what is steam beer

What is Steam Beer? Discover the Unique Charm of this Classic Brew

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Steam Beer is not to be confused with steampunk; it’s not a beer drunk by people dressed in futuristic goggles and top hats. So, what is steam beer? I’m going to talk about the origins of this American beer, its profile, and the brewery that brought it from the brink of death. So, strap in for a bumpy ride, heading all the way back to the time of the Gold Rush.

The Origins of Steam Beer

Steam beer, also known as California Common, has a fascinating history rooted in the American West during the 19th century. Its story begins in the bustling era of the California Gold Rush.

Birthplace and Early Days

The birthplace of steam beer is California, specifically San Francisco, where the Gold Rush attracted diverse settlers and entrepreneurs. Among these were European brewers, who brought their knowledge of beer-making. However, the traditional methods they were familiar with proved challenging due to the region’s lack of beer-making resources and climate. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Unlike Europe, where lager beers were brewed in cold cellars and caves, California’s warmer climate posed a significant problem for these brewers. Without access to refrigeration, they had to find a way to ferment their beer at higher temperatures. This necessity led to the birth of a new brewing style that combined the techniques of lager and ale brewing, giving rise to what we now know as steam beer.

The Name “Steam Beer”

The term “steam beer” is somewhat mysterious, with several theories explaining its origin. One popular theory is that the name comes from the steam observed rising from the open fermenters during brewing. These open fermenters, typically shallow and wide, allowed the beer to cool naturally in the cool San Francisco air, causing the hot wort to release steam.

Another theory suggests that the name “steam” referred to the beer’s high carbonation levels, which were higher than typical for the time. This characteristic fizz made the beer “steam” when poured into a glass. Despite the uncertainty of its exact origin, the name stuck and has become an integral part of its identity.

Adaptation and Innovation

Brewers had to adapt not only their techniques but also their ingredients. Traditional European hops and barley were not readily available, so they turned to local resources. This led to the use of local malts and hops, contributing to steam beer’s unique flavour profile. Using lager yeast at warmer fermentation temperatures gave the beer a distinctive taste, blending the crispness of a lager with the fruity and robust flavours typical of ales.

The invention of steam beer was a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the early California brewers. It became a popular choice among the working-class population, particularly the gold miners, who appreciated its refreshing qualities after a long day’s work (don’t we all).

The Decline and Revival

As brewing technology advanced and refrigeration became more widespread, the production of steam beer declined. By the mid-20th century, the style had almost disappeared, overshadowed by more modern brewing methods. However, the revival of interest in traditional and craft brewing brought steam beer back into the spotlight.

One of the key players in this revival was Anchor Brewing Company, which, under the leadership of Fritz Maytag in the 1960s, resurrected the style and brought it to a new generation of beer enthusiasts. Today, Anchor Steam Beer remains a flagship product, symbolising the historical significance and the enduring appeal of this unique American lager.

Characteristics of Steam Beer

Steam beer, or California Common, stands out in the beer world thanks to its unique blend of brewing techniques and regional influences. Let’s dive into the distinct characteristics that define this exceptional beer.

Taste Profile

Steam beer offers a complex and balanced flavour profile that’s truly distinctive. It’s known for its crispness, a hallmark of lager yeast, and the fruity and robust flavours typically associated with ales.

Maltiness: The beer has a rich, malty backbone, often featuring notes of caramel and toasty bread. This maltiness provides a solid foundation and contributes to its overall warmth and richness.

Hoppiness: Steam beer tends to have a moderate to assertive hop presence, thanks to the use of Northern Brewer hops. These hops impart a woody, minty, and slightly rustic bitterness that beautifully balances the malt sweetness.

Fruity Esters: Due to the warmer fermentation temperatures, steam beer often exhibits subtle fruity esters, such as hints of apple or pear. These esters add a layer of complexity to the flavour profile.


The appearance of steam beer is as inviting as its taste. Here’s what you can typically expect:

Colour: Steam beer generally ranges from a light amber to a deep copper hue. This colour comes from pale malts, with some variations incorporating darker malts for added depth.

Clarity: It usually boasts good clarity, a result of the lagering process, which allows sediments to settle, leaving a clear, bright beer.

Head: When poured, steam beer often forms a thick, creamy head that lingers, providing a delightful visual appeal and enhancing the drinking experience with a smooth, velvety mouthfeel.


The aroma of steam beer is a harmonious blend of malt, hops, and subtle esters. Here’s what you’ll typically notice:

Malt Aromas: Expect inviting scents of caramel, toasty bread, and sometimes a hint of biscuit. These malt aromas are warm and comforting.

Hop Aromas: The Northern Brewer hops contribute a distinct aromatic profile with earthy, woody, and sometimes slightly minty notes. This hop aroma complements the maltiness perfectly.

Fruity Esters: The warmer fermentation temperatures bring out subtle fruity esters, including apple, pear, or even a touch of banana. These esters add a pleasant complexity to the aroma.


