California Common: A San Francisco Treat

Style Profile by | Jul 2008 | Issue #18

Don’t begrudge the lawyers at Anchor Brewing for trademarking the term “Steam Beer.” The 19th century style was on its deathbed in 1965 when Anchor’s Fritz Maytag revived it and set off the microbrewing revolution. The exclusive right to use the term is a small price to pay the father of American craft brewing. It’s whoever came up with “California Common” as a replacement moniker that we ought to hunt down.

While Steam Beer evokes nostalgic images of the Barbary Coast, of nickel mugs and Gold Rush fortunes, California Common conjures all of the romance of doughy white bread. Steam Beer gushes from the pages of Ring Lardner and Frank Norris and Jack London. California Common is bureaucratic and uninspired and, worse, generic.

Nothing from California is “common.” Not its people, its governor or its weather, and certainly not this beer. Often described as America’s only indigenous beer style (true only if you ignore Cream Ale and 20 different varieties of extreme beer), Steam Beer is a California oddball.

It was likely born in the 1850s as tens of thousands of pioneers headed to the coast upon the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills. German lagers were just catching on in the East, and some brewer seeking his fortune out West would’ve boarded a California clipper with a sample of bottom-fermenting yeast.

Without brewhouse refrigeration or ample supplies of ice, that lager yeast would bubble away the wort at a warmer temperature—60°F instead of 50°F. Then it would undergo secondary fermentation in the cask through kraeusening—a process that created a highly carbonated beer whose excess gas, released upon tapping, might’ve given us that term, Steam Beer.

A foamy glass would offer that classic, crisp refreshment of a lager, but with the fruity edge of esters produced by the warmer fermentation.

That’s what Chris Brugger and the crew at Tröegs Brewing were shooting for last year when they cooked up a batch of California Common for their series of one-off Scratch Beers. “Basically, we aimed for a lager with a big malt bill plus lots of lager hops [Northern Brewer]. Then we brewed it more like an ale,” Brugger says. But not too warm, Brugger cautions—about 60°F to 62°F. “With that yeast,” he says, “if you get any warmer, it starts tasting like you’re eating grapes.”

Few breweries make the style with any regularity, so to best appreciate that balancing act, crack open an Anchor Steam. Malty yet crisp, hoppy but not overly bitter, each glass invites you to reach for the next.

You can just imagine San Francisco of the 1890s, alive with Gold Rush millionaires, their pockets bulging with newfound wealth, sloshing frothy glasses of Steam Beer. Or maybe not. No one really knows what Steam Beer tasted like back then, but it was probably more bad than good. The yeast was unpredictable, the adjuncts plentiful and the brewing, hard to control. One old text sniffed that it was “not a connoisseur’s drink.”

In McTeague, Frank Norris’ 1899 novel about a poor San Francisco couple who strike it rich in the lottery, Steam Beer is a metaphor for the lower class. Drinking it, McTeague’s wife complains, it is “common and vulgar.” Oh, brother, there’s that word again.

: Medium American hops with light fruitiness
Flavor: Malty with moderate bitterness, dry and crisp finish
IBU: 30–45
ABV: 4.5–5.5 percent
Examples: Anchor Steam, Barbary Coast Gold Rush, Orlio Organic Common Ale, Sleeman Steam, Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager