Nick Carr on February 20, 2015 1 Comment History of California Common Beer California Common was historically known as Steam Beer, a name that is now trademarked by Anchor Brewing Company. It is one of maybe only three styles that have their origins firmly entrenched on American soil. Gold had been discovered in California and a mad rush was on to lay claim to a chunk of ground rich with the yellow stuff. Business of all types followed this mad rush of 1849, towns sprang up overnight, and purveyors of the brewing craft found their own fertile soil. This style was born of necessity. The years leading up to this great migration had seen a revolution in the eastern brewing industries. Lager brewing had become “the thing,” so lager yeast traveled with these adventurous brewers that saw opportunity flowing west. But, on reaching California they found California’s climate less then hospitable toward the workings of lager yeast. This change in climate and the fact that ice was hard to come by made the brewing of true lagers near impossible. So, they improvised. They brewed using the lager yeast, but at temps closer to that of ale brewing. At some point the discovery was made that when peak fermentation was reached, allowing the beer to finish in long wooden vessels (coolships), kept it cooler and reduced off flavors. After fermentation the “finished” beer went into very stout barrels with a set amount of “unfinished” beer at its fermentation peak. The unfinished beer would condition and carbonate the beer during a set time period. This practice created a beer with very high carbonation. The Steam Beer of those early days is much different than the few modern examples brewed today. It was a rough, fast finishing, brew made for the working populous and probably distastefully frowned upon by those well-off enough to consider themselves connoisseurs. The Name “Steam” No one is sure how exactly the California Common style got the name “Steam.” There seem to be three prevailing ideas about where the name came from. Though it’s just as likely it was some mix of the three that finally earned the style its name. One explanation, the one held by Anchor Steam, is that the breweries of San Francisco had their coolships on the rooftops to take advantage of the cool night air. The difference in temperature would cause the beer to steam, creating a fog hat, as it were, around the tops of the breweries. Another possible origin was the need to let off some of the excess carbonation before serving. It has been said that the carbonation was so high that it sounded like a steam whistle when a barrel was first tapped. Finally the last origin explanation is that the name was borrowed from Dampfbier (literally steam beer), a German style that was also brewed at a high temperature. Many of the American brewers, at that time, came from German decent and it is possible that the name was adopted. Style Profile & Characteristics The guidelines for the California Common beer style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what a California Common should represent. Quick Characteristics Color Range: 10 – 14 SRM Original Gravity: 1.048 – 1.054 OG Final Gravity: 1.011 – 1.014 FG IBU Range: 30 – 45 ABV Range: 4.5 – 5.5% Appearance: Ranges from amber to light copper with off-white head. Aroma: Northern Brewer hops give woody & minty aroma. Possible notes of caramel & toast. Flavor: Moderate malty sweetness. Hidden undertones of fruit esters. Low hoppy bitterness. Crisp & clean finish. Mouthfeel: Medium Mouthfeel with Medium-to-High Carbonation Food Pairings: Mexican Food, BBQ, Cajun Spices, Sharp Cheddar or Pepper Jack Cheese The BJCP classifies this type of beer as an “Amber And Brown American Beer.” It can be found in their guidelines as category 19B. Other beer styles within this category include: American Amber Ale (19A), and American Brown Ale (19C). Appearance: The character of this style is, without a doubt, defined by the characteristics of Anchor Steam and is a representation of a more suffocated reproduction of the original style, not the original itself. Appearance runs from amber to light copper, clear, with an off-white head that should stick around pretty well. Aroma: Aroma will show a hop profile not too common in American style beers. Due to the use of Northern Brewer hops the aroma will be woody, earthy, and maybe minty. Some caramel and toast may be present. Mouthfeel: Mouthfeel is medium with medium to slightly high carbonation. Taste is one of moderate malt sweetness with grainy, roasty character, and hidden undertones of fruit esters. Hop bitterness can be low, but will usually find its place at a higher level. Taste: Finish will be crisp and clean, with lingering bitterness. Drinks much like a pale or amber ale with the main difference being the woody earthy hop profile instead of the usual citrus. *Reference: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines Commercial Examples of the Style Anchor Steam (Anchor Steam Brewing, CA) — First brewed in 1896, this is the modern original. Great American Beer Festival Winner in 1987 and 1992. Available year round. Old Scratch Amber Lager (Flying Dog Brewing, CO) — Great American Beer Festival Winner in 2005 and 2008. Available year round. Steam Engine Lager (Steamworks Brewing, CO) — Great American Beer Festival winner 2006 and 2007. World Beer Cup winner 1998. Available year around. Rod’s Steam Beer (Second Street Brewing, NM) — Great American Beer Festival Winner 2013. Tap only. Rocket Bike Lager (Moab Brewing, UT) — Tap only. Not available year round. Schlafly Common (Schlafly Brewing, MO) — Tap only. Dorothy’s New World Lager (Toppling Goliath Brewing, IA) — Their flagship beer. Available year round on taps in IA and WI. Expanding to begin bottling. 6 Tips for Brewing Your Own California Common Recipe If you’re interested in brewing your own California Common at home, here are a few things you should know going into it. A recipe for an Amber of Pale Ale is a good place to start (Pale malts, with small amounts of crystal, and toasted malts) A little rye malt, less than 2% of your grain bill, can add a pleasing sharp character. Use Northern Brewer hops and go heavy on the aroma and taste additions. Don’t make it into an IPA, but make it accretive. Use a strain of California Lager yeast at a fermentation temperature range of 62° to 65°F. Possible yeasts are White Labs San Francisco Lager or Wyeast California Lager. Historically, this style was open fermented in shallow vessels called coolships. If adventurous look into trying open fermentation, but keeping the beer under clean conditions can be tricky. On the other hand this may produce a beer more closely resembling the original (rough) style. In my opinion, trying to get the high carbonation volumes written about above is unnecessary, can be wasteful, not to mention dangerous. Personally I would forgo this tradition and stick to a carbonation of 2.5 to 3 volumes.