There is only one Steam Beer. It’s been brewed and bottled since 1971 in San Francisco, CA by Anchor Brewing Company, a modern tribute to the Anchor Steam of the late 1800’s. Anchor trademarked Steam and protects it vigorously. Normally, that wouldn’t sit well with me, but Anchor is a legend, dating back to 1896. If they want to make the only Steam beer in the world, more power to them. And that’s why we call all others in the style California Common.
A young Fritz Maytag, of the washer & dryer Maytags, bought the nearly dead company in 1965. You could argue the craft beer revolution wouldn’t be what it was today without Fritz and Anchor. May tag was influential and supportive of early pioneers like New Albion and Sierra Nevada.
There are a couple stories about where the “Steam” moniker came from, some truer than others. The commonly accepted tradition is that the warm beer in open cooling tanks generated a lot of steam in the cool air flowing in off San Francisco Bay. Anchor still brews this way, cooling Steam Beer in shallow open air tanks, just another way this beer is truly unique.
Steam beer is uniquely American, not easily classified as an Ale or Lager. Steam is a hybrid, it is fermented at Ale temperatures with a Lager yeast. For simplicity sake, the difference is Ale yeast like to be 68 degrees, while Lager yeast prefer 45. The warmer temperatures bring out fruity esters not usually found in Lagers, yet it’s still a clean beer and not too fruity. If you could compare Steam to any style, it most closely resembles American Ambers, the hop bitterness and caramelly malt are there, but the yeast characters are different
Steam beers have a variety of flavors to satisfy everyone. You’ll notice a bit of fruitiness, toasty caramel malts and woodsy, evergreen mint hop bitterness. California Commons are a rich amber to coppery red, with an SRM* of 10-14. The hop bitterness features the woody, minty flavors or Northern Brewer hops. Bitterness is noticeable, but the beer is well balanced. IBUs* range from 30-45, but the malt is big enough to balance the beer. You can enjoy a few Steam beers with dinner, at 4.5-5.5% ABV* you won’t get too tipsy.
The prototypical beer of the style is of course Anchor Steam Beer. Everyone else is lovingly paying tribute to this unique beer. There aren’t too many versions easily available, and most are named as to not infringe upon Anchor’s trademark. Southern Tier brewed an “Imperial” version, the 2X Steam at 8% ABV. Many consider Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager a California Common. Interestingly, neither beer is on the brewery’s website. In Nashville we have Little Harpeth’s Upstream San Francisco Lager. You can find a lot of California Common beers listed online, but finding them in a bar or bottle shop might be a bit difficult. Good thing you can find Anchor Steam just about everywhere.
Keep in mind Steam’s hop bitterness and caramelly malt when pairing foods. Foods that go well with American Amber Ale will work just as well. The char of grilled meats will pair well with the caramel and toasty flavors of the beer. Steam beer also goes great with spicy foods like Thai and Mexican.
There is no specific glass for Steam beer, but any glass for American ales will be fine, a good choice is the Spiegelau Lager Glass. And while I say this every time, I mean it; everything tastes great in a tulip glass.
*Standard Reference Method (color)
*International Bitterness Units (hop alpha-acid utilization)
*Alcohol by Volume
All quantitative specifications are from the BJCP Style Guide