How to Brew California Common

by Steve Thanos | Updated: January 16, 2021

California Common, or Steam Beer, as it is also historically known as, is one of only three styles that have their origins deeply rooted in America.

During the California Gold Rush of 1849, several different businesses launched and this included a segment for craft brewers. 

The Need for Lagers

Out east just prior to the growth out west, lager brewing was growing in popularity. With this need for a good lager out west, the yeast followed the brewers out west for the opportunity for lagers to be brewed in California.

However, it was quickly discovered that California’s climate was less than ideal for brewing lagers. Nevertheless, improvisation is one of the key traits of a good brewer. 

Improvisions

Brewers made the decision to brew with the lager yeast, but fermented closer to ale temps. After fermentation was reached, the beer was then finished in long wooden vessels called coolships. This kept the beer cooler and reduced the chances of off-flavors.

The finished beer was then transferred into barrels with a specific amount of unfinished beer. The unfinished beer would then condition and carbonate. This created a very highly carbonated beer. 

Theories of how “Steam” came to be

It is unknown exactly how California Common style became known as “Steam.” There are three prevailing ideas or theories out there. Like most stories, some of all three ideas might actually be true.

Anchor Steam Brewing Company tells the story of their brewery in San Francisco having their coolships on their rooftops due to the cool night air. The difference of ambient temperature and the beer would create the steam. 

Another theory was the need to let off excess carbonation before serving the beer. The carbonation was so high that it sounded like a steam whistle when the barrel was first tapped. 

Finally, the last theory is that the name originated from Dampfbier, translated to “steam beer.” This was a German style that was brewed at high temperatures. Seeing how many of the brewers at that time came from Germany, it is a possibility. 

Style Profile for California Common

Appearance

The color of a California Common should be amber to light copper. A long-lasting off-white head caps off the beer.  

Aroma

The aroma of woody, earthy, and maybe even minty is common due to the Northern Brewer hops that are present in this beer. Some caramel and toast is present in the beer as well. 

Flavor

Moderately malty with a pronounced hop bitterness. The malt character is toast and caramelly. Low to moderately-high hop flavor, usually woody, earthy, and minty.

The beer finishes dry and crisp with a lingering hop bitterness and a firm grainy flavor. Light fruity esters are present. 

Mouthfeel

The mouthfeel is medium bodied. Medium to medium-high carbonation. 

Food Pairing

When it comes to pairing a Califoriai Common with food, consider the caramelly malt and hop bitterness of the beer style. Grilled meats tend to pair well with a beer with caramel and toasty flavors. Spicy foods like Thai and Mexican are also good pairings. Pork loin, feta cheese, and bread pudding are all good pairings as well. 

Tips for Brewing your own California Common

Grain

The grist for a California Common usually starts with domestic 2-Row, domestic pale malt, or domestic Pilsner. These grains will give the beer a subtly malt backbone, light bready, biscuit notes, and a grainy malt character respectively.

A single base malt or a combination of any of the three would work well. Play around to see what best suits you and your taste. Crystal malt between 30 and 70 °L and up to 10% of the grist is needed for this beer. Some Victory malt, biscuit, or even pale chocolate imparts a nice dark, toasty note to the beer. Keep these additions to around 1%. 

Hops

Traditionally, Northern Brewer hops were used for a California Common. This is the hop that Anchor Steam used and still uses today. Typical American hops being citrusy and fruit forward, tend to overshadow the feremation character of this style. Northern Brewer hops have a nice woody, earthy character.

In terms of hop quantities and additions, these should be bold, yet not overwhelm the palate and turn into an IPA. A bittering addition is common along with a flavor and aroma addition. A bitterness-to-starting gravity ratio should be between 0.6 to 1.0. 

Yeast

Using the proper yeast at its proper fermentation temperature is key for this style.

White Labs San Francisco Lager WLP810, Wyeast California Lager 2112, or even a Kolsch yeast strain can all produce a nice California Common.  

California Common the By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 10 – 14 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.048 – 1.154 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.014 FG
  • IBU Range: 30 – 45
  • ABV Range: 4.5 – 5.5%

Martin Keen’s California Common Recipe

Grain

74%            8 lbs        Pale Malt (2-Row)     

  9 %           1 lb          Caramell 40  

10 %           1 lb          Munich Malt

  5 %           8 oz         Cara-Pils

  2 %           2 oz         Chocolate Rye Malt

Hops

1.00 oz         Northern Brewer – Boil  45 min

0.50 oz         Northern Brewer  – Boil 15 min

0.50 oz         Northern Brewer  – Boil  0 min

Yeast

1.0 pkg   California Lager Wyeast 2112

Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins 

Transcript: Today I’m brewing what can we described as truly an American beer that is a beer style that is native to the US and that is California common.

