Style of the Month: California Common

By Steve Piatz

This article originally appeared in the April 2008 newsletter of the Minnesota Home Brewers Association

The MHBA Style of the Month is an opportunity to brew a particular style and join fellow club members in sharing, discussing and critiquing a particular style. Consider brewing this now and bringing it to the April club meeting to share and discuss!

This month the style of the month (SOTM) is for a California Common in preparation for the July meeting. Your California Common should take no more than seven to ten days for the primary fermentation step. Bottle conditioning will add a couple more weeks to the time required. Brewing your California Common before the end of March should give you sufficient time for your California Common to be ready to serve at the June meeting.

California Common Description

Summarizing from the description of California Common in the BJCP Guidelines available at the aroma showcases the signature Northern Brewer hops with their woody, rustic or minty qualities in moderate to high strength. Light fruitiness is acceptable. Low to moderate caramel and/or toasty malt aromatics support the hops. No diacetyl. The appearance is medium amber to light copper color. Generally clear with a moderate off-white head with good retention. The flavor is moderately malty with a pronounced hop bitterness. The malt character is usually toasty (not roasted) and caramelly. Low to moderately high hop flavor, usually showing Northern Brewer qualities as woody, rustic, and minty. The finish is fairly dry and crisp, with a lingering hop bitterness and a firm, grainy malt flavor. Light fruity esters are acceptable, but otherwise clean with no diacetyl. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied with medium to medium-high carbonation. The overall impression is of a lightly fruity beer with firm, grainy maltiness, interesting toasty and caramel flavors, and showcasing the signature Northern Brewer varietal hop character.

The classic commercial example available in our area is Anchor Steam.

By the numbers, a  California Common is:

  • OG: 1.048 – 1.054
  • FG: 1.011 – 1.014
  • SRM: 10 – 14
  • IBU: 30 – 45
  • ABV: 4.5 – 5.5%

California Common Background

The historic “steam” beer goes back to around the time of the gold rush in California. However, steam beer was considered a cheap and low quality beer. The following excerpt comes from the 1902 second edition of Whal and Henius’ classic book American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, pages 776 – 778.

“The beer is largely consumed throughout the state of California. It is called steam beer on account of its high effervescing properties and the amount of pressure (“steam”) it has in the packages. The pressure ranges from 40 to 70 pounds in each trade package, according to the amount of Kräusen added, temperatures, and time it takes before being consumed and the distance it travels from saloon rack to faucet, etc. Usually 50 to 60 pounds’ pressure is sufficient for general use.Strength of wort: 11 to 12.5 balling.”


Malt alone, malt and grits, or raw cereals of any kind, and sugars, especially glucose, employed in the kettle to the extent of 331⁄3 per cent. The barley is malted as for lager beers. Roasted malt or sugar coloring is used to give the favorite amber color of Munich beer.

Mashing methods vary greatly. Some brewers employ English mashing methods, but the double mashing methods employed in a great many lager breweries, starting with low temperatures, in fact, mashing as though for lager beer with the exception of stopping and mashing at 158° F. (56° R) until all is converted will give very good results. But as a rule the initial temperatures are taken about 140° to 145° F. (48° to 50° R.), then to 149° to 154° F (54° to 53° R.), mash 10 to 15 minutes, and then rai se to 158° F. (56° R.) as final temperature.

The raw cereals are cooked and added in the same manner as if conducting a lager beer mash.

The mash is allowed to rest about 45 minutes, and the same precautions are taken in running off wort and sparging as in other mashes, the sparging water to be about 167° F. (60° R.).

The hops used depend on the quality. Of a good quality, three-fourths of a pound per barrel is used and added in the usual way.

The wort is boiled as soon as the bottom of the kettle is covered, and after the kettle is filled, boiling is continued for one