California Common Beer: A Comprehensive Guide

California Common beer, often referred to as Steam Beer, is a unique hybrid style that originated in the United States during the late 1800s. This distinctive beer is known for its complex flavors and aromas, mainly due to the use of a specialized lager yeast, which is fermented at warmer ale-like temperatures. The style gained its popularity during the California Gold Rush of 1849, as the lack of refrigeration led to the need for a brewing process that could withstand warmer temperatures.


Today, California Common beer is celebrated for its toasted malt and caramel-like flavor profiles that make it both refreshing and versatile. While this style is not as widespread as some other beer varieties, it remains an important part of American brewing heritage, with San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company being one of the most famous producers of this beer style.

Key Takeaways

  • California Common beer, or Steam Beer, is a hybrid style unique to the US with its origins dating back to the late 1800s.
  • The brewing process features a specialized lager yeast fermented at warmer ale temperatures, resulting in complex flavors and aromas.
  • Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco is one of the most well-known producers of California Common beer.

History of California Common Beer

California Common Beer, also known as “steam beer,” has a unique and fascinating history. Originating on the West Coast of the US, this style of beer was born out of necessity during the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. At that time, traditional brewing techniques and ingredients were not easily accessible, and brewers had to adapt to the resources available.

San Francisco played a significant role in the development of this beer style. Due to the lack of refrigeration and limited access to ice, brewers had to find alternative ways to cool their fermenting beer. They employed large shallow open fermenters, known as coolships, which took advantage of the cool ambient temperatures in the San Francisco Bay area to compensate for the absence of refrigeration.

Steam beer is often thought to be named after the steam engine lager, but there are several theories about how this unique style got its name. One popular belief is that the name “steam” originated from the pressure created inside wooden casks during the brewing process. Another possibility is that it derived from the steam released by beer-filled casks when they were tapped. However, there is no concrete evidence to confirm any of these theories.

In modern times, the Anchor Brewing Company is credited with revitalizing and popularizing the California Common Beer. They trademarked the term “steam beer” in 1981. Although the modern company maintains a connection to a small brewery operating since the 1890s, Anchor Steam is recognized as a contemporary craft-brewed lager.

Today, California Common Beer stands as a wholly American style, characterized by its unique history, brewing techniques, and distinctive flavor profile. It serves as a testament to the creativity and ingenuity displayed by the brewers during the challenging period of the gold rush and has become a cherished part of the US beer landscape.

Brewing Process

The brewing process for California Common beer involves a mix of techniques typically used in both lager and ale brewing. This hybrid style is known for its crisp and refreshing taste, which can be attributed to the unique combination of lager yeast and ale fermentation.

To start, you will need to prepare your mash. Use domestic two-row, pale ale, or Pilsner malt as your base malt for a clean, subtle background malt character. Heat your strike water to the required volume and temperature, typically around 163°F, so the mash temperature drops to around 152°F. Maintain this temperature and mash for 60 minutes.

After mashing, move onto the sparging process, which involves separating the liquid wort from the grain. Sparge with a suitable amount of water, approximately 5.2 gallons, to reach a pre-boil gravity of around 1.043.

When you have collected your wort, proceed to the boil stage. During the boil, add your hops at specific intervals to contribute to the California Common’s distinct flavor profile. Northern Brewer hops are commonly used, imparting a woody, earthy, and slightly minty character. You may add 1 oz (28 g) of hops at 60 minutes, 1 oz (28 g) at 10 minutes, and 1 oz (28 g) at flame out to achieve around 35 IBUs.

After boiling, it’s crucial to chill your wort quickly. This can be done using an immersion chiller, a plate chiller, or a counter-flow chiller. Once the wort is cooled, transfer it to a fermentation vessel.

Now it’s time to pitch your yeast. For a California Common, use a lager yeast, such as the San Francisco Lager yeast. Though this yeast is typically used for lagers, the fermentation will be done at higher temperatures characteristic of ale brewing.

Allow the beer to ferment at an ambient temperature of around 54°F (12°C), a few degrees warmer than typical lagers. Maintain this temperature for the duration of the fermentation process. Finally, let the beer condition for an appropriate period before packaging and enjoying your unique California Common beer.


In this section, we will discuss the key ingredients required for brewing a California Common beer, covering Malt, Hops, Yeast, and Water.


A typical California Common beer’s malt profile includes domestic pale ale malt or domestic two-row malt as the base. Additionally, it’s common to use about 10% of a mid-color crystal malt for added color and caramel-like flavor. Other optional varieties to consider are Munich malt, Victory malt, and pale chocolate malt. These ingredients contribute to the beer’s overall body, flavor, and color.


The primary hops used for California Common beers are Northern Brewer hops. Their woody, earthy, and minty attributes provide the beer’s characteristic moderately-high hop flavor and bitterness. For optimal results, it’s essential to use just the right amount of hops to create a balance between bitterness and maltiness, resulting in a distinct taste that defines this unique beer style.


