California Common

Anchor Steam Beer

 

Introduction

Look for a beer in your local store that fits the BJCP beer style 19B "California Common" and (ironically) you'll find that it isn't very common at all, at least not the way it used to be 100 years ago. If you find any, it'll most likely be Anchor Steam Beer, a clean tasting lager with a deep amber color, thick & creamy head, and subtle grainy / toasty / caramelly notes. Balancing out the malt is a firm hop bitterness with distinct woody / minty flavours (some people pick out evergreen or juniper) from the exclusive use of Northern Brewer hops.

With roots dating back to the 1800's California Gold Rush, the style is an American original that was developed in the cool San Francisco area in an attempt to match the traditional German cold fermented lager styles even though refrigeration wasn't readily available. Higher than normal lager fermentation temperatures were therefore used.

Brewed as an inexpensive beer for the working class, California Common was found almost everywhere along the West Coast and was brewed by as many as 25 breweries in San Francisco alone. Over the course of the next 100 years, the style almost completely disappeared.

By 1965, the Anchor Brewery of San Francisco was the only brewery still producing the beer, but it was also in peril given lack of interest and various quality problems through the 1950s and '60s (the beer was frequently sour from unintentional contamination).

That same year a young Fritz Maytag (the great-grandson of Maytag Corporation founder Frederick Louis Maytag) was looking for something serious to do with his life so when he heard that his favourite brewery was about to close, he bought controlling interest of the brewery for a few thousand dollars and made it his mission to save it from closure. Over many years Maytag worked at altering the recipe and the brewing process and the beer eventually surged in popularity. The rebuilding period ended in 1971 with the first modern bottling of Anchor Steam Beer, kicking off the craft beer revolution in the San Francisco area.

Anchor brewery copper kettlesAnchor brewery copper kettles. Image (c) anchorbrewing.com

The brewery, once located on the upper floors of a building in what is presently San Francisco's Design District, moved in 1979 to a new location nearby at the base of Potrero Hill, and throughout the coming years demand continued to climb. Not wanting to sacrifice the small size of the brewery, and in turn the quality of the beer, Maytag helped competitors become proficient in microbrewing. This helped to ease the strain on his own company and further increased craft beer market penetration.

In 1981 Anchor Brewing trademarked the term "Steam Beer" as their own, cementing the style as "California Common". While incorrect, the two are often used interchangeably.

In 2010, Maytag sold the company to former Skyy vodka executives who expanded Anchor's business while keeping a commitment to artisan brewing.

This promo video describes more about the brewery and the beer:


There have been various explanations for the use of the word "steam" in the name. According to Anchor, the name "steam" came from the fact that the brewery originally had no way to effectively chill the boiling wort using traditional means. So they pumped the hot wort up to large, shallow, open-top bins on the roof of the brewery so that it would be rapidly chilled by the cool air blowing in off the Pacific Ocean. Thus while brewing, the brewery had a distinct cloud of steam around the roof let off by the wort as it cooled, hence the name.

While Anchor Steam Beer originated and still is brewed on the West Coast, this beer does not showcase your typical citrus American hops or aggressive bitterness you'd come to expect from "West Coast" style beers such as a West Coast IPA. The malt and hops are very much balanced, resulting in a very crisp and quaffable beer.

California Common is one of the few beer styles that doesn't allow for much leeway in terms of ingredient choice. The Northern Brewer hops and special warm-fermented lager yeast are key. While there's some room to play with the malt bill, changing out the hops for anything other than Northern Brewer or substituting the White Labs WLP810 San Francisco Lager or Wyeast 2112 California Lager yeasts should be avoided. You need the woody notes from the Northern Brewer hops and the slight fruitiness from the yeast.

Both yeast strains are known to retain clean lager like characteristics working at higher temperatures than are traditional used with lagers. We find fermenting at 60-62F ambient works well (the brewery with its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean had temperatures that averaged around 60F ambient so they would have done something similar).

The Wyeast and White Labs yeast strains are both purported to be sourced directly from Anchor Brewery so use whichever is easier for you to find.

Brew up a batch and let us know how you like it!

