Steaming Into the Thirties (Part V)

In this post, I want to highlight an early description – 1880 – of steam beer. It appeared that year on January 31 in the Eugene City Guardian. It was a reprint of an article in the Daily Evening Telegram of Portland.

This is well before John Buchner’s account of 1898, Wahl & Henius’s of 1902 in their landmark Handy Book, and Charles G. Kummerlander’s* the next year (all of which I mentioned earlier). While not completely consistent, the latter paint a picture of quick-production beer, fermented warmer than is typical for lager but using bottom yeast, clarified in shallow pans, and krausened to produce a strong carbonation. No ice or other cooling is used in fermentation and no long aging as for conventional lager.

I’ve argued that some brewers used top-fermentation to make a similar product. See Part IV yesterday where an ad of Mason’s Steam Brewery in Oregon City in 1869 arguably showed a “steam ale” among other ale types and a porter.

The distant time and long disappearance of early steam beer breweries make it difficult to determine who began the tradition. 100 Years of Brewing (1903) sets out a general account that states some names for California and Oregon, see here.

Modern writers such as Ray Daniels have added some details, but in general the origins are somewhat misty. One reads, as in 100 Years of Brewing, alternately of both lager and steam beer production for these early breweries. I think some was not really steam beer because an attempt was made to age it. Some for example was brewed in the colder parts of the year, depending on location, and fermented at correct lager fermentation temperatures.

Some early lager probably was steam beer although not consistently called that until a later period. Steam beer was a cant term that, as for all such terms, took time to become generalized.**

But what more can we learn about early steam beer? The context in 1880 was an interview with the owner of Gambrinus Brewery in Portland, Louis Feurer, a lager-maker who vaunted his use of ice. 100 Years of Brewing states Feurer started in 1877 with steam beer; other sources ascribe an 1875 start date.

Feurer had switched to use of ice to make what he called genuine lager. Steam beer is not referred to by that name, but rather “the California Process”. He terms it a “hot” beer, referring evidently to the warm fermentation, and claims it originated in the making of spruce beer. The latter is the first I’ve read of such a connection, and probably simply was meant to suggest a fast, warm fermentation.

Feurer does not state that California process beer does not use lager yeast. I suspect in fact he used the same yeast once he adopted ice and conventional aging, but can’t be sure of course.

Feurer does refer to the strong carbonation factor, clearly from krausening, and considered the product of inferior taste. Probably he was suggesting that steam beer was “green”, perhaps from dimethyl sulphide, and/or lack of cold aging.

It’s an early account, not nearly as detailed as those of 20 years later, but still notable for its early date and, in the essentials, accurate description of a distinct style.

See our Part VI, in this series, 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.

*See also a discussion of this source by Mike Retzlaff in The Hopline, a newsletter of the Crescent City Homebrewers, here (May 2015). This only recently came to my attention.

**Other terms for what was probably steam beer in early California news accounts or advertisements included California beer or common California beer. Such malt beer must be distinguished from a non-commercial product also called California beer, made from a native hominy-like seed, also called “chia”, or maize-type beer.


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