Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 41

What is a California Common?

While there are American versions of almost every beer style out there, there are only a few true beer styles born in the US that still exist today. In the mid-nineteenth century, cream ales were developed as a counterpoint to German pilsners; in 1975 American brewing giant Miller released the first American light lager, which became synonymous with American beer culture for many years. California Common, or Steam beer, was first brewed in the late 1800s – its most famous commercial example is Anchor Steam, now hailed as America’s original craft beer.

History of California Common 

The California Gold Rush saw a massive surge of settlers to the Golden State in the mid nineteenth-century, many of whom were of European descent and had developed a keen thirst for lagers. In the decade or so before the gold rush, European lager production experienced a meteoric rise when Bavarian brewers began experimenting with bottom-fermenting yeasts and colder fermentation. California’s warmer climate made the brewing of true lagers nearly impossible, as mechanical refrigeration would not emerge in the American brewing industry until the 1870s.

California Common, or steam beer, was born out of a desire to create an American lager. West coast brewers made beer with lager yeast, but at elevated fermentation temperatures that were closer to that of ale brewing. At some point it was discovered that finishing the beer in long wooden vessels kept the fermenting brew cooler, thereby reducing off flavors. Unlike the more carefully prepared German pilsners, steam beers were fast finishing and rough tasting.

Anchor Steam 

Early versions of steam beer are vastly different from modern examples brewed today. Its  survival is largely attributed to Anchor Brewing’s flagship brew Anchor Steam, celebrated by many beer experts as being America’s first craft beer. A truly unique flavour in craft brewing, Anchor Steam is slightly sweet, caramelly, balanced by woody hops and a crisp finish.

Founded in 1896, Anchor Brewing Company managed to endure prohibition and the post-war era, but was struggling to survive by the 1960s. In 1965, a young, entrepreneurial Fritz Maytag bought into the brewery in an effort to revive it. Soon after, he took full control of operations and set out to reform the brewery’s signature offering, Anchor Steam. 

Maytag opted to make a beer using all malted grains, a novel concept in American brewing at that time, opting for crystal malt over sugar and food colouring. To balance the sweetness of caramel malt he added Northern Brewer hops, a relatively new breed from England. Anchor even developed its own yeast strain specifically designed for its steam beer. Throughout the 1970s, Anchor Steam would remain largely a local San Francisco specialty, until the growing demand for craft beer in the 80s led to its distribution beyond California.

California Common Style Profile

In 1981, Anchor Brewing company trademarked the name “Steam Beer” – all other beer in this style have since been referred to as California Common. It is a malt-forward brew, with colour ranging from amber to light copper, often expressing caramel and toasted malt flavours. A California Common is crisp and hoppy, without being overly bitter.  It’s the perfect all-weather brew – thirst-quenching a cool wet spring day and refreshing on a warm, sunny afternoon.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)