Of hybrids and transitions

Everyone who reads my blog knows by now that beer is either an ale or a lager. Right? Ales are fermented warm with a top-feeding yeast strain. Lagers are fermented cool to cold with a bottom-feeding strain. And then there’s that asterisk. There are, in fact, several styles of beer which do not fall neatly into one of the two basic categories. Among those are Steam Beers and Cream Ales. Very generally and broadly described, Steam Beers (aka California Common Ales) are fermented using a lager yeast but at more ale-like temperatures; Cream Ales are often just the opposite, using an ale yeast but at cooler, even cold, fermenting temperatures. Some Cream Ales are reputed to use a blend of ale and lager yeasts. These two hybrids bear some resemblance to Kölsch and Altbier, just to muddy the wort a little further…

We are in that time of year, here in Vermont, where the weather is a bit of a hybrid as well. Cold nights followed by warmer sunny days make it hard to plan the right brew. It is too warm yet to start brewing the lagers that will occupy my winter brew-days, but cold enough to be tempted… Today’s brew session was planned as my last ale, with next week starting off the lagering season. In that spirit, I decided to brew not only a transitional hybrid beer but a hybrid of a hybrid, a variation on a combination of two beer styles. Blending the recipes for a traditional Cream Ale and a clone of Anchor Steam, using both yeasts in tandem, and adding a few ounces of Carafa malt to deepen the color, I present a Red Cream Steam Beer…

Asterix Ale

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 7 lbs. pilsner malt
  • 1/2 lb. 30°L crystal malt
  • 1/2 lb. cara-pils malt
  • 4 ounces Carafa I malt
  • 1 lb. flaked maize
  • 1 oz. Northern Brewer hop pellets (@12.3% aa)
  • 1 oz. Perle hop pellets (@8% aa)
  • Wyeast California Lager yeast (2112)
  • White Labs Cream Ale blend (WLP080)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure: Crush malts. Heat 13 quarts water to 165°F. Mash in crushed grains and maize, hold at 154°F for 60 minutes. Heat another 15 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 26 quarts sweet wort. Bring to a boil. Add 1/2 oz. Northern Brewer hops, boil 30 minutes. Add Perle hops, boil 25 minutes. Add remaining Norther Brewer hops, boil 5 minutes (60 total) and remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pitch both yeast cultures, seal and ferment cool (55 – 60°F) for eight to ten days. Rack to secondary, age cooler (50°F) for ten to twelve days. Prime with corn sugar and bottle. Condition cool (45°F) for ten to twelve days.

OG: 1054

IBU’s: 88

Steamin’ Up The Kitchen…

I remember very well my first taste of Anchor Steam. I was in grad school, living in grad student housing. In the basement of our tower, there was the GCB – the Graduate Center Bar. A little hole in the wall, with a pool table, two or three pinball machines, a dartboard. Neon beer lights, and a bar with about eight stools. Six or seven tables scattered around what had most likely been a storage room not many years before. Spartan, simple, and yet… My friend Paul and I went down once or twice a week, when we had any money, to shoot a game of pool and have a beer. To pretend we were not stressed-out grad students for an hour, pretend we had lives other than the books. The bar featured a few beers I had never tried before. I think they catered to the tastes of the regulars, most of whom seemed to be from other parts of the country. I think I remember seeing a list that included Red Stripe, Sierra Nevada, Shiner Bock, Negra Modelo… and Anchor Steam. This was in the mid-80’s, so pickings were much slimmer than they are now. Anchor was a revelation. The crisp bready flavor of the golden malt balanced by an assertive hoppy nose, the smoothness of a lager with the intensity of an ale  – I am judging all this in retrospect, with almost 30 years of brewing, tasting and evaluating experience… At the time I probably just thought, hmm, this is really good.