California Common beer is brewed using a special strain of lager yeast that can ferment at warmer, ale-like temperatures. This method dates back to the late 1800s in California when refrigeration was scarce, and brewers had to improvise to cool the beer down. Popular yeast options for this beer style include California Common yeast from White Labs (WLP810) or Wyeast (2112). These yeast strains contribute to the beer’s clean, crisp finish and its distinguishable hybrid character.


The water used in brewing California Common beer should be neutral to slightly hard, as this will enhance the beer’s overall character. Ensuring the water used for brewing is of high quality and properly treated with necessary minerals can positively impact the resulting beer. It’s essential to maintain appropriate water chemistry, balancing the mineral content to achieve a well-rounded beer that showcases the unique ingredients used in this brewing process.



California Common beer presents a slightly suffocated appearance, akin to a more restrained version of the original style. The color typically ranges from amber to light brown with an SRM of 10 to 14, and it forms a foamy, off-white head when poured.


The aroma of a California Common is a harmonious blend of earthy and herbal hop notes, caramel-like malt character, and hints of toasted malt. There may also be subtle fruitiness, contributing to the overall complexity of the beer’s bouquet.


When it comes to flavor, expect a balanced profile that includes elements of toasted malt, caramel, and earthy hop bitterness. The IBU range of this beer is typically between 30 and 45, with an original gravity of 1.048 to 1.055. Additionally, a California Common may feature subtle hints of citrusy, woody, and rustic notes that round out its distinctive taste.


The mouthfeel of a California Common is medium-bodied with a moderate level of carbonation. It tends to have a smooth, malty backbone and imparts a slightly crisp sensation on the palate.


The finish of a California Common beer is typically clean and dry. It features a hop bitterness that lingers, accompanied by a pleasant toasty malt character. This style of beer is a unique hybrid, brewed with lager yeast but fermented at ale fermentation temperatures (46-54° F), which contributes to its distinct characteristics and overall appeal.

Commercial Examples

California Common is an authentic American beer style that emerged due to unique circumstances in the brewing industry during the gold rush era. A number of breweries have since taken inspiration from this style and have created their own unique renditions. Here are some notable commercial examples of California Common beer:

  • Anchor Steam: This beer from Anchor Brewing Company is perhaps the most famous example of California Common. It was originally called Steam Beer, but the name has since been trademarked by the brewery. Anchor Steam has an ABV (Alcohol by volume) of around 4% – 5.5% and features a rich, malty flavor with a balanced hop bitterness.

  • Steamworks Brewing Co. Steam Engine Lager: A popular offering from Steamworks Brewing Co., this medium-bodied beer showcases the signature characteristics of California Common with its amber color, clear carbonation, and a subtle hoppy aroma.

  • Flying Dog Old Scratch Amber Lager: Another example of California Common, Old Scratch Amber Lager by Flying Dog Brewery is an easy-drinking beer that features malt sweetness, caramel undertones, and a smooth finish.

  • Schlafly Pi Common: This offering from Schlafly Brewery is an interesting take on the California Common style. Pi Common has a slightly higher ABV than most other examples, but still maintains the balance between malt and hop flavors that define the style.

  • Columbia Common: A beer from Widmer Brothers Brewing, Columbia Common showcases the versatility of the California Common style. This beer has a smooth and refreshing taste with hints of fruity and floral hops.

  • Derecho: Derecho is another interpretation of the California Common style, crafted by Port City Brewing. It features a toasted malt character, balanced bitterness, and a complex, earthy hop profile.

  • Southern Tier 2X Steam: An offering from Southern Tier Brewing Company, 2X Steam is a variation on the California Common style that features a higher ABV and amplified hop character.

  • Bauhaus Brew Labs Wagon Party: A beer from Bauhaus Brew Labs, Wagon Party is a light amber California Common that highlights the style’s clear carbonation and subtle hop flavors.

These examples showcase the diverse interpretations and creativity that breweries have put into producing California Common beers. Each offering, while maintaining the distinct characteristics of the style, brings something unique to the table for beer enthusiasts to enjoy.

Food Pairings

California Common beer, with its well-rounded flavors, pairs exceptionally well with a variety of dishes. The beer’s light amber to medium amber color and its unique flavor profile make it a versatile option for enhancing your meal.

One excellent food pairing for California Common beer is pork loin. This cut of meat lends itself well to the beer’s robust and earthy flavors, creating a perfect harmony between the dish and the beverage. To amplify this pairing, consider serving the pork loin with a side of roasted vegetables or a tangy glaze.

In addition to meat dishes, California Common also complements a variety of cheese options. English-style Cheddars, Gruyère, Emmental, and Swiss cheeses are likely to enhance the beer’s flavor due to their distinct taste profiles.

Spicier dishes can also be a delightful match for California Common beer. For instance, consider pairing it with Cajun food or jerk chicken. These spicy meals can balance well with the beer’s earthy notes and create a surprisingly pleasant flavor combination.

When it comes to side dishes, consider options like:

  • Feta Bread Pudding
  • Pineapple-Turmeric Glaze
  • Grilled Vegetables

Serve California Common beer in a Nonic Pint glassware and aim for a serving temperature between 46-54°F for the best flavor experience.

