Nothing Common About “California Common”

English: San Francisco harbor (Yerba Buena Cov...

San Francisco harbor (Yerba Buena Cove), 1850 or 1851, with Yerba Buena Island in the background.

I’m going to submit this to our local paper as a “Brew Note.” Any suggestions or comments on how it might be improved are appreciated.

James Marshall’s discovery of gold on the American River near what is now Coloma, California in January of 1848 triggered more than gold fever; it brought the world a new style of beer.

Word soon leaked of Marshall’s discovery and what had been a trickle of immigrants to California became a flash-flood. By the end of 1849, the Forty-Niners had ballooned California’s population ten-fold from around 8,000 (non-native) to nearly 90,000. From 1848 to 1855, the pueblo of San Francisco swelled from 1,000 to 25,000. They needed something to drink. They needed a beer.

Transporting beer  from the east coast to quench the Forty-Niners’ thirst was too expensive.  In those days shipping meant a long boat trip of 15,000 miles around the southern tip of South America, or an 8,000 mile journey that meant stopping at the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama, going by canoe and then mule through 80 miles of jungle to Panama City where steamships anchored infrequently, and finally reloading the cargo if a steamship happened by (though later the trip became somewhat less harrowing).

Obviously, to be affordable, the beer had to be made nearby. Enter ‘Steam Beer.

No one knows why or how this unique beer style came to be known as steam beer. The stories do agree that many breweries sprouted in the west during the Gold Rush days making “steam beer.” Possibly the fermenting beer, which in those days sat in shallow open vats on rooftops, wafted clouds of steam in the cool morning air or, perhaps it was called steam beer because when opening the beer barrels, after a long trip over rough roads, they shot geysers of “steam” in a way that reminded people of a train’s engine venting steam.

But the most plausible explanation (to me) was not that it looked like steam but that it acted like steam. In 1849, to say something was steam powered meant it was fast and good. Steam was new and exciting in those days; similar to the way “atomic” was used in the 1950s, “steam” brimmed with revolutionary changes. It meant hip, cool, new, and exciting—no boundaries existed for steam.

Charles Babbage tells the story of a friend and he in 1821 calculating the answers to numerous and tedious equations:

After a time many discrepancies occurred, and at one point these discordances were so numerous that I exclaimed, “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam.”

He went on to design a steam-powered computer, but that’s another story.

The gold-rush era California brewers weren’t trying to be revolutionary; they were trying to meet a demand for lager beer. Lagers were the latest craze in beer styles at this time, and many of the German immigrants who had come west quickly learned that they knew more about brewing lagers than panning for gold.

But, lagers need cold temperatures (48F-58F) to ferment properly. But And, lagers when brewed at the proper temperatures, take a month or longer to be ready—too long for thirsty miners to wait. So the brewers cut corners. They used cold-loving lager yeasts at temperatures that were more appropriate for brewing ales (60F-68F). The yeast produced lots of esters, giving steam beer a slightly fruity taste.

The warmer temperatures meant the yeast finished fermentation faster, which was just fine with the brewers who were looking to make something that tasted okay to the miners. Brewers were not worried about handcrafting artisanal beverages; “good enough” was good enough for them.

“The original steam beer was cask fermented and conditioned,” Brad Smith notes, “and often delivered to the saloon in a ‘young’ state.”

“Young” means the yeast were probably still fermenting, sending carbon dioxide into a sealed container. No wonder the cask “steamed” when they tapped it!

While steam beer dates back to Gold Rush Times, the Anchor Brewery, which is now synonymous with Steam Beer, came along nearly a half-century later.  In 1896, Ernst F. Baruth and his son-in-law, Otto Schinkel, Jr., bought an existing brewery and renamed it Anchor Brewing. And, after nearly a century of their making steam beer, Anchor Brewing Co. trademarked the term Steam Beer in 1981.

After Anchor trademarked a term that had been around for 130 years to describe a distinctly Californian-style beer, a new name was needed. Contemporary brewers have selected “California Common” to describe a beer that uses lager yeast fermented at higher temperatures. Anyone who has sampled a California Common beer would agree it is anything but that. It is unique. How about Atomic Beer?

Once a nickname for any West Coast beer brewed  under these conditions [i.e., fermenting the beer on San Francisco’s rooftops in a cool climate], today the name “steam” is a trademark of Anchor Brewing and applies only to the singular process and taste of our flagship brand – San Francisco’s original Anchor Steam® Beer – Anchor Brewing Statement

Steam beer and San Francisco are intertwined.

It was Sunday, and, according to his custom on that day, McTeague took his dinner at two in the afternoon at the car conductors’ coffee-joint on Polk Street….On his way back to his office, one block above, he stopped at Joe Frenna’s saloon and bought a pitcher of steam beer. – McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by Frank Norris (1899)

For More on Steam Beer see:

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