The mouthfeel of steam beer is an essential part of its character. Here’s what you can expect:

Body: Steam beer typically has a medium body, which strikes a balance between being substantial and refreshing. It’s neither too heavy nor too light.

Carbonation: This beer is known for its higher carbonation levels, contributing to a lively and effervescent drinking experience. The bubbles enhance the flavours and aromas, making each sip more enjoyable.

Finish: The finish of steam beer is usually clean and crisp, thanks to the lager yeast, but with a lingering malt sweetness and a hint of hop bitterness. This balanced finish makes it incredibly drinkable and satisfying.

Anchor Brewing Company: The Pioneer of Steam Beer

When it comes to steam beer, one name stands out above all others: Anchor Brewing Company. This iconic brewery revived the historic steam beer style and played a pivotal role in shaping the American craft beer movement.

The Early Days of Anchor Brewing Company

Founded in 1896, Anchor Brewing Company is one of the oldest breweries in the United States. Located in San Francisco, it began as a small operation producing steam beer, a popular style among the working-class population during the California Gold Rush. However, like many breweries of the time, Anchor faced numerous challenges, including the devastating earthquake of 1906 and Prohibition, which nearly wiped out the American brewing industry.

What is steam beer: Anchor Steam Beer
Anchor Steam Beer

Revival Under Fritz Maytag

The real turning point for Anchor Brewing Company came in 1965 when Fritz Maytag, a Stanford University student, purchased a majority stake in the struggling brewery. At the time, Anchor was on the verge of closure, producing inconsistent and low-quality beer. Maytag’s passion for brewing and commitment to quality transformed Anchor into a beacon of the craft beer movement.

Maytag invested heavily in modernising the brewery and improving the brewing process. He focused on traditional methods and high-quality ingredients, ensuring each beer batch met stringent standards. Under his leadership, Anchor Brewing Company began to thrive, and its flagship product, Anchor Steam Beer, became a symbol of quality and innovation.

Innovation and Expansion

In addition to its flagship steam beer, Anchor Brewing Company has continued to innovate and expand its product line. The brewery produces a variety of beers, including ales, porters, and seasonal offerings, each crafted with the same attention to detail and commitment to quality.

Anchor’s innovations include:

  • Liberty Ale: Introduced in 1975, Liberty Ale was one of the first American beers to feature the now-famous Cascade hops, known for their floral and citrusy aroma. This beer is often credited with helping to popularise the use of American hops in craft brewing.
  • Old Foghorn Barleywine: Another pioneering product, Old Foghorn, introduced in 1975, was one of the first American barleywines, showcasing the brewery’s willingness to experiment with bold and robust styles.

Anchor Brewing Today

Today, Anchor Brewing Company remains a respected and influential player in the craft beer industry. Despite changes in ownership and the evolving beer landscape, Anchor continues to honour its roots while embracing innovation. The brewery’s commitment to quality and tradition ensures that Anchor Steam Beer and its other offerings remain beloved by beer enthusiasts worldwide.

Best Steam Beer to Try

Right, let’s get down to business. Now that you know the history, let’s throw a few beers for you to try for some homework. Here is a list of the best Steam Beers for you to sample.

  • Dorothy’s New World Lager 5% (Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.): Unfiltered lager mild in body, light in colour, and clean to taste. Noble hops. It is named for the founder’s grandmother.
  • Danker’s Team 6.4% (Cellarmarker Brewing Company): Danker’s Team is a supremely hoppy and hazy California Common, which sips reveal a sturdy maltiness not often seen in such a hazy offering.
  • Brumas 5.4% (ZalaZ): Made with malts and smoked with orange tree chips from pruning.
  • Californian 5.5% (Indigo Brewing Co.): Dark amber in colour, it brings notes of caramel and a balance between hops and malt in the flavour.

Let me know which one is your favourite steam beer!


Steam beer, or California Common, originated in 19th-century San Francisco during the Gold Rush. European settlers, lacking cold fermentation conditions, innovated by brewing with lager yeast at higher temperatures, leading to a beer that combines lager crispness with ale-like fruity flavours. Characterised by caramel maltiness, moderate hop bitterness, and subtle fruity esters, steam beer is medium-bodied with higher carbonation. Anchor Brewing Company, pivotal in the steam beer revival, was transformed in 1965 by Fritz Maytag, who modernised production and popularised the style, making Anchor Steam Beer a symbol of American brewing ingenuity.


What happened to Anchor Steam beer?

Anchor Steam Beer faced financial struggles due to increasing competition and changing consumer tastes. Despite its historic significance in San Francisco’s brewing scene, the company had to cease operations in 2023, marking the end of an era for this iconic craft beer.

How much alcohol is in Steam Beer?

Steam beer typically contains an alcohol content ranging from 4.5% to 5.5% by volume. This traditional brewing style balances moderate alcohol with a distinctive flavour.

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