Article

California Common Beer: Nothing to get steamed up about

Beer writer Stephen Beaumont recently promoted #FlagshipFebruary, on his Twitter account, a campaign to draw attention to those long-time craft beer examples that caused many of us to become beer enthusiasts in the first place, and to recognize the contribution of flagship beers to the health of the industry. Perhaps a backlash against the notion of never trying the same beer twice, or to always seeking the latest trendy example, this harkens back to the day of enjoying old favorites and well-regarded brands. So I thought I’d show my support by talking about one of my first craft beer loves, California common as exemplified by one of the original craft flagships, Anchor Steam.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines group California common in Category 19 (Amber and Brown American Beer), along with American amber ale and American brown ale. California common is style 19B. In older versions of the guidelines, it was grouped as an Amber Hybrid Beer, which was a style category created to help describe beers that mixed ale and lager yeast and techniques. Although California common judged well against Düsseldorf altbier, there wasn’t any historical relationship between them and it tended to confuse people since the hybrid terminology wasn’t used in commercial examples.

History

Sometimes called one of America’s true original beer styles, California common is a more recent term for what was historically called steam beer. Anchor Brewing Company trademarked the Anchor Steam beer name in 1981 and aggressively protects the name, so California common was adopted by both commercial brewers and homebrewers to describe essentially the same style. So I’ll follow that convention, referring to the style as California common and using steam beer only when discussing Anchor Steam.

It’s widely accepted that California common beer was made in California from the Gold Rush days up to Prohibition. At the end of the 1800s, there were at least 25 breweries in San Francisco making the style and it was widely available throughout California. Anchor Brewing Company first made their Steam beer in 1896, but it was not the first example, just the only surviving one.

In the second half of the 1800s, proper refrigeration was not common in California, so adaptations had to be made to local conditions. German brewers were common, but they used alternate techniques for cooling wort (coolships) and fermented using lager yeast at warmer-than-normal temperatures (but still not as warm as most ale fermentations).

The style became less popular as modern lager brewing was introduced into California, and also by Prohibition and changing tastes. In a story widely told by Michael Jackson, Fritz Maytag purchased the nearly-bankrupt Anchor Brewing Co. in 1965 and embarked on a program to bring back its pre-Prohibition beers. Their first modern brewing of Anchor Steam was in 1971, and it has served as the flagship beer for the brewery ever since.

So while the origins and re-establishment of the style are understood, the name steam beer is not. Several theories have been advanced, including escaping gas from venting carbonation when tapping the beers in bars, to the steam rising from the coolships as the wort cooled, to steam power used in production. If I had to pick, I’d go with the coolship theory but there is no evidence to support this supposition.

The modern use of the name common beer is apt, though. Common beers were running beers, or quick-to-market products that were enjoyed fresh in the local area. Kentucky common beer has a similar heritage. So it’s certainly likely that the historical beers were well-carbonated and did produce audible gas when tapped. However, steam is warm and vented carbonation is not, so that’s why I tend to give more credence to the coolship story.

Sensory Profile

A California common is a highly carbonated, dark amber beer that combines a firm bitterness with a toasty and caramelly malt flavor and a light fruitiness. Rustic, woody hop flavor and aroma accentuate the grainy malt flavors to give a historical, traditional impression. As style definitions go, this one is fairly narrow since there are few commercial examples and Anchor Steam is so well known.

Sometimes called one of America’s true original beer styles, California common is a more recent term for what was historically called steam beer.

The color can range from medium amber to light copper, but the beer is almost always clear. The head is off-white in color and shows good retention. The hop aroma is woody and rustic, sometimes minty, while the malt has a toastiness and caramel aspect with a background fruitiness. Hops are usually most forward in the balance, particularly in fresh versions.

The flavor is similar to the aroma in character, but with a moderately high bitterness. The beer finishes dry and crisp, with lingering hop and malt flavors. Toasty, caramelly, fruity, woody, and rustic flavors blend together to form the flavor profile. Despite a dry finish, the beer retains a medium body and a relatively high carbonation. As a standard strength beer, it should not have a noticeable alcohol character.

The beer can be sometimes mistaken for an American amber or pale ale, although the ingredients in a California common are more rustic in nature and lack the citrusy or tropical character of many modern American beers.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

There are a few key ingredients and methods that help distinguish this style. The first and most important is that a warm-fermented lager yeast is used for fermentation. Some strains work better than others; those that ferment around 60 °F (15 °C) are typically used. Lager yeast strains that are strong sulfur producers are inappropriate.

Northern Brewer hops are the signature hop of Anchor Steam. While not a strict requirement for the California common style, those hops that have a woody or rustic character are desired. Modern American or New World hops are inappropriate, as they often have citrusy or tropical flavors and aromas.

Anchor Steam is made with pale ale and crystal malts, according to their website. I sometimes add other grains to enhance some of the natural flavors such as biscuity or toasty flavors, including bringing in some English malts or a small amount of American 6-row. With a crisp, dry finish, step mashing or mashing with a lower beta amylase saccharification temperature makes sense.

