Dampfbier is a centuries-old style from the region of the Bavarian Forest, in the southeastern portion of Bavaria, near the Czech border. Dampfbier literally translates to “steam beer”. But don’t confuse this with the other historical “steam beer” (aka California Common) which was produced in California from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. While it is widely believed that the California “steam beer” got it’s name from the bins of cooling beer on the brewery roof, the Dampfbier got its name from the visual effect of its fermentation. 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.”
During the industrial revolution, the Bavarian Forest was regarded as one of the poorer regions of Bavaria. Back then brewers were limited to whatever local ingredients they could get their hands on and this contributed to the combination of ingredients that make up the style.
Dampfbier was fermented with ale yeast. Lager-making required careful and expensive temperature control that was just not available to brewers in the region at the time. Instead, they traveled to the nearest thriving Weissbier (wheat beer) brewery, where they scrounged for surplus yeast that could be fermented at warmer temperatures.
So Dampfbier is a wheat beer? Well not exactly! In the Bavarian Forest, wheat was held too precious at the time to be squandered on beer making. The brewers, therefore, used only barley for their malt.
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.