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 continued in the business after beer was legalized nationally on April 7, 1933.  I will get to him soon, but first a gloss on my Part II.

I have written often about the lead-up to this re-legalization of beer. Bob Brown issued his arch Let There Be Beer in 1932. A brewing school was re-established in Chicago. Breweries that made .5% ABV near beer were being refurbished and reorganized in anticipation of beer becoming legal again.

Features in the press discussed beer as it was before Prohibition, examining old-time bars and saloons, the cultural practices associated with them – German-style beer gardens, music – and sometimes the kinds of beer consumed.

This journalism also looked at what shape the future bar would take, which old breweries would resume business, and what types of beer the public could expect would emerge.

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

But this piece delved into the technicalities of beer classification. It originated in the New York World-Telegram and was reprinted in other papers, here we see it in Indianapolis.

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

The duo evidently researched their subject matter carefully and probably consulted professional brewing circles. 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 Louisville (i.e., Kentucky) common beer – which was an ale – steam beer.

It also englobes present-use ale – the 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, these types of beer were considered of a piece. The shallow clarifiers of California practice were not mentioned. The common elements are a warm, hence quick fermentation and an actively fermenting, especially lively product at dispense.

Of course, classification narrows and widens with the context and purposes of the writer. Still, to flat out call Kentucky common beer steam beer, is significant.

California Common is the name used today to describe the steam beer style speaking generically. This arises in that Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has trademarked the term “steam beer”. So when other brewers make the style, they call it California common instead of steam beer.

When the term emerged many thought it strange that an unappealing name was chosen to describe an early star of craft brewing. Clearly though, the term had an older history. It probably was suggested by a brewer, or writer, who knew the older classifications of American brewing. Voilà.

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 before krausening stopped at only 50%. Even well-hopped beer would seem less bitter with that degree of residual extract.


*This class of beer must be distinguished from the type of ale, often called sparkling or cold sparkling, that blended krausen with a matured, still ale. The latter would have a mature character lacking in cream or lively ale strictly called. The term present use was used to describe both kinds depending on author and context.

See for Part III to this series, here.