guide for English-speakers:
Dampfbier (literally: steam beer) is a centuries-old style from the region of the Bavarian Forest, the southeastern portion of Bavaria, near the Czech border. It is an all-barley ale, usually deep golden to light amber in color, with a unique feature: It is warm-fermented with Weissbier yeast at a temperature above 70°F (21°C), which gives the beer a slightly phenolic aftertaste. Brewed mostly in the summer, it is medium-bodied, very mildly hopped, and low in effervescence.
Brew for the Common Folk
The Dampfbier (steam beer) style got its name from the common folk. As a warm-fermented ale, the brew produces copious amounts of foam and bubbles on the surface in the vat. As these surface bubbles burst, they give the appearance at least to the non-brewer that the ferment is boiling, even "steaming."
Though brewed in several parts of Germany including the coal and steel area of the Ruhr region of Westphalia, where the Borbeck Dampf-Bier Brauerei has recreated a modern version of the style the brew had been a specialty mostly of the Bavarian Forest, when it vanished in the early 20th century. It was revived there, however, in 1989 by the Erste Dampfbierbrauerei (First Steam Beer Brewery) of the small of town of Zwiesel, on the occasion of that brewery's centenary. Since then, the brew has been making a slow comeback. One of the more prominent Dampfbiers comes from the Maisel brewery in Bayreuth, Bavaria.
Historically, all beer styles were local in origin because, before mankind had developed sophisticated transportation systems, all beer had to be made from ingredients that could be grown in the neighborhood. The finished beer, too, of course, had to be drunk locally. Brewers had to take what was readily at hand and than make do or else the people around them would have to go thirsty. The case is no different for the Dampfbier. Originally, thnis brew was darkish in color, made from grist of indifferent quality and crudely malted. Today, however, because of the availability of modern malts and the expectations of sophisticated beer drinkers, Dampfbier comes mostly in a deep golden to light amber color derived from top-quality pale and slightly caramelized malts. Its appearance in the glass resembles that of a pale Vienna Lager.
During the industrial revolution, the Bavarian Forest was regarded as one of the poorer regions of Bavaria, and wheat was held too precious to be squandered on beer making. The brewers, therefore, used only barley for their malt. Hops from the nearby Hallertau area (which now produces about one-third of all the world's hops, and arguably some of the world's best) was just too expensive, too. So the brewers had to make do with their own backyard hops, which tended to be of poor quality with fairly little bitterness and aroma. The result was a brew that was very low in hoppiness, but dominated by maltiness.
Lager-making, which requires careful and invariably expensive temperature control to turn out well, just seemed too involved for the original Dampfbier brewers. Instead, they traveled to the nearest thriving Weissbier (wheat beer) brewery, where they scrounged for surplus yeast. Because Weissbier is fermented with an ale yeast that gives the brew a slightly phenolic, bubblegum-like flavor, Dampfbier, too, became an ale with a phenolic aftertaste. This set the stage for the emergence of a poor man's Hefeweizen a "Hefe-Barley" so to speak. Dampfbier appears to be the only barley ale in the world brewed with a wheat beer yeast. In the old days, when fermentation in wooden vats at ambient temperatures was finished, which usually took no more than two to three days, the beer was transfered into wooden lagering casks. The Dampfbier-makers kept these casks in cellars dug deep into the region's hills and rocks, many vented by aeration shafts more than 30 feet (10 meters) long. Several of these lagering cellars are still in use today.
There are several parallels, incidentally, between this German Dampfbier from the Bavarian Forest and its New World namesake, the California Common, or Steam Beer®, a name which the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco has registered as its proprietary trademark. Both beers evolved almost accidentally in relative remoteness and as a result of the raw materials that were available locally in the backwaters of Bavaria in the Dampfbier case, and in the rough and tumble outpost of San Franciso during from the Gold Rush days in the California Common case. It seems that necessity, or the inability to do any "better," was the mother of both inventions: Both brews needed to be fermented at what would normally be considered an excessively high temperature. But there is one key difference: The California steam brew is a lager, the Bavarian steam brew is an ale.