BeerSmith on brewing Steam Beer and California Common
Steam Beer brings to mind visions of the California gold rush, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and San Francisco. Today we’ll look at the history of California common beer (aka Steam Beer) and how to design steam beer recipes and present a collection of Steam Beer recipes you can brew at home.
History of Steam Beer
Steam beer was originally made by dozens of breweries in the California from 1850-1920, particularly around San Francisco. After prohibition, Anchor Steam Brewing Company continued to brew steam beer and eventually trademarked the term “Steam Beer” for use with its famous brew. Since “steam beer” was trademarked by Anchor Brewing Company, brewers adopted the name “California Common” to refer to this unique beer style.
The key distinguishing feature of steam beer is that it is a lager beer fermented at high temperatures (between 60-65F) and often well hopped. The precise origins of California Steam Beer is somewhat ambiguous. Daniels notes that “One Hundred Years of Brewing” provides conflicting information on precisely where the first steam beer was made (Los Angeles and San Francisco being candidates), but says that at least 25 California breweries made steam beer in the period from 1850-1903. The origins of the term “steam beer” are also shrouded in mystery, but one source cites the escaping gas when a keg of steam beer was tapped.
Anchor Brewing started making steam beer in 1894 and was the sole producer of the beer through the 1960’s after prohibition closed its competitors. The original steam beer was cask fermented and conditioned, and often delivered to the saloon in a “young” state.
A historic beer may or may not have used adjuncts, was hopped between 28 and 40 IBUs, and was run through a “clarifier” after a very short fermentation directly into the keg. Krausen was used to carbonate the kegs, often to very high levels of carbonation (as high as 40-70 psi before tapping!). (Ref: Daniels)
Designing a California Common Recipe
The modern California Common beer remains remarkably true to the steam beer heritage. California Common has an original gravity between 1.048 and 1.054, and a moderate hopping level of 30-45 IBUs according to the BJCP Style Guide.
It is brewed with a medium body, and the distinct flavor of Northern Brewer hops. It is typically amber to light copper in color, between 10 and 14 SRM. The modern beer is more highly attenuated than its predecessor, and has a mix of ale and lager character. This leaves a clean finish with low fruitiness, ester and diacytl.
California Common uses a pale malt (usually 2 row or pale extract) base for the bulk of the malt bill. Crystal malt in the 40-80L color range makes up an average of 10% of the remaining malt bill and is selected to achieve the desired beer color. Additional ingredients such as Munich/Vienna, Cara Pils, Chocolate and Special malts are occasionally added to homebrew versions, usually in quantities of 5% or less.
The mash schedule should target 152-156F to produce a medium body beer. Hop aroma and bitterness are desirable for this style, so multiple hop additions are the norm. Northern Brewer hops is traditionally used for bittering with an aroma hops such as Cascade added near the end of the boil for flavor/aroma. Dry hopping is often used. The water used historically for this beer is soft in character.
A distinguishing feature of California Common is clearly its fermentation and yeast strain. California Common lager yeast is most often used, though many brewers have had great success with high attenuation lager yeasts or even high attenuation ale yeast. Steam beer should be fermented between 60-68 F (16-20C). Conditioning homebrew at 50F for 3-4 weeks after fermentation will aid in clearing the beer. (Ref: Daniels)