What’s in a name? California Common – An Uncommon Beer


It has happened to all of us: the need to improvise, to use different ingredients than what was called for in the recipe or have the equipment or conditions be, shall we say, less than ideal. We might have had both of those conditions happen at the same time. That is when we  brewers repeat Charlie Papazian’s mantra: “Relax, have a homebrew.”

When these less-than-optimal-conditions happen to me, I add, “At the end of the brew day, it will be beer.” These “Brewzasters” have happened at the professional level and produced some great beers; Lagunitas’s “Brown Shugga” was created when they added brown sugar to a batch of their Olde Gnarly Wine that was failing. These beers that come about from ‘making do’ may not fall into a class under the Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines but they can taste pretty darn good.

The beer that would become to be known as “steam beer” originated east of Sacramento on the American River in 1848. That is where and when John Marshall discovered gold. When the news leaked, immigrants flooded into California. Between 1848 and 1850, California’s population increased tenfold from around 8,000 (non-native) to nearly 90,000, and the hamlet of San Francisco swelled from 1,000 to 20,000.

The newcomers wanted beer. These Forty-Niners, needed something to slake their thirst. The water was not safe to drink.  They wanted lager.

Lager beer was the new big thing, having been introduced by German immigrants to the east coast of the United States less than ten years earlier. However, the cost of shipping beer from the east coast to California was astronomical.

In those days shipping to San Francisco meant a 15,000-mile boat trip around the southern tip of South America. Or it meant an 8,000 mile journey to the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama, going by canoe and then by mule through 80 miles of jungle to Panama City where steamships anchored infrequently, and reloading the cargo, and continuing on to San Francisco.

Obviously, brewers had to make the beer close by to be affordable, even by the inflated prices of stuff during the Gold Rush. However, California brewers had two problems: First, lager beers were fermented at 45–55 °F (7–13 °C), and second, they needed near-freezing temperatures to store (lager) the beer. California had neither of those.

On the east coast and midwest, breweries started by German immigrants located themselves near lakes that froze in the winter. That meant they had a ready supply of ice. In California, except for the Sierra Nevada in winter, there was nothing comparable. Plus, lagering took several weeks—too long and too expensive for impatient and thirsty miners.

When conventional does not work, it is time to get unconventional.

The brewers decided to try making lagers under warmer conditions. San Francisco has a cool climate, averaging in the high 50s during the winter to the low 70s during the summer. And for the brewers, that was close enough. They used cold-loving lager yeasts at temperatures that were more appropriate for brewing ales (60-68 °F or 16–20 °C) and a hybrid, “steam beer,” was born.

Improvising came with the job of brewer in the 19th century. According to one account, a starting brewer near Sacramento, made a mash tun “by joining wooden planks roughly together” and his boil kettle had “a tin bottom and a wood box on the top.”

Someone got the idea of putting the beer in shallow troughs, giving more surface area in order to cool the wort. Most contemporary sources say this was done while the wort was near boiling and well before the adding of the lager yeast. However, Wahl and Heinus’s American Handy Book of Malting and Brewing, published in 1902, say it was after the fermentation had begun—to clarify the beer rather than cool it. The beer would be “run into long, wide shallow vats called clarifiers, which are made of wood, about 12 inches high.”

Wahl and Heinus warned that brewers needed to take “precautions” to make sure that the clarifiers were not “too cold, so as to give the wort running out of the tubs a sudden setback which may check fermentation.” A brewer would not concern himself with a clarifier being too cold if the purpose was to cool the liquid, where “the cooler, the better,” would be the rule.

Wahl and Heinus warned that brewers needed to take “precautions” to make sure that the clarifiers were not “too cold, so as to give the wort running out of the tubs a sudden setback which may check fermentation.”

It is possible that these clarifiers did double-duty as coolers; Wahl and Heinus say that if no cooling apparatus was available, then “the wort is exposed overnight, or until it is cooled to about the above temperature.”

Steam beer tasted fruitier than lager due to esters being produced by fermenting at a slightly warmer temperature, but less so than ales. The warmer temperatures also meant the yeast finished fermentation faster, which was just fine with the brewers who were looking only to make something that tasted okay to the miners.

Make no mistake, the California brewers of the gold-rush era weren’t trying to be revolutionary; they were trying to meet a demand.

According to Wahl & Heinus, after a few days in the clarifiers, the brewers would ensure carbonation by adding “about five gallons” of Kräusen, rapidly fermenting beer from a recent batch, “per one general trade package called one-half barrel or 15 gallons.” This added rapidly fermenting beer would occupy “about 33 to 40 per cent” of the keg. To say this method ensured the beer would be carbonated understates the result. Wahl & Heinus reported pressure ranges from “40 to 70 pounds” per square inch “in each trade package.” Besides super- carbonating the cask, this method probably kept unwanted spoilers from ruining the beer.

The added rapidly fermenting beer would be “about 33 to 40 per cent” of the keg. To say this method ensured the beer would be carbonated understates the result. Wahl & Heinus reported pressure ranges from “40 to 70 pounds” per square inch “in each trade package.”

