NOTE: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines places California Common as Style 19 B in Category 19 Amber and Brown American Beer which contains modern American amber and brown warm-fermented beers of standard strength that can be balanced to bitter.
Cal common, or "steam Beer" was produced by one brewery after prohibition until the 1960's. The brewery was Anchor Brewing Company who trademarked the name "steam" not because they originated the style, but because they were the exclusive brewer with brand loyalty for a large part of the 20th century.
The style was brewed by quite a few breweries in the 1800's, primarily in San Francisco. The derivation of the name "steam beer" is lost to time but there are a couple of theories. One is that the beer was highly carbonated and when the cask was tapped, "steam" would escape. Another was that the beer was fermented in shallow open fermenters to try and keep the beer as cool as possible without refrigeration, and the beer would bubble and "steam" as it fermented vigorously. Either or both may have been correct.
The only beer that may be called Steam Beer is Anchor Steam, the rest must be called California Common beer. The beer style is narrowly defined by the quintessential Anchor Steam example.
The style is considered a hybrid since it is fermented with a lager yeast at higher than normal lager temperatures, between 58 and 68°F (14 to 20°C), and instead of crashing to lager temps, it is cold conditioned at around 50°F (10°C). This yields a unique set of flavor characteristics which only the Cal Common beer has.
California Common or Steam Beers are medium-amber to light copper colored beers that should be lightly fruity with a moderately rich grainy maltiness and a dry finish. You may find some interesting bread, toast and caramel flavors as well. The malt character is conspicuous but never heavy .This beer quite often showcases rustic American hop varieties. The hop bitterness is firm, balancing the beer firmly towards bitter side, but not overwhelmingly so.
Brewing Tips for a California Common Beer Recipe:
Several different yeasts may be used, and the fermentation temperature should be adjusted to the yeast. Ray Daniels, in his book Designing Great Beers, says to ferment in the range of 50 to 55°F (10 to 13°C) for Pilsen or Bavarian lager yeasts, 60 to 65°F (16 to 18°C) for California Lager yeast, and 65 to 68° for American Ale yeast. You can include some crystal to make up from 5 to 20% of the grist, where 5-10% is probably more common, and you may use some Vienna or Munich along with the 2-row or pale malt for added complexity and a little color. The hops are usually Northern Brewer to match Anchor Steam, but Cascade is very often added late for flavor and aroma. It is important to condition for a couple of weeks at 50°F (10°C) to allow the beer to clean up the byproducts of fermentation. And lastly, for the authentic touch, you can krauesen the beer for carbonation. This beer was traditionally a "real ale" in that it was cask conditioned and the beers condition at serving time depended on the publican or saloon keepers talents at managing his stock of beer kegs.
Not to be confused with a Kentucky Common beer... a once-popular sweet-ish ale style of ale from the area in and around Louisville, Kentucky from the 1850s until Prohibition. Like the Cal Common, lack of refrigeration had a lot to do with this beer's origins and ultimate style characteristics. It was not conditioned, or only quickly conditioned to reduce the carbonation, then sent out for consumption. If you look hard enough, you may be able to find attempts at reviving this once common beer from the Louisville area.
References: Information for this article was adapted from the BJCP Style Guidelines 2008 and 2015 and from the book Designing Great Beers The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles, by Ray Daniels.
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