Steaming Into the Thirties (Part II, cont’d)

The Top-Fermented Steam Beer of Kentucky

This part was to deal with a pre-Prohibition brewer, George F. Goerl, who resumed business after brewing was legalized nationally on April 7, 1933.  I will get to him soon, but first want to expand on my Part II.

I have written often about the lead-up to the re-legalization of beer. Harbingers included author Bob Brown’s arch Let There Be Beer in 1932. A brewing academy was re-established in Chicago, and breweries that made .5% ABV near beer were refurbished and reorganized in anticipation of beer becoming legal again.



Features in the press discussed the beer scene before Prohibition, examining old-time bars and saloons and cultural practices associated with them. German-style beer gardens, music, and sometimes the kinds of beer consumed were all fodder for these pieces.

This journalism looked at what shape the future tavern would take, which of the old breweries might resume business, and the types of beer the public could expect from the new brewing.

This article in August 1932 is the most detailed I have seen for its description of pre-Prohibition beer types. Generally, the everyday press was not over-technical for such matters. By nature, the general media are like that, even today.

But the 1932 piece delved into the technicalities of beer classification. The article originated in the New York World-Telegram and was reprinted in other cities, here we see it in Indianapolis.

The authors were Joseph Mitchell and William O’Brien. Mitchell is the well-known journalist who later immortalized McSorley’s tavern in New Yorker magazine. In the 1932 article, he showed an early interest in beer.



The writing duo evidently researched their subject carefully and probably consulted professionals in the field. On the subject of steam beer, they make a very interesting statement:

Steam beer, a sweet and lively product with only a trace of bitter hop flavor, was popular in San Francisco and Louisville before prohibition. Also known as “common” or “present-use” beer, it was bottled or placed on tap almost as soon as it was made.

This wording echoes, and validates my reasoning that steam beer could be top-fermenting. It goes so far to call Kentucky common beer – which was an ale – steam beer. That is how I read it anyway, as, apart the mention of Louisville, “common” was never a term typically applied to lager.

As one of many examples, see for example the wording in this 1860s ad. But there was common ale and, especially in the pre-lager era (before about 1840), common beer, both top-fermented.

The statement takes in present-use ale. a term that meant lively or cream ales. These were warm-fermented and krausened, either with ale wort or sometimes lager-wort, as I’ve discussed earlier. The journalistic formulation for such live beer is “bottled or placed on tap as soon as it is made”.*

This shows that in practical brewing, all these types were considered of a piece. The shallow clarifier pans of California practice are not mentioned. The elements common to each are a warm, therefore quick fermentation and an actively fermenting, especially lively product when tapped.

Certainly, classification narrows and widens with the context and purposes of the writer, but to flat out call Kentucky common beer steam beer tells us something. Even a curious layman couldn’t make this up; it had to come from consultations they made.

California Common is the name used today to describe the steam beer style, speaking generically. This arose in that Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has trademarked the term “steam beer”. So when other brewers make the style, they cannot call it steam beer but use the term California common.

A term historically associated with ale-brewing became attached finally to a lager beer, and for good reason given the connections mentioned.

N.B. “Sweet” may seem an odd term for steam or California common beer, but fermentation limits could be restrained in the old days. One of the c. 1900 treatments of steam beer I mentioned stated that fermentation prior to krausening stopped at only 50%. Even well-hopped beer would seem less bitter with that degree of residual extract.

For Part III see here.


*This class must be distinguished from the ale, often called sparkling or cold sparkling, that blended krausen with a matured, still ale. The latter had a mature character lacking in cream or lively ale strictly so-called, but “present-use” sometimes was used to mean either.


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