When I began homebrewing, Anchor Steam was one of my first attempts at cloning. I have brewed something like this a dozen or more times, each time a little differently. I have had some success – in fact, I think the best beer I ever brewed was my first all-grain try at it. I have also had some not-quite-drinkable/not-quite-dumpable results…

There are two key ingredients that are a must in brewing this beer. It must be hopped primarily with Northern Brewer, and you must use a similar warm-tolerant lager yeast. Also key is the temperature – warm initial fermentation (lots of CO2 production, hence the “steam” reference), followed by very cool aging and conditioning.

Anchor Steam Clone

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 10 lbs. Munton’s lager malt
  • 1 lb. Weyermann Cara-hell malt
  • 1/2 oz. East Kent Goldings hop pellets (@ 5.0% aa)
  • 1 oz. Northern Brewer hop pellets (@10.6% aa)
  • White Labs San Francisco Lager yeast (WLP810)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)


Crack grains. Heat 14 quarts water to 165°F. Mash in grains and hold at 152°F for 60 minutes. Heat another 13 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 25 quarts sweet wort. If volume is low, add water to kettle. Bring to boil and add the EKG hops and 1/4 oz. of the Northern Brewer. Boil 30 minutes, add 1/2 oz. Northern Brewer. After 15 more minutes, add last 1/4 oz. Northern Brewer. Boil 15 more minutes (60 total) and remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading, and pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch SF Lager yeast, seal and ferment at 65 – 70°F for eight to ten days. Rack to secondary, age cool (45 – 50°F) for two weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition two weeks at 45°F.

OG: 1055

IBU’s: 37.7

Note on style: Beer historians usually describe this style as a “necessary invention”. During the California Gold Rush days, long before refrigeration, brewers making beer for the miners and those who accompanied them used a lager yeast but couldn’t keep the fermenting beer cold. Others claim that the first Steam beers may have been made with the equivalent of a sourdough yeast. Either way, it is a hybrid, with an ale-like malt and hop profile but lager-like conditioning. The last of many breweries at one time producing this style, also known as California Common Beer, Anchor Steam nearly went out of business in the 60’s before Fritz Maytag (heir to the appliance fortune) bought it, revived it and made it a very profitable brewery.

Note on yeast: I love this WLP810 yeast – not only for Steam beer but it can be used for almost any lager style when you can’t be sure of colder temperatures. It is understood that White Labs’ culture comes from Anchor themselves, so you can’t choose a more authentic yeast for this recipe.

Note on this version: I brewed this a little bit stronger than usual, a “standard-strength version” would have had only 8 to 8-1/2 lbs. of the lager malt in the mash. The addition of a small quantity of Goldings hops at the beginning of the boil was the idea of Greg Noonan, who felt that it needed another hop for complexity, even if at a barely noticeable level.

Extract-based version: Steep 1/2 lb. each toasted pale malt and light crystal (or cara-pils) in 3 gallons of cold water. Bring gradually up to 170°F (over 30 – 45 minutes), remove grains. Continue heating to boiling, add 6.6 lbs. light malt extract syrup (or 5.25 lbs. light dry malt extract). Stir well to avoid scorching on the bottom. When boil resumes, add 1/2 oz. Northern Brewer hop pellets. Boil 30 minutes, add 1/4 oz. Northern Brewer pellets. After another 15 minutes, add 1/4 oz. Northern Brewer. Boil another 15 minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Chill, add to sanitized fermenter along with enough chilled pre-boiled water to make up 5.25 gallons. Take a hydrometer reading and pitch yeast (White Labs WLP810 or a dry lager yeast). Ferment/condition as above.