The brewers were not worried about handcrafting artisanal beverages; they were making beer—as fast as they could, “usually brewed and consumed within a month or three weeks.” Steam beer was also cheap and drunk by the “laboring classes,” people without a lot of money. ‘Good enough’ was good enough for them. As an 1893 Western Brewer magazine article waggishly put it, steam beer was “not a connoisseur’s drink.”

As an 1893 Western Brewer magazine article waggishly put it, steam beer was “not a connoisseur’s drink.”

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 (San Francisco had twenty-seven breweries in 1860) and they all made a beer called “steam beer.” It is possible that the beer, fermenting in the shallow open vats on rooftops, wafted clouds of steam in the cool morning air.

Perhaps steam beer was named after Dampfbier (literally: steam beer) brewed for centuries in southeastern Bavaria near the Czech border, and called steam beer because it produced “steam” during fermentation.

Perhaps it was called steam beer because it acted like steam. In 1849, to say something was steam powered meant it was fast and good. Steam meant new and exciting in those days; similar to the way “atomic” was used in the 1950s. “Steam” brimmed with revolutionary changes. Steam powered locomotives were faster than anything else around. Steam meant fast, hip, cool, new, and exciting—no boundaries existed for steam.

While I like the last possibility and think it had much to do with the beer’s name being used across the west coast of the United States, Wahl and Heinus say it was due to the “high effervescent properties and the amount of pressure (‘steam’) it has in the packages.” A cask would vent “steam,” as though it was a locomotive, when tapped.

The term Steam Beer dates back to the Gold Rush, the Anchor Brewing Company trademarked the term in 1981, after all, they were the only brewer left producing a product they called “Anchor Steam Beer.” Beer historian, Martin Lodahl wrote of this event, “[It] could be argued that the term [steam beer] has passed out of the general usage and into the specific, and further, that anyone else using the term for a commercial product could expect to benefit by Anchor’s prior use of the name.” That is if you made a steam beer, you were getting a boost from Anchor Brewing’s hard work, besides, Anchor had really changed the recipe over the years.

After Anchor trademarked a term that had been around for 130 years to describe a distinctly west coast-style beer, a new name was needed. Contemporary brewers have selected “California Common” to describe a beer that uses lager yeast fermenting at ale temperatures.

Anyone who has sampled a California Common beer would agree it is anything but common. It is unique. How about Atomic Beer?

If you want to be authentic and brew to style, Wahl and Heinus say your grain bill could be, “malt alone, malts and grits, or raw cereals of any kind, and sugars, especially glucose, employed in the kettle to the extent of 33 1⁄3%,” and “roasted malt or sugar coloring” added “to give the favorite amber color of Munich beer.” Mashing temperatures should be, “as a rule…taken about 140° to 145°F. Then to 149° to 154°F., mashed 10 to 15 min., and then raised to 158°F. as final temperature….The mash is allowed to rest about 45 min., and the same precautions taken in running off wort and sparging as in other mashes, the sparging water to be about 167°F.” Target gravities ranged from 11 to 12 1⁄2 percent Plato (1.044-1.050). Add “three-fourths of a pound” of hops per barrel (about two ounces for a five gallon batch) “in the usual way.” After a one-hour to two-hour boil, the wort should be cooled quickly to 60° to 62°F. It is up to you whether to use a clarifier and leave the wort exposed overnight.

As for carbonation, for safety’s sake, stick with three or four ounces of corn sugar per five gallons or one cup of malt extract. Stay away from adding 30-40 percent Kräusen to bottles—the bottles could easily explode to cause serious injury or death.

If Wahl & Heinus’s recipe is too general, Horst Dornbusch provided some good ones in December 2004 Brew Your Own. I like that he recommends Cluster hops rather than Northern Brewer. Cluster hops were grown extensively in the U.S. until just after 1910. He also recommends using malt extract or wort for priming, in keeping with the German brewers who started the style.

Recipes

California Common (5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)

OG = 1.052
FG=1.012
IBU = 35
SRM = 16
ABV = 5.2%

Ingredients
8.5 lbs. (3.8 kg) American 2-row pale ale malt (approx. 2.5 °L) 1.3 lb. (0.58 kg) Munich malt (10-20 °L)
1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
1.6 oz. (45 g) Cluster hops 6% alpha acid 9.5 AAU (bittering) 1.0 oz. (28 g) Cluster hops (aroma)
1 tsp. Irish moss
Wyeast 2112 (California Lager) or White Labs WLP0810 (San Francisco Lager) yeast
1 cup dry malt extract (for priming)

Step by Step
Start your mash at 130 °F (54 °C) for a 30-minute rest and increase the mash temperature, using a combination of hot-water infusion and direct heat, to 152 °F (67 °C) for a 60-minute saccharification rest, then to 168 °F (76 °C) for the mash-out. Recirculate your wort until it runs clear (about 15 minutes) and sparge with 170 °F (77 °C) water until you reach a kettle gravity of about 1.047 (11.8 °P) to account for evaporation losses during the boil. Boil for 75 minutes. Add the bittering hops after 15 minutes and the aroma hops and Irish moss after 70 minutes. After shutdown, let the brew rest for about 15 minutes. Pitch yeast at between 58 °F (14 °C) and 72 °F (22 °C).
Ferment for 10 days and rack. Allow an additional week for secondary fermentation. Rack again and prime for packaging. Let the brew condition in bottles or in a keg for another two to three weeks.

