Steaming Into the Thirties (Part II)

Can ale be Steam Beer?

In my Part I, I mentioned an earlier piece of mine, posted February 19, 2016, in which I linked and discussed Charles G. Kummerlander’s important 1903 description of steam beer. He presented it in Chicago at a brewing class held by the famous beer scientists Robert Wahl & Max Henius, but appears to have worked in California breweries.

Steam beer was also discussed by Wahl & Henius in their American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades. The reference is to their 1902 second edition.

The two accounts are the most detailed I know from the classic era of steam beer, but completeness requires mention of John Buchner’s 1898 account. See a summary by brewing historian Rich Wagner, here. The full original account by Buchner was reprinted in the c. 1900 text One Hundred Years of Brewing, here.

The accounts are similar while not identical, and end as complementary. As discussed earlier, I consider Anchor Steam Beer today substantially within the tradition they describe. The main divergence today is flash pasteurization of the beer before dispatch to the trade.

The one area I do not necessarily agree with these authorities, contemporary as they are, is their assignment of steam beer as solely bottom-fermented. Clearly they state this, indeed Wahl & Henius state that lager yeast is a special type of bottom yeast. Kummerlander simply states that steam beer yeast is “a bottom-fermenting yeast”, but that’s clear enough. Buchner ditto.

I find the area much less clear. To scientists and technical brewers after about 1900, classification was increasingly important, as of course today. Between 1850 and 1900 when steam beer was in ascendancy in California and still often made in rude conditions, e.g., without mechanical cooling of wort, such distinctions would have been less important.

As I referenced in Part I, the journal American Brewers Review in 1936 set out an objection of some brewers, via Arnold Wahl of Chicago, to top-fermented beer being excluded from the steam beer category in proposed federal legislation. From asserted practical knowledge he argued that in some states brewers had advertised a top-fermented beer as steam beer.*

It is trite in brewing history that “steam beer” and “steam brewery” were terms used in different countries, and different places within a country, often without any connection to true steam beer of any kind, and referred simply to steam power in the brewery, for example to fire the kettle.

I am referring here to top-fermented steam beer that quite possibly was steam beer proper. There are quite adequate markers to permit this: 1) Use of unusually shallow fermenters, also called clarifiers, to complete quickly (two-four days) the fermentation of wort transferred from conventionally deep starting tubs. 2) Continuation of fermentation at high pressure in the kegs sent to bars and saloons.

Given that all steam beer was warm-fermented, the character of steam beer made either with top or bottom yeast, that used the two processes mentioned, was probably difficult to tell apart in many cases. This surely made the question of classification academic to practical brewers.

(For those unclear on the distinction between regular lager and steam beer, this c.1915 article from the University of California may assist. From table following, drawn from the article, it can be seen how the usual steam beer (lager) yeast approximates fairly closely to typical ale pitching and fermentation temperatures. The maximum shown for steam beer is 66 F, fairly close to the low end of the range typically used for ale fermentation (68-72 F, or 20-22 C)).

Further, the proposed federal legislation allowed the possibility, not contested by the journal, that primary fermentation might finish in the kegs, versus that is adding krausen, or partly-fermented wort, to otherwise fully-fermented beer. This was a typical, old-fashioned way to brew ale, known in Britain as cleansing in trade casks – “trade”, the casks sent to the pubs for dispense. The common element is the beer is actively working at dispense to the pub patrons, with no prolonged keeping.

In fact the 1906 edition of  Wahl & Henius suggests Louisville common beer brewers were shifting to krausening in lieu of cleansing in trade casks, further evidence of their functional similarity.

What evidence, apart from the statement on behalf of professional brewers in the 1930s, do we have that top-fermented beer was advertised as steam beer in California or elsewhere on the West Coast, or in nearby states like Nevada? I exclude in other words the East Coast and Britain, where “steam beer” and “steam brewery” usually denoted (probably) a steam-driven process in the brewery.

First, John Buchner’s account in 1898 states that some writers characterized steam beer as top-fermented, although he disagrees. Second, in an article written in 2012 by a local historian in Northern California, Marilyn Geary, she explains the origins of a 19th century brewery in Marin, the San Rafael Brewery. She writes:

At various times the San Rafael Brewery advertised steam beer, both lager and ale, in bottles and kegs. Springs in the hillside property provided water to the brewery. According to Robert Lethbridge’s The Old Company, water mains laid from Clark Street to Greenwood Avenue reached the brewery in 1875.

Goerl family members recall that when the supply of hops ran low, the brewers substituted the plant Yerba Santa, Eriodictyon californicum, a shrub used for many purposes by the Miwok Indians and given the name Yerba Santa, meaning ‘holy plant’ by the Spanish explorers

Giving her first statement its plain English meaning, it seems this brewery made both lager and ale versions of its steam beer. I have not found the ads that support the statement, but her meaning seems clear.** (Her second statement is of good interest too, for other reasons).