After fermentation is complete, Anchor Steam is kraüsened and warm-conditioned. Adding a portion of actively-fermenting yeast helps complete the fermentation and clean up fermentation byproducts. A warm conditioning (at fermentation temperature or slightly higher) also helps carbonate the beer. Anchor uses three weeks for this step. A cold lagering wasn’t traditionally done, but I do like to follow the warm conditioning with a short lager phase (2–3 weeks) below 40 °F (5 °C). With a low-sulfur yeast and a rustic quality, this stage isn’t strictly necessary but I like the little extra smoothness it provides.

Homebrew Example

I offer a straightforward example in the style of Anchor Steam. Although Anchor uses only pale ale and crystal malt, I’m adding a bit of Vienna malt to increase the toastiness. The base is North American pale ale malt, which gives more of a bready, toasty flavor than Pilsner malt or brewer’s 2-row. Sometimes, if I want more of a bready flavor, I’ll use a little bit of biscuit or Victory® malt, or blend US and UK pale ale malts for the base. If you want to make something closer to Anchor Steam®, replace the Vienna malt with more of the pale ale malt.

Some caramelly malt flavors are present in the style, and to my taste, they have a crystal 40-like flavor. This somewhat approximates the flavors you’d get from those cube-like caramel candies without having overly sharp or roasted flavors.

Northern Brewer hops are a must for an Anchor Steam-like beer, but other hops that have a woody or rustic character can be used. I might use some Spalt hops, as I do with altbier, or Styrian Goldings. But I would definitely steer clear of modern citrusy or fruity hops. Save your Cascade hops for trying to recreate Anchor Liberty not Anchor Steam. Use bittering, flavor, and aroma additions.

The final major ingredient is a California lager yeast strain; my preference is Wyeast 2112 (probably because I’m a Neil Peart fan . . . ). I ferment it at cool ale temperatures. I still like the smoothness of the lager yeast, but it does need to produce some esters to have the right flavor profile. If you make the right malt, hop, and yeast choices, you are most of the way home.
I balance the recipe similar to the specs of Anchor Steam, available on their website. I’m looking for about a 5% ABV beer with around 35 IBUs. The beer needs to be relatively dry and definitely well-carbonated. The IBUs won’t come through cleanly if the beer is on the sweet and heavy side. So I use a step mash with a fairly low primary conversion temperature to encourage fermentability and attenuation. The crystal malt will still give body so don’t worry about producing a beer that is too thin.

Anchor Steam is warm-conditioned and kraüsened to produce a lively carbonation level (2.8 to 3.0 volumes), so if you’re interested in making the closest example possible, follow those procedures.

Gordon Strong’s California Common Recipe

California Common

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.050 FG = 1.013
IBU = 35 SRM = 11 ABV = 5%

Ingredients
7.7 lbs. (3.5 kg) North American pale ale malt
1.25 lbs. (567 g) Vienna malt
1.5 lbs. (680 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
6 AAU Northern Brewer hops (60 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 8% alpha acids)
8 AAU Northern Brewer hops (10 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 8% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Northern Brewer hops (1 min.)
Wyeast 2112 (California Lager) or White Labs WLP810 (San Francisco Lager) or Fermentis SafLager S-23 yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 0.5 tsp each of calcium chloride and calcium sulfate to the mash.

Mash the pale ale and Vienna malts at 144 °F (62 °C) for 60 minutes. Raise to 158 °F (70 °C) for 15 minutes by infusion or decoction. Begin recirculating the wort. Add the crystal malt and raise the temperature to 168 °F (76 °C) over the course of 15 minutes. Sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort in the brew kettle.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe.

After the boil is complete, chill the wort to 62 °F (17 °C), pitch the yeast, and aerate. Ferment at this temperature until complete. Chill the beer to 38 °F (3 °C) and lager for 2–3 weeks, or until beer falls clear. Rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 2.4 volumes.

California Common

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.050 FG = 1.013
IBU = 35 SRM = 11 ABV = 5%

Ingredients
6 lbs. (2.7 kg) pale liquid malt extract
1.5 lbs. (680 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
6 AAU Northern Brewer hops (60 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 8% alpha acids)
8 AAU Northern Brewer hops (10 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 8% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Northern Brewer hops (1 min.)
Wyeast 2112 (California Lager) or White Labs WLP810 (San Francisco Lager) or Fermentis SafLager S-23 yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Start with 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle. Heat water to 158 °F (70 °C).

Turn off the heat and place the crushed grains in a muslin grain bag. Submerge the crystal malt and steep for 30 minutes. Remove the grain bag and allow the liquid to drain back into the kettle. With the heat off, add the malt extract and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. You do not want to feel liquid extract at the bottom of the kettle when stirring with your spoon. Once dissolved, turn the heat back on and bring wort to a boil.

Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe.

After the boil is complete, chill the wort to 62 °F (17 °C), pitch the yeast, and aerate well. Ferment at this temperature until complete. Chill the beer to 38 °F (3 °C) and lager for 2–3 weeks, or until beer falls clear. Rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 2.4 volumes.

Issue: May-June 2019