California Common (5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.052
FG = 1.012
IBU = 35
SRM = 16
ABV = 5.2%

Ingredients
6.25 lbs. (2.8 kg) pale ale liquid malt extract
1.3 lb. (0.58 kg) Munich malt (10-20 °L)
0.8 lb. (0.28 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
1.6 oz. (45 g) Cluster hops 6% alpha acid 9.5 AAU (bittering) 1.0 oz. (28 g) Cluster hops (aroma)
1 tsp. Irish moss
Wyeast 2112 (California Lager) or White Labs WLP0810 (San Francisco Lager) yeast 1 cup dry malt extract (for priming)

Step by Step
Coarsely mill the 2.1 lbs. of specialty grains and place them into a muslin bag. Immerse the bag in cold water and heat slowly, for about 30 minutes to 170–190 °F (77–88 °C). Discard the bag without squeezing it and mix the liquid with about 4 gallons (15 L) of brewing liquor. Heat the liquor and stir in the liquid malt extract. Bring the dissolved malt extract to a boil. Boil for 75 minutes. Add the bittering hops after 15 minutes and the aroma hops and Irish moss after 70 minutes. After shutdown, let the brew rest for about 15 minutes. Pitch yeast at between 58 °F (14 °C) and 72 °F (22 °C).

Ferment for 10 days and rack. Allow an additional week for secondary fermentation. Rack again and prime for packaging. Let the brew condition in bottles or in a keg for another two to three weeks.

California Common (5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.052
FG = 1.012
IBU = 35
SRM = 16
ABV = 5.2%

Ingredients
6.25 lbs. (2.8 kg) pale ale liquid malt extract
1.66 lb. (0.75 kg) dark ale liquid malt extract
1.6 oz. (45 g) Cluster hops 6% alpha acid 9.5 AAU (bittering)
1.0 oz. (28 g) Cluster hops (aroma)
1 tsp. Irish moss
Wyeast 2112 (California Lager) or White Labs WLP0810 (San Francisco
Lager) yeast 1 cup dry malt extract (for priming)

Step by Step
Mix the malt extracts with your hot brewing liquor in the kettle. Bring the wort to a boil, and boil for 75 minutes. Add the bittering hops after 15 minutes and the aroma hops and Irish moss after 70 minutes. After shutdown, let the brew rest for about 15 minutes. Pitch yeast at between 58 °F (14 °C) and 72 °F (22 °C).

Ferment for 10 days and rack. Allow an additional week for secondary fermentation. Rack again and prime for packaging. Let the brew condition in bottles or in a keg for another two to three weeks.

References
Bergen, R. (n.d.). California Steaming. Retrieved September 1, 2012, from MoreBeer: http://morebeer.com/brewingtechniques/library/styles/2_1style.html

Dornbusch, H. D. (2004, December). California Common: An American Brew for the Common Man. Retrieved January 28, 2013, from Brew Your Own: http://www.byo.com/stories/beer- styles/article/indices/11-beer-styles/416-california-common-style-profile

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. (n.d.). California Gold Rush (1848– 1858). Retrieved October 5, 2012, from Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930: http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/goldrush.html

Lodahl, M. (1996, February). Steam Beer. Retrieved October 2012, from BrewYourOwn.com: http://byo.com/stories/beer-styles/article/indices/11-beer-styles/1442-steam-beer

Malloy, B. (n.d.). San Francisco Weather and Climate. Retrieved October 3, 2012, from About.com: http://gocalifornia.about.com/cs/sanfrancisco/l/bl_sf_temp.htm

Palmer, J. (n.d.). How to Brew by John Palmer. Retrieved October 8, 2012, from Chapter 10 – What is Different for Brewing Lager Beer?: http://www.howtobrew.com/section1/chapter10- 5.html

Pierce, B. (2006, March/April). The Lowdown on Lagering: Advanced Brewing. Retrieved JANUARY 28, 2013, from Brew Your Own: http://byo.com/component/resource/article/1520

Smith, G. (1995). Beer: A History of Suds and Civilization From Mesopotamia to Microbreweries. New York, New York: Avon Books.

Wahl, R., & Heinus, M. (1902). American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades: A Book of Ready Reference for Persons Connected with the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, Together with Tables, Formulas, Calculations, Bibliography and Dictionary of Technical Terms. http://archive.org/details/americanhandybo00wahlgoog

White, S. E. (n.d.). Chapter 7. The Way By Panama. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from The Forty-Niners: http://www.readbookonline.net/read/38907/77201/

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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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