Remember that these suggestions are just a starting point, and you should feel free to experiment to discover your favorite pairings with this versatile and unique beer style.

Brewing Tips

When brewing a California Common beer, it’s essential to consider the fermentation temperature. This unique beer style, often referred to as a “Steam Beer,” combines the characteristics of both ales and lagers. Fermenting at a warmer temperature around 54°F (12°C) for 14 days allows for the development of fruity esters, which are typically associated with ales.

After the initial fermentation period, let the temperature rise to 68°F (20°C) and hold it there for three days. This warmer temperature will help round out the flavor profile and contribute to a more pleasant mouthfeel. Finally, crash the beer to 35°F (2°C) to aid in clarification and prepare for bottling or kegging.

The appearance of a California Common should showcase an amber to light copper color, topped with a long-lasting off-white head. The distinctive hop flavor comes from using Northern Brewer hops, which impart woody, earthy, and slightly minty notes. Unlike more traditional lagers, this style embraces American hops and their signature flavors.

In crafting the grain bill, consider using a mix of domestic two-row or pale ale malt, along with about 10% mid-color crystal malt. This combination will create a solid base and contribute to the bready, toasty flavors typical of the style. Adding Munich malt at a proportion of around 1.5 lb (680 g) to the base malts can also enhance these characteristics.

During the boiling process, it’s crucial to use a kettle that allows for even heat distribution and proper rolling boils. This will ensure a consistent final gravity, which impacts the balance between maltiness and hop bitterness.

According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines, a California Common belongs to the “Amber And Brown American Beer” category. Keep this in mind when aiming for the desired profile. The beer should exhibit mild fruitiness, with herbal, and woody hop flavors. The perfect balance between malt, hops, and esters will result in a satisfying and enjoyable California Common beer.

Unique Attributes

California Common, also known as Steam Beer, is a distinctly American beer style with a rich and storied history. It originated in California during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a response to the lack of refrigeration available for traditional lager brewing. This led to the development of a beer that combines the characteristics of both lagers and ales.

One of the key features of California Common beer is the use of lager yeast, which is typically fermented at warmer ale temperatures, resulting in a distinctive flavor profile. This unique hybrid nature makes California Common stand out among other beer styles.

The color of California Common typically ranges from medium amber to light copper. It is generally clear, with a moderate off-white head that boasts good retention. In terms of flavor and aroma, this beer offers a lightly fruity character with firm, grainy maltiness. You can expect to detect toasty and caramel flavors, as well as rustic, traditional American hop characteristics such as woody, minty, or even minty notes.

The ingredients used in California Common are crucial to its unique profile. A notable inclusion is chocolate rye, which can impart some of the toasty and caramel flavors. Generally, the beer has a final gravity (FG) in the range of 1.011 to 1.014, giving a relatively dry finish.

When it comes to bitterness, California Common typically has an International Bitterness Unit (IBU) level between 30 and 45. While it is not overly bitter, the beer does showcase a moderate to moderately-high hop bitterness, making it relatively balanced against the malt flavors.

As for glassware, California Common is often served in a Nonic Pint or a Willi Becher glass. These glasses are ideal for preserving the beer’s head and allowing the hop aroma to be more prominent as you sip the beer.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the history behind California Common beer?

California Common beer, also known as Steam Beer, originated in the United States during the 19th century, specifically in California. It is one of the few beer styles with its roots firmly in American soil. The name “Steam Beer” was trademarked by Anchor Brewing Company, so other examples of the style are legally referred to as “California Common” (source).

How is California Common beer brewed?

California Common beer is brewed using a specialized lager yeast, but fermentation takes place at ale temperatures, creating a unique yeast profile. This hybrid brewing process was born out of necessity, as traditional lager fermentation temperatures were difficult to maintain in the warmer California climate (source).

What are the key characteristics of California Common beer?

California Common beers typically have an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 4%-5.5% and an International Bitterness Unit (IBU) range of 35-45. The beer’s distinct flavors come from the use of lager yeast fermented at ale temperatures and the assertive hop bitterness, which can present as woody, rustic, or minty. Some noticeable caramel-type malt flavor should also be present (source).

What type of yeast is used in California Common beer?

A specialized lager yeast is used in the brewing of California Common beer. It is unique as it can ferment at ale temperatures, allowing for the development of complex aromas that distinguish the style (source).

Are there any specific water profiles associated with California Common beer?

There isn’t any particular water profile associated with California Common beer. The style grew to prominence in various locations throughout California, so the water profiles used might differ based on individual breweries’ sources.

What are some notable differences between California Common and Kentucky Common beers?

California Common and Kentucky Common beers are different unique American beer styles that developed independently of each other. California Common relies on lager yeast fermented at ale temperatures, while Kentucky Common uses ale yeast. Also, Kentucky Common is known for its use of corn and rye in the grain bill and boasts a more sour and darker profile, in contrast to the distinct hoppiness and caramel-type malt flavors in California Common.

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