Now, assuming as surely was the case San Rafael Brewery made bottom-fermented steam beer – more or less what Anchor Brewery makes in San Francisco today – why would it call a top-fermented ale, steam beer? Why not call it simply ale, mild, pale, or whatever?  The only reason might be that processes peculiar to steam beer were used, namely the markers noted of shallow clarifiers and active fermentation in the kegs.

Those markers are consistent through the various descriptions I’ve seen in American brewing literature of steam beer. The one that is not, is yeast type.

A potential objection suggests itself, will the beer using top-yeast clarify in a shallow clarifier the same way as beer using lager yeast? Only practical experience can answer this, but from the various accounts, “dirt” and particles both rise from and fall in the wooden pans (about a foot high, the beer 7-8 inches). Perhaps top yeast would rise more, but then it could be simply skimmed off as the initial waste from steam lager yeast was.

The behaviour of yeast would depend on the specific strain as well, whether top or bottom yeast. It seems inconceivable to me that ale in steam breweries was not frequently brewed using the same equipment as for steam beer. We know that many breweries in California advertised steam beer, ale, and porter…

Over time, assumptions – “steam beer is lager fermented at warm temperatures”, “steam beer is lager fermented at warm-temperatures”, have a way of being self-justifying, until one looks at it differently…

I will return to the Goerls, specifically George F., in my Part III. He played a key role in California brewing long after the family brewery in San Rafael was sold to English investors in 1905. And it involved steam beer, and it didn’t.

For a continuation of this post that validates steam beer as alternatively top-fermented, see here.

Note: all images or quotations in this series were sourced from the historical newspaper, historical brewers’ journal, or other source as identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Arnold Wahl was son of Robert Wahl, co-author of the Handy Book mentioned. Father and son issued a major study of American beer in the mid-30s, Beer From the Expert’s Viewpoint. It was reprinted some years ago but we do not currently have access. Robert died in 1937, and evidently his vast knowledge of pre-Prohibition learning was available to his son.

**Subject to verification from the original ads, but the issue remains nonetheless.





5 thoughts on “Steaming Into the Thirties (Part II)”

  1. On the point whether ale or porter can actually be fermented in shallow, steam beer clarifiers, it is fair to note that Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, the only survivor of the old-time West Coast steam brewers, does not use the clarifiers for these beers:

    However, this does not mean that top-yeast cannot work in a shallow fermenter of course, and some old-time steam breweries may still have used their clarifiers for ale or porter.

    Anchor’s practice may reflect different considerations such as efficiency, palate, etc.

  2. In the text, reference to John Buchner’s 1898 account of steam beer now added. Also, I address whether yeast clarification for ale would occur using typically shallow steam beer fermenters.

  3. I’ll mention here, as many might be thinking of too, Kentucky Common Ale, see in Wahl & Henius here:

    The authors themselves liken it to California Steam Beer yet it uses a top-fermentation yeast. The similarities come, we infer, from a quick fermentation which finishes in the trade cask, albeit Kentucky Common can have a lot of gas or less (depending when it is bunged, they state).

    Kentucky Common seems however not to use shallow clarifiers as steam beer does. Presumably this confers some character in contrast to a single fermentation in a deep tub transferred to trade casks to cleanse.

    Still, my overall point is, I think, strengthened by the link Wahl & Henius make between the two styles.Some top-fermented beer billed as steam beer in 1936 by Arnold Wahl (son of Robert who co-authored the Handy Book with Max Henius) may have been made like Kentucky Common Ale.

  4. Gary,
    It might be that the “steam beers” of the San Francisco area were first brewed with lager yeast. Then it’s possible that other brewers wanted to cash in on the popularity of steam beer and brewed using whatever yeasts and other processes that were at hand. Marketing considerations usually come first. The term ale on a label in the US doesn’t define the yeast used. In the 70s one small old-time brewer told me that they had started using lager yeast for their ale since the ale wasn’t brewed often enough for them to maintain their ale yeast culture. At that time, I think Schmidt, Genessee, and West End/Matt all had separate ale facilities. I’m not sure how (or even whether) they were used. One larger brewer called their own lager brewed ale product a “bastard ale”, and said almost all ales on the market used lager yeast.

    • Arnold, I agree that by the 1970s the older terminology had broken down and ale, especially in the United States, did not necessarily mean top-fermenting. (Or might have taken in a bottom yeast adapted to warm fermentation – I’m pretty sure I’ve read that latest studies suggest Sierra Nevada pale ale yeast, originally a Ballantine strain, may have started life as a bottom strain).

      However, while you may be right that California steam beer started as bottom-fermented, with later brewers using top-fermentation “cashing in”, we don’t really know. Top and bottom yeasts may have been used concurrently from the start in circa 1850. After all too, top yeast is relatively easy to culture, and should have been available from whiskey distilling or wine-making.

      One thing I didn’t mention too is, the abv of steam was definitely stronger than typical lager in the late 1800s. One source I read called it a “heavy” beer vs. lager, heavy meaning strong here.

      Top-fermentation achieves this too much more easily than bottom yeast…



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