And I’m going to be controlling, fermentation temperature using this stuff.

I’m Martin keen and taking the Homebrew challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. And California common, while it’s clean and crisp beer, it looks and tastes like a lager, it uses lager a yeast, but it’s brewed at ale temperatures.

And like most American beer styles, it’s pleasantly hopped, but we’re not going for citrusy or fruity hop aromas. This time we’re going for more of the earthy and woody aromas.

This is a beer that’s going to have an original gravity of 1.052, which will give us about a 5% beer just a little bit under. Now the main ingredient, the base malt for this beer is pale 2 row malt, and that’s going to make up 75% of this grist. Then to this somewhat blank canvas, we do want to draw out a bit of malty sweetness.

So to that end, I’m adding in 10% of caramel, 40 and 10% of Munich malt. Also adding in 4% of Carapils, and then just for a little touch of sharpness, I’m adding in 1% of chocolate rye.

Controlling fermentation temperature is pretty important for most yeast strains. And the way that I do it is I used chest freezers. So here I’ve got a chest freezer with a temperature controller set to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s controlling the temperature from my two fermenters in here, but I’ve recently started fermenting some of my beers in this.

This is an Anvil four gallon fermenter and it’s designed for small batch brewing. And when I put this thing in my chest freezer, it’s kind of dwarfed in there. And it honestly seems a bit of a waste to use such a large area to control temperature. So I have got a cooling system to test today that is designed specifically for this fermentor.

So let’s take a look then at how this cooling system works and the main differences rather than using ambient temperature, which is what I do with my chest freezer. I’m going to control the temperature in here by flowing cold water through the fermenter.

And I’m going to do that using this, which is called a cooling coil. And basically it’s going to hook up to some hose. The hose is going to run icy water through it, uh, via a pump. And then we’re going to control when the icy water should flow through the fermenter using a temperature controller. So that’s the basic idea of it, but let me show you all of the parts.

So first of all, we’ve got this jacket, this jacket is going to wrap around the fermentor itself. And that way we will be able to insulate any sort of temperature changes. So this should give us a more consistent temperature reading.

I have a stopper here that’s going to go in the top of this thing. And through that stopper, that’s where I’m going to put all of this stuff. So I’m going to take my cooling coil, and that’s going to run through these tops, the top of these holes in this, in this stopper.

So the cooling coil threads through these two holes here in the stopper, and that’s then just going to sit in the top of this here. You can see it’s just basically going to be running the water in to the fermentor. In addition, we need to be able to measure the temperature inside the fermenter and I have this thermal well to do that. And that also goes into the stopper now to send water in and out of this, that’s where I’m going to use this submersible pump.

So this is really pretty simple. I’m going to put this pump into a cooler with some ice water and then use that to recirculate. And in addition to that, I’m going to use this temperature controller here, uh, with this probe. And this probe is going to go in the, uh, the thermal well here to monitor the temperature.

Now I’m going to try this in a couple of different cooling scenarios, but before I get to that need to really make some beer.

Hops for this; It’s all Northern brewer. I think you’ll see a lot of California common recipes tend to favor this hop. So I’m adding in as my bittering hop at the start of the boil and this will give me about 35 of the 43 IBU we’re expecting to get out of this beer. Um, I’m then going to add half an ounce at 15 minutes from the end of the boil and another half ounce at flame out.

I put the jacket on the fermenter and transferred the wort that is now cooled. Came in at an original gravity of 1.058. So a little bit higher than I was expecting a bit more efficient. Um, now this needs to be cooled this wort a little bit more before I can pitch any yeast.

This is one of the things that I’m finding with brewing in the summer is my groundwater is around 80 something Fahrenheit’s, it’s just not able to call down to pitching temperatures. And I want to pitch at about 68 Fahrenheit.

What a good opportunity to try out a cooling system. So let’s get cooling’s, I’ve got the lid, which I’m going to put on here and tighten up. And now in this four port stopper, I’ve got the cooling coil, and I’ve also added in my, um, thermal. Well, I put this in there.

There is one unused hole that is going to be used for the airlocks. Let’s just quickly drop that in the sanitizer. And then put that in. Now I’ve plugged in my Anvil temperature controller and then put the temperature probe into the thermal well here. It’s reporting that the beer temperature is currently 87 Fahrenheit, and I’ve set it to say that I want it to be 68 Fahrenheit.