 

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California Common

Size: 12 US gallons (post-boil @ 68F)
Mash Efficiency: 95%
Attenuation: 76%
Calories: 265 kcal per 12 fl oz
Original Gravity:
1.050 (style range: 1.048 - 1.054)
Terminal Gravity: 1.012 (style range: 1.011 - 1.014)
Colour: 10 SRM (style range: 10 - 14)
Alcohol: 4.9% ABV (style range: 4.5% - 5.5%)
Bitterness: 30 IBU (style range: 30 - 50)

Mash:
16 lb Domestic 2-Row Malt (1.8-2L) (90.1%)
1.75 lb Crystal Malt (40L) (9.9%)

Boil:
0.75 oz US Northern Brewer Hops (9.4%) - added during boil, boiled 60 min [11 IBU]
1 Whirlfloc Tablet (Irish moss) - added during boil, boiled 15 min
2.5 oz US Northern Brewer Hops (9.4%) - added during boil, boiled 15 min [17.6 IBU]
2.5 oz US Northern Brewer Hops (9.4%) - added during boil, boiled 1 min [1.5 IBU]

Yeast:
7 packs Wyeast 2112 California Lager yeast (or an appropriate starter)
- or -
7 packs White Labs WLP810 San Francisco Lager yeast (or an appropriate starter)

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Notes / Process

  • Add 500mg potassium metabisulphite to 20 gallons water to remove chlorine / chloramine (if required).
  • Water treated with brewing salts to our Balanced flavour profile: Ca=50, Mg=10, Na=16, Cl=66, SO4=77 (Hit minimums on Ca and Mg, keep the Cl:SO4 ratio low and close to equal with slightly accentuated SO4). For complete details on how to adjust your water, refer to our step by step Water Adjustment guide.
  • 1.25 qt/lb mash thickness.
  • Single infusion mash at 154F for 90 mins.
  • Raise to 168F mashout temperature and hold for 10 mins.
  • ~90 min fly sparge with ~5.6-5.8 pH water (measured at mash temperature). Collect 13.9 gallons.
  • Boil for 60 minutes, adding Whirlfloc and hops per schedule. Lid on at flameout, start chilling immediately.
  • Cool the wort quickly to 60F (we use a one-pass convoluted counterflow chiller to quickly lock in hop flavour and aroma) and transfer to fermenter.
  • Aerate well. Pure oxygen from a tank may be used at a rate of 1 litre per minute for 120 seconds per 5 gallons.
  • Pitch yeast and ferment at 62F (wort temperature). We use modified stainless fermenting buckets in wine fridges.
  • Ferment until approximately 5 points from final gravity and then raise the temperature to 70-72F until finished. In our case we simply turn off the fermenting fridges and allow the beer to naturally rise to room temperature. Assume fermentation is done if the gravity does not change over ~3 days.
  • Rack to a brite tank (we use 5 gallon glass carboys) that has been purged with CO2 to avoid oxygen pickup, add 1 tsp of unflavoured gelatin dissolved in a cup of hot distilled water per 5 gallons of beer, and allow to clear for 2-3 days.
  • Package as you would normally. We rack to kegs that have first been purged with CO2. We chill the kegs to near freezing while carbonating at the same time in a 6-keg conditioning fridge. After ~1-2 weeks at serving pressure the kegs will be carbonated and ready to serve. In a hurry? Feel free to raise the CO2 pressure temporarily to 30-40 PSI to carbonate fast over a 24 period, and then turn back down to serving pressure. 
  • Carbonate this beer to around 2.5 volumes of CO2.
  • The beer will improve greatly if conditioned just above freezing for 4 weeks before serving (6-8 weeks is even better). Avoid keeping the beer unrefrigerated for extended periods. It will remain clean and crisp for months if kept near freezing.

For detailed brewing instructions, see our Brew Day Step by Step guide.

Enjoy!

Questions? Visit our California Common forum thread

 

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Pictures / Videos

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Anchor Brewery, 1906, on Pacific Avenue between Larkin and Hyde StreetAnchor Brewery, 1906, on Pacific Avenue between Larkin and Hyde Street. Image (c) brewhoppin.com

Former owner Fritz Maytag poses for a portrait at the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, CA Thursday, August 6, 2015Former owner Fritz Maytag, poses for a portrait at the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, CA Thursday, August 6, 2015. Image (c) sfgate.com

Anchor brewery's Steam beerAnchor Brewery's Steam beer turned 120 years old in 2016. Image (c) sfgate.com

Anchor brewery's Steam beer from the 1989 Loma Prieta eathquakeDuring the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake Anchor's power went off as two batches of beer were brewing (one in the boil kettle, the other in the mash tun). When the power returned five hours later the resulting beer tasted slightly different and the brewery signified this by affixing upside-down labels. Image (c) anchorbrewing.com