California Common


                                                    By Mike Retzlaff

Some time back, I brewed a traditional California Common beer.  I brewed it according to the parameters contained in the article I submitted to the 5/2015 issue of the HopLine.  The vital statistics for this beer are reminiscent of an Altbier.  When I pitched the yeast, the wort really looked and smelled like an Alt.  That’s okay as I’m a fan of Altbier too.  In hindsight, it would have been better to pitch Altbier yeast into this wort and call it an Alt.

It percolated away @ 60 oF in the ice box out in the garage.  Fermentation seemed to be done within a week so I pulled the lid from the bucket and took a look.  It was close to finished so I racked it off into a carboy to let it ferment flat.  About a week later, I kegged the batch and force carbonated it.

The grist bill for this attempt included:

  • 8#     Briess Ashburne Mild   
  • 6 oz. Belgian Biscuit malt    
  • 4 oz. Briess Munich 20 
  • 2 oz. Chocolate Rye (for color adjustment)   
  • 8 oz. Flaked Barley

The first thing I noted during the tasting was the Munich 20; it didn’t seem to have a rightful place in this beer.  It exhibited a very malty prominence like Belgian Aromatic malt – an exaggerated presence.  Most clone recipes of Anchor list Caramel 40 or 60.  The original lecture from 1903 did not even hint at crystal or caramel malts at all.  Another thing to consider is that most of these beers utilized a variety of 6 row barley malt. I can’t find anything denoting the protein levels of this type of malt; only generalities of the specifics of the varieties grown around the turn of the 20th century. Regardless, the whole point in making this batch was to see if I could make a beer following the text of the lecture.  I screwed that up by adding the Munich 20.  Several weeks of cold storage in the chill chest did wonders for this beer.  Even though nobody would ever confuse it with Anchor Steam, the beer had many similarities.

Anchor Steam         Left Coast Common
OG       1.050                           1.059
FG       1.012                           1.011
SRM    9                                9.5
IBU      35                               37
ABV    4.9%                           6.2%

The OG was a little high as I shot for about 1.055 but got really good brewhouse efficiency.

I had received a few comments about the previous article over the hops.  Anchor Steam uses Northern Brewer as the signature hop for their beer.  Northern Brewer was neither developed nor available to brewers until 1944 so it can hardly be considered “traditional” or “true to style.”  I like Northern Brewer hops and I like Anchor Steam beer, but I wasn’t trying to develop a clone recipe. 

I brought a growler of my attempt to a meeting but forgot to write and submit this follow-up article in a timely manner.  I need to brew another batch utilizing what I’ve learned and see how much of a difference that makes.

From what I’ve read, there is a real problem with judging of the California Common style entries in competition.  Judges tend to compare entries against Anchor Steam instead of the written guidelines.  Even the written parameters seem to be all over the place. 

1903 Lecture   OG       1.050 to 1.061 FG       1.012 to 1.020
BJCP                OG       1.048 to 1.054 FG       1.011 to 1.014
GABF              OG       1.045 to 1.056 FG       1.010 to 1.018

For years, Anchor Steam was the only commercial example available but now there are a number of such beers out there.  Anchor Brewing copyrighted the name “Steam Beer” so most everyone else uses the “California Common” moniker.

Anchor Steam is a great beer but it hasn’t always been that way.  Anchor Brewing was closing shop when Fritz Maytag bought it.  It, along with all of the former breweries of the area, apparently had failed to produce a consistent product that people wanted to drink.  I suspect that the present beer is quite a bit different (and better) than what had been brewed in the Bay area in the past.  If not, it might just be another style included in a paragraph somewhere dedicated to extinct oddities of yesteryear.  I’m glad that’s not the case!

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