. He did not like steam beer but it was cheaper than lager.

Regardless of the checkered history, Steam / California Common beer is of great importance in the overall history of California brewing. In fact, (and this is just an odd reference to me) the California Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has an interesting tidbit related to the Type-23 Licence (Small Beer Manufacturer – I.E. craft brewers).

This license formerly related only to Steam beer. “Steam” beer is made by fermentation at cellar temperature rather than near freezing as is the case with other beers. It is
made using only one type of malt–malted barley. It contains no corn, rice or other cereal grains as regular
beers normally do. The method of carbonation is entirely natural and involves a process known as Krausening. This process requires taking beer which has been completely fermented and adding to it beer which is still fermenting. This causes a second fermentation to occur. The Krausening process in beer corresponds closely to the “bulk process” in making some types of sparkling wines.

 

Yes, it would appear that the craft brewery license in California was originally intended for Steam Beer brewers. By the way, how about that description of Steam Beer brewing? Not bad for government work.

Today Anchor Steam is rightfully considered a premium beer, and there are a growing number of terrific examples of the California Common style. It is telling to me just how far we have come in our brewing practices, not just here in California, but globally. Surely there were inferior beers throughout the land in the 19th Century – hell, there’s plenty around today, even with all of our scientific and educational advances. That said, I am truly happy (as a fan of Anchor Steam and the California Common style) that through the bad years this style was able to make it. We no longer associate this beer with anything negative – in fact, this style is the foundation of the modern American craft beer movement. That right there, that says a whole hell of a lot.

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