Homebrewing: California Common
California Common is a great homebrew for the transition from summer to fall. I love the toasty sweet caramel malts and the balancing earthy and woody hop flavors. It's a beer that you can still enjoy on a hot day, but there's a character to it that reminds me that the season for porters, browns and stouts is just around the corner.
Over a century ago, dozens of brewers on the West coast produced the California Common style under the name of Steam Beer. After Prohibition, only one of these original breweries survived, and they're still making the beer under the name Anchor Steam. Anchor Brewing secured trademark on the names "steam" and "steam beer", which is why the new generic name of California Common emerged.
California Common is an example of a hybrid beer. It's brewed with a lager yeast, but is fermented in the temperature range of an ale. When brewers of German heritage on the west coast started brewing Steam Beer in the mid-1800s, there was no refrigeration and limited access to ice. Even with ale yeasts widely available at the time, many German brewers were more familiar with lager yeast. They couldn't achieve the cool temperatures needed to brew the classic European lagers, so they fermented this new style in open, shallow vats that allowed the night air to bring the temperatures to below 60°F.
The scarcity of commercial versions makes this an interesting brewing challenge for homebrewers. We have to either try to replicate Anchor's version, or creatively interpret the BJCP description and come up with our own beer. The recipe listed below does a little bit of both: the hop schedule is similar to Anchor Steam (if a little more intense), but the malts have more variety than the standard version.
Malt and Hops for Brewing California Common
Crystal 40L and Munich malts are the best starting place for specialty malts in a classic California Common. Other specialty grains can include Victory, toasted, biscuit or even small amounts of chocolate malts. The color should still be in the amber to copper color range, so don't over-do it with the darker malt, but 25-30% of the grain can come from something other than the standard 2-row.
Anchor Steam is brewed with Northern Brewer hops, which makes it the obvious choice for homebrewers replicating the modern style. If you're going for historical accuracy, you may want to choose Cluster hops, which were some of the most prevalent in California at the time the California Common was first made. If you want something a little different, but you're still hoping to stay in the same beer category, try using non-citrus aromatic hops such as Hallertau or Willamette.
Hops should be added 3 or 4 times during the boil, spaced out to produce bitterness, flavor, and aroma characteristics. Dry hopping is also acceptable for this style. A California Common should be as hoppy and bitter as a strong American Pale Ale, but with more earth and spice flavors and very little of the citrus.
Yeast and Fermentation
Fermentation of the California Common is done with a lager yeast—this is the defining feature of this style. Since the fermentation takes place between 55°F and 65°F—around 15°F warmer than normal lager—the variety of yeast is very important. Use California lager yeast for the best results—American lager yeast can also be used successfully. As a general rule, most European lager yeasts will produce too much sulfur and other off-flavors when fermented at higher temperatures.
Once fermentation is complete after a week or two, a cooler conditioning phase will help temper the less desirable byproducts of the lager yeast. If you have a refrigerator or lager freezer, you can decrease the temperature to 50°F and let it rest for 3 weeks. If you don't have the equipment to decrease the temperature that much, it's a good idea to let it rest at fermentation temperature for a couple of weeks before bottling.