It’s About The Beer

When my friend Walter won the Brewmaster’s Cup at the Greg Noonan Memorial Homebrew Competition in May (see my early May post), earning the right to have his Vienna Lager brewed at the Vermont Pub & Brewery, it set off a chain of memories both personal and beer-related. In the eight years or so that I worked with Greg at the Seven Barrel Brewery, I shed many of my beer prejudices and learned to appreciate a variety of styles and a number of variations on those styles. As Greg frequently said, “It’s about the beer”, which meant a couple different things to Greg – it’s about appreciating the beer, for what it is, in light of how it was brewed, and how it fits in traditions. But also how it moves the idea of beer forward – a new version of a classic style, while it may “offend” a purist, may also open a door to a really interesting new beer. There has been a lot of talk lately about “Black IPA” or Cascadian Dark Ales, including on this blog. In the back of my mind, I knew this, but it took a friendly email from Patrick Dakin, a brewer who also is somewhat of a Greg Noonan disciple, to remind me that in fact, the first “black IPA” many of us ever heard of was brewed by Greg, at the VPB and at the 7BB. The first of its kind, anywhere? I can’t say for sure, but it was certainly my first.

I often ask myself, what would Greg brew? Last week I looked through the Seven Barrel Brewery Brewers’ Handbook, trying to decide what to brew next, and realized that I had never brewed a Cream Ale, at least not since moving to all-grain brewing. I flipped the 7BBBH open to Greg’s recipe for the Ottaqueechie Cream Ale, and another memory came up, that of sitting with Greg and head brewer Paul White at the bar at Seven Barrel, comparing Kölsch, Steam Beers and Cream Ales. Greg said, over and over, that you could basically brew all three with the same yeast and change the fermentation temperatures, or you could brew all three with the same grain bill and vary only the yeast, or you could brew them all as completely different beers. That was what was great about working with Greg – he would frequently throw the rules and expectations out the window and start over, inventing a new beer style, just for fun; but he could also nail a classic traditional beer style, devising a recipe on the back of a beer coaster, and could quote the Lovibond ratings for the grains and SRM values of the wort, the AAU’s and IBU’s of the hops, the attenuation and flocculation rates of the yeast, time and temperature limits, etc. etc. etc. For Greg, it was always about the beer. There are many of us who are grateful for that.

First Branch Cream Ale

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 7 lbs. Weyermann lager malt
  • 14 oz. carapils malt
  • 1 lb. flaked maize
  • 2.35 HBU’s Mt. Hood hop pellets (1/2 oz. @ 4.7% aa)
  • 2.1 HBU’s Perle hop pellets (1/4 oz. @ 8.3% aa)
  • 2.1 HBU’s Perle hop pellets (1/4 oz. @ 8.3% aa)
  • White Labs European Ale Yeast (WLP011)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar for priming

Procedure: Crush lager and carapils malts. Heat 13 quarts water to 164°F. Mash in crushed grains and maize, hold at 152°F for 60 minutes. Heat another 13 quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 24 quarts sweet wort. Heat to boiling, add Mt. Hood hops. Boil 30 minutes, add first Perle hops. Boil 30 more minutes, add second Perle hops. Boil 15 more minutes (75 total), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading, pitch yeast. Seal and ferment cool (65 – 68°F) for ten days or so, rack to secondary. Age cooler (50 – 55°F) or cold (38 – 40°F) if you can, for ten to fourteen days. Prime and bottle, condition very cool (40 – 45°F) for two weeks.

OG: 1055

IBU’s: 21.6

Notes on style: I have always thought of Cream Ale as the opposite of a Steam Beer. Steam Beers are lagers, brewed at more of an ale temperature. Cream Ales are, as the name implies, ales, but generally fermented cool like a lager. I’ve also heard of brewers who blended batches of light lager and light ale. As I mentioned above, Greg Noonan believed, and rightly so, that you could brew this beer in a number of different ways, with a number of different yeasts. See the note below on yeast. The BJCP guidelines describe Cream Ale as “a clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American lawnmower beer.” This one is a bit bigger than the standard recipe, and ever-so-slightly more bitter.

Notes on yeast: I considered several different yeasts for this brew, but in the end chose the European Ale yeast (basically an Altbier strain). I wanted a clean yeast, one that would deal well with potential temperature fluctuations – it is late summer, and we are bouncing back and forth between 40’s at night and 80’s during the day. Other possibilities were the San Francisco Lager yeast (Steam Beer), German Kölsch, and American Lager.