California common, or “steam Beer” was produced by one brewery after prohibition until the 1960’s. The brewery was Anchor Brewing Company who trademarked the name “steam” not because they originated the style, but because they were the exclusive brewer with brand loyalty for a large part of the 20th century.
The style was brewed by quite a few breweries in the 1800’s, primarily in San Francisco. The derivation of the name “steam beer” is lost to time but there are a couple of theories. One is that the beer was highly carbonated and when the cask was tapped, “steam” would escape. Another was that the beer was fermented in shallow open fermenters to try and keep the beer as cool as possible without refrigeration, and the beer would bubble and “steam” as it fermented vigorously. Either or both may have been correct. But the only beer that may be called Steam Beer is Anchor Steam, the rest must be called California Common beer.
The style is considered a hybrid since it is fermented with a lager yeast at higher than normal lager temperatures, between 58 and 68°F (14 to 20°C), and instead of crashing to lager temps, it is cold conditioned at around 50°F (10°C). This yields a unique set of flavor characteristics which only the California Common beer has.
Several different yeasts may be used, and the fermentation temperature should be adjusted to the yeast. Ray Daniels, in his book Designing Great Beers, says to ferment in the range of 50 to 55°F (10 to 13°C) for Pilsen or Bavarian lager yeasts, 60 to 65°F (16 to 18°C) for California Lager yeast, and 65 to 68° for American Ale yeast. You can include some crystal to make up from 5 to 20% of the grist, where 5-10% is probably more common, and you may use some Vienna or Munich along with the 2-row or pale malt for added complexity and a little color. The hops are usually Northern Brewer to match Anchor Steam, but Cascade is very often added late for flavor and aroma. It is important to condition for a couple of weeks at 50°F (10°C) to allow the beer to clean up the byproducts of fermentation. And lastly, for the authentic touch, you can krauesen the beer for carbonation. California Common was traditionally a “real ale” in that it was cask conditioned and the beers condition at serving time depended on the publican or saloon keepers talents at managing his stock of beer kegs.
- Aroma: California common beers typically have the signature Northern Brewer hops (with woody, rustic or minty qualities) in moderate to high strength (a BU:GU ratio of .80 to .90). Some light fruitiness acceptable as is low to moderate caramel and/or toasty malt aromatics from the crystal, Vienna and Munich additions. These toasty notes support the hop presence. There should be no diacetyl.
- Appearance: The beer is a medium amber to light copper in color. It is generally clear with a moderate off-white head with good retention.
- Flavor: California Common beers are moderately malty with a pronounced hop bitterness. The malt character is usually toasty (not roasted) and caramelly. You should notice low to moderately high hop flavor, usually showing Northern Brewer hop qualities (woody, rustic, minty). It should finish dry and crisp, with a lingering hop bitterness and a firm, grainy malt flavor. Light fruity esters are acceptable, but otherwise the beer is very clean with no diacetyl evident.
- Mouthfeel: These beers are medium-bodied with medium to medium-high carbonation. Originally the carbonation was very high, but that seems to have moderated through the years.
- Overall Impression: California Common or Steam Beers should be lightly fruity with a firm, grainy maltiness. You may find some interesting toasty and caramel flavors as well. This beer quite often showcases the signature Northern Brewer varietal hop character, but may include late additions of Cascade hops as well.
- Comments: This style is narrowly defined around the prototypical Anchor Steam example. Superficially similar to an American pale or amber ale, yet differs in that the hop flavor/aroma is woody/minty rather than citrusy, malt flavors are toasty and caramelly, the hopping is always assertive, and a warm-fermented lager yeast is used.
- Ingredients: Pale ale malt, American hops (usually Northern Brewer, rather than citrusy varieties), small amounts of toasted malt and/or crystal malts. Lager yeast, however some strains (often with the mention of “California” in the name) work better than others at the warmer fermentation temperatures (55 to 60?F) used. Note that some German yeast strains produce inappropriate sulfury character. Water should have relatively low sulfate and low to moderate carbonate levels.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.048 – 1.054 FG: 1.011 – 1.014 IBUs: 30 – 45 SRM: 10 – 14 ABV: 4.5 – 5.5%.
- Commercial Examples: Anchor Steam, Southampton Steem Beer, Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager
References: Information for this article was adapted from the BJCP Style Guidelines 2008 and from the book Designing Great Beers The Ultimate Guide to BRewing Classic Beer Styles, by Ray Daniels.