So now it’s got the cooling light on, which means it will power on whatever cooling device we use to call this stuff down. And that’s going to be my pump.

Let’s see how long it takes to get from 87 Fahrenheit to 68F.

At 68 Fahrenheit’s or 20 Celsius. And, uh, yeah, I just, I just let it run while I was going about my business, cleaning the brewery.

A couple of things I realized as this was chilling down, firstly, um, ice water melts, especially when it’s passing through warmer liquid. So this really started to slow down once it got to about 72, until I realized that there was no more ice in here. So I topped this up with ice, it’s much cooler now, and then it really started moving quicker.

The other thing that I did was every now and again, I would give the wort a stir just by taking this and turning it in a few circles. Wort is a really good insulator, so that’s a sort of helped to even up the temperature and make sure that everything was getting cool. But yet now I am done.

I’m ready for the yeast and I am using Wyeast 2112, this is California lager yeast that I am pitching at 68 Fahrenheit, 20 Celsius. So at ale temperatures.

So let’s add this in. And that’s it. So now we enter phase two of the cooling experiment. We get to see how this does during fermentation. So right now everything is still plugged in it’s sets to 68 Fahrenheit, but the pump isn’t running because this thermometer reads that it is currently at 68. So this will cycle on and off as needed. And I’m just going to check this every now and again, to check that the water is still relatively cold and maybe add a little bit more ice over the next few days.

Few weeks along now, and yeah, this has worked really well with a little bit of ice. This has done a nice job of maintaining temperature. I do want to give this though one more test and that is to see if I can get from my current temperature, which is 68 Fahrenheit or 20 Celsius all the way down to cold crash temperatures. So just a little bit above freezing.

So I’m curious to see if this can do it, how long it’s going to take and how easy is to stay at those temperatures. So let’s give it a shot.

Left this running most of the day. What I found was within a couple of hours, I got this down to about 45 Fahrenheit. Um, but then all my ice melted. So I added more ice that cooled the water a bit more, but again, I’ve got just a bucket of water here.

So the fact that I’m not able to close this cooler all the way means the ice just keeps on melting. But given that I’ve not been able to keep ice in this cooler instead, what I’m going to do is I’m just gonna move this fermenter into my chest freezer. Bring that down to the final cold crash temperature of just a couple of degrees above freezing and move it into a keg and give the beer of try.

Okay. So we will try this California common. Um, now Lauren, you don’t think, you know too much about this style, right?

I have no idea. I did ask you. You’re kind of very vague about it.

I want you to try it and make your own opinions. So, um, let’s take a look at what you think of the, the color of this one.

All right. So it’s kind of a deep Amber, um, very bubbly. I do you want to say, uh, when I poured it, the head retention was amazing. Like it did not go down at all. It took me a while to set the cameras up today and, uh, yeah, it just, uh, it just stayed there and that was great. Yeah. It looks, it looks really good. Okay.

Now, what are you getting on the nose with this one? Me personally, I like, I kind of smell like very thing, like sweet toast. Mm. Yeah. It’s very, very basic. It is fine. You’re right. It’s that.

It also might be the great head retention. That’s like, Oh, I see. You’re impressed with the head retention on this one. Yeah.

Very proud of every time I pour a beer and it looks amazing. And then I’m like, oh, you are responsible for our good looking thumbnails on this channel.

Yeah. Okay. Let’s go in for the taste here. I did take this to the neighborhood outdoor happy hour on Friday, everyone drank before I got there. Yes. And, uh, the, I think the, the thing that most people said was this is very drinkable. Um, you know, which is just trust to say it’s very easy drinking.

It was boiling hot afternoon and it’s kind of perfect for that sort of environment. Um, yeah. It’s, everything’s quite subtle about it. I think it’s quite subtle one thing to say about this, because you mentioned lagers earlier, it, it does use your lager yeast to brew it. But luckily yeast is usually fermented at cold temperatures, but I see you take this lager yeast and you fermented it ale temperatures.

So kind of like thinking about like a kind of like a hybrid beer?

Yeah. That’s exactly what it is. Yeah. It’s a hybrid beer. So it’s a, it’s a lager that’s brewed like an ale.

Now next week’s beer is, uh, what’d you call this Amber colored. Yeah. The next beer is just a shade darker than this, but not only am I going to brew next week’s beer, but I’m also going to have a hand in preparing the ingredients. So that is next week.

You are? Yeah, I am. But for now, cheers!

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.