What is a Steam Beer (or California Common)? Tasting Notes, History, Examples

I lived in San Francisco for many years back in the ’90s and one of my favorite beers while I was there was Anchor Steam. While I was there I just thought it was a good beer, and local (I always try to drink local beers no matter where I am). It wasn’t until after I left San Francisco that I realized what a unique and storied beer it was.

So, what is a Steam Beer or California Common?

Steam beer is a style of beer originating in California during the gold rush. They are generally clear and crisp like a lager, but also full-bodied like an ale. The taste is toasty and malty but with a fairly aggressive hoppiness and carbonation. The brewing process is unique as it uses lager yeast but brewed at warmer ale temperatures.

Tasting Notes for Steam Beer

One of the first steps in tasting a beer is to classify its style so you have some idea of what to expect. This classification would begin with deciding if a beer is an ale or a lager (see Differences Between an Ale and a Lager).

The steam beer or California Common is very difficult to categorize as an ale or a lager as it is fermented warm (like an ale) but uses bottom-fermenting lager yeast. This puts the beer in the Hybrid category of styles and thus difficult to compare to other beers.

The second you drink a steam beer you will notice a real toasty/malty essence, with a fairly aggressive hoppiness in flavor and aroma and a fair amount of carbonation. They are generally clear and crisp like a lager, but also full-bodied like an ale. It is this contrast in taste and style that makes the steam beer so unique and wonderful.

Brewing process for Steam Beer

Most historians claim that the brewing of steam beer was more a creature of necessity than a well thought out “style”. The first brewers that came to California lacked the supplies and tools to brew most types of beer and hence had to improvise as best as they could.

As lagers were very popular at the time, they wanted to brew them but lacked the tools for cold fermentation. Therefore, they created a brewing process that used a lager yeast (bottom fermentation) but fermented at ale (top fermentation) temperatures.

The fermentation is done in long shallow vessels called “clarifiers” or “coolships” as a way to compensate for the lack of refrigeration (which is usually needed for lagers) This was followed by a period of warm conditioning or “krausening”. This warming, more like boiling, also helped to kill off any bacteria. The beer was also highly hopped to prevent spoilage, much like the IPA (India Pale Ale).

In brewing competition, it is judged in the California Common category and is “narrowly defined around the prototypical Anchor Steam example, although allowing other typical ingredients of the era.”

History of Steam Beer

The steam beer, or California Common, is an American original and was first produced in California during the gold rush (late 19th Century). The style of beer is very much tied to the west coast and in particular San Francisco.

At its height, this style of beer was brewed by as many as 27 different breweries in California. Today, “steam beer” is a trademarked term, and can only be brewed under that name by Anchor Steam Brewing Co. in San Francisco, CA. Other brewers now use the name “California Common” for this style.

While no one is 100% certain on the origin of the name steam beer, it seems to have a few plausible explanations.

On one hand, it may have come from the “hissing” sound that this beer made during the heated fermentation process. On the other hand, and more likely in my opinion, the warm conditioning created a highly carbonated brew and when a new barrel was tapped it caused a hiss or spray when opened.

Of further note, Anchor Brewing claims that the name “steam beer” came from the steam that emanated from the roof of their brewery. Apparently, they had no way to cool the hot wort during the brewing process, so they pumped it up to the roof and let the cool San Francisco air do the job of cooling. Thus steam was often seen rising from the top of the brewery.

It is also interesting to note that there are references to steam beer in the literature of the 1890’s and early 1900’s, where it was clearly referred to as a lower quality and cheaper type of beer. In Frank Norris’ 1899 novel “McTeague” there is a reference to the main character being made more “civilized” by his new wife:

“She broke him of the habit of eating with his knife, she caused him to substitute bottled beer in the place of steam beer, and she induced him to take off his hat to Miss Baker, to Heise’s wife, and to the other women of his acquaintance. ”

Examples of Steam Beer

Steamworks Brewing Co – Steam Engine Lager

From the website – “Brewed in the California Common style, this is an American classic noted for its malt sweetness and hop spice with a smooth, dry finish.”

Bauhaus Brew Labs – Wagon Party

From the website – “Fermented with lager yeast at higher ale temperatures, this beer is an homage to an American beer style that emerged during the California Gold Rush. Its firm, grainy maltiness and hoppy aromas of tangerine, apricot and citrus will make you want to party like it’s 1849.”

And of course…

Anchor Steam Beer

Of course, the most popular example is Anchor Steam beer. I will admit that I am very biased when it comes to this beer as I spent over 5 years living in San Francisco and Anchor Steam was one of my stables while there. It is difficult to know how true to the traditional steam beer that Anchor Steam is as most other brewers really stopped making this style at one time. However, I will say that it remains one of my favorite beers today and is usually the example that other California Commons are compared. It is crisp and clean like a lager but has much more flavor and body like an ale. A great choice if you don’t know which type of beer you really want.

Text from the Anchor Steam bottle:

San Francisco’s famous Anchor Steam®, the classic of American brewing tradition since 1896, is virtually handmade, with an exceptional respect for the ancient art of brewing. The deep amber color, thick creamy head, and rich flavor all testify to our traditional brewing methods.

Anchor Steam is unique, for our brewing process has evolved over many decades and is like no other in the world. Anchor Steam derives its unusual name from the 19th century when “steam” seems to have been a nickname for beer brewed on the West Coast of America under primitive conditions and without ice. The brewing methods of those days are a mystery and, although there are many theories, no one can say with certainty why the word “steam” came to be associated with beer.

For many decades Anchor alone has used this quaint name for its unique beer. In modern times, “Steam” has become a trademark of Anchor Brewing.

Comments on this post are closed as of September 2020. Existing comments are preserved for informational purposes.
LANCE RUTTLEDGEFEBRUARY 6, 2010 AT 4:42 PMIf you have any info on the “Calif.Brewing comp.” of San Francisco I would love to have it. The owner was my great gr.father and I know nothing other than I have a silver cup presented to him for the best draft horses in 1909.Thank you and yes I love steam beer.
LAWRENCE TKACMAY 21, 2013 AT 1:05 PMMy take on Steam beer is a little different approach.I believe they had all the skill and tools to produce the same beer they had been brewing in the old country .Cooling the beer on the upper floor in large cool ships was how it was done in Europe.The yeast would have been what they were using in Germany, ale yeast lager-yeast is a mutation of ale yeast .They didn t need ice to brew ale no lager here .Commercial lager brewing was just underway at this time infact true larger yeast was not isolated on till 1880 s.By the 1900 s things might have changed a lot since 1849 but I believe they were content with the conditions in California.No mystery here in the naming of it but not in how it was made .
GHOSTMARCH 31, 2020 AT 8:08 PMI too lived in San Fran and i thought the Anchor Steam you got at the brewery was SOOO much better than the bottled beer. It is a great beer but it is absolutely amazing on draught at the brewery itself.