Abstract Slow pyrolysis/activation of biomass in a flow of steam is studied in laboratory equipment supplied with a fixed bed reactor. Forestry and agricultural residues of different origin are selected as raw materials (birch wood, olive stones, bagasse, pelletised straw and miscanthus). The final pyrolysis temperature is varied in the range 700–800°C and the duration of the activation is 1 or 2 h. The effect of both the nature of the investigated biomass samples and the presence of water vapour on the quality of the pyrolysis products is in the focus of interest of this work. Column chromatography is used to characterize the liquid products. The surface area and the acid–base neutralization capacity of the solid products are determined by the adsorption capacity towards iodine and reactions with EtONa and HCl. The results are compared with those obtained in pyrolysis in inert atmosphere of nitrogen. It is shown that the presence of steam has strong effect on the yield and properties of the products. Significant part of the liquid product is found dissolved in the water phase obtained after condensation of the volatiles. The solid products obtained in the presence of steam have the properties of activated carbons.