Introducing the California Uncommon - our Imperial Steam beer. Steam beer may be defined as a highly effervescent beer made by brewing lager yeasts at ale fermentation temperatures. It has two distinct but related meanings:
- Historic steam beer produced in California from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s;
- Modern California Common beer, the official name for the beer family which includes Anchor Steam beer.
Historic steam beer, associated with San Francisco & and the U.S. West Coast, was brewed with lager yeast without the use of refrigeration. It was an improvised process, originating out of necessity, perhaps as early as the Gold Rush. It was considered a cheap & low-quality beer as shown by references to it in literature of the 1890s & 1900s.
Modern steam beer, properly known in the brewing community as California common beer, was originated by Anchor Brewing Company, which trademarked the name Anchor Steam beer in 1981. Although the modern company has corporate continuity with a small brewery which was still making traditional steam beer in the 1950s, Anchor Steam is a craft-brewed lager. The company does not claim any close similarity between it and turn-of-the-century steam beer.
Explanations of the word "steam" are all speculative. The carbon dioxide pressure produced by the process was very high, and one possibility is that it was necessary to let off "steam" before attempting to dispense the beer. According to Anchor Brewing, the name "steam" came from the fact that the brewery had no effective way to chill the boiling wort using traditional means. So they pumped the hot wort up to the large, shallow, open-top bins on the roof of the brewery so that it would be rapidly chilled by the cool air blowing in off the Pacific Ocean. Thus, while brewing, the brewery had a distinct cloud of steam around the roof let off by the wort as it cooled, providing basis for the name. It is also possible that the name derives from "Dampfbier" (literally "steam beer"), a traditional German ale that was also fermented at unusually high temperatures and that may have been known to 19th-century American brewers, many of whom were of German descent.
In 19th-century California, not only ice, but even sources of naturally cold water, were probably unavailable to brewers. California brewers were forced to use lager yeast at higher ale temperatures.
Final flavors of beer are influenced by the strain of yeast and fermentation temperature. Lager yeast is best used at temperatures from 55°F down to 32°F. Classic lagering of beers takes place over a period of time from weeks to many months at a temperature of 45°F. Lager yeasts are bottom fermenting, which is to say that they ferment the wort while sitting on the bottom of the fermenter.
Ale yeast is best used at temperatures from 55°F to 75°F. Fermentation by ale yeasts produces a beer that has a distinctive ale flavor. Ale yeasts are top fermenting, in that they settle out on top of the wort after fermenting. Steam beer uses bottom fermenting lager yeasts at ale temperatures, which results in a very distinct flavor profile that includes both ale & lager characteristics.
While Steam beer is considered a specialty microbrew style of beer today, it was originally a cheap beer made for blue collar workers. Wahl & Heinus’s American Handy Book of Brewing and Malting (1902) describes California steam beer as "a very clear, refreshing drink much consumed by the laboring classes." And while Anchor Steam is an all barley malt beer, additives were often used in the earlier days. According to the book, "malt alone, malt and grits,or raw cereals of any kind, and sugars, especially glucose, employed in the kettle to the extent of 33%... Roasted malt or sugar coloring is used to give the favorite amber color of Munich beer."
So...you take all of that and double it, and you have Imperial Steam Beer!
Malt - 90% Pale, 5% Crystal, 5% Munich
Hops - 75% Northern Brewer, 25% Cascade
Fermented at 18°C (64.4°F) with McCoy’s house lager yeast
OG: 23.3 Plato
AbbeyRoade (437) - Missouri, USA - MAR 4, 2013
1.3 AROMA 2/10 APPEARANCE 3/5 TASTE 2/10 PALATE 2/5 OVERALL 4/20
Too grassy and hoppy for my tastes. A bit of carbonation and not the nice, smooth, easily drinkable beer I was hoping for. Mild yellow color. Hardly any aroma. Left no lacing.
ryanfolty (2017) - Bourbon County, Minnesota, USA - FEB 27, 2013
2.8 AROMA 6/10 APPEARANCE 2/5 TASTE 6/10 PALATE 3/5 OVERALL 11/20
February 27, 2013 - tap at Foundry. Clear bronze or copper pour with no head. Malty and yeasty aroma and taste. Light to medium body and slight carbonation.
BelgianBeerGal (3331) - Panama City, Florida, USA - FEB 5, 2011
3.3 AROMA 6/10 APPEARANCE 4/5 TASTE 7/10 PALATE 4/5 OVERALL 12/20
Draft at Beer Kitchen. Clear copper color with a white head and lacing. Nice carbonation. Light, sweet aroma blended with green hops. Clean, malt flavor at first, then some flat bitterness and finishes with sweetness again. Nice common I suppose but I’m no expert on the style.
theisti (3414) - Leawood, Kansas, USA - NOV 23, 2009
3.3 AROMA 7/10 APPEARANCE 4/5 TASTE 6/10 PALATE 2/5 OVERALL 14/20
Approximately 5 oz sample pour at the brewpub in Kansas City, Missouri. Pour is copper brown, mostly clear with an off white head. Aroma of grassy malt, and a touch of earthy hops. A bit subdued on the nose. Taste is initially really big boozy grainy malt and the earthy grassy hops, evening out a bit as it warms and finishing to a nice nutty roastiness that balances out the big booze and sharpness at the start. Palate is on the light side of medium, and really sharply boozy. I respect the effort here, its well made - just not sure if I am into dragging a California common to this heft, but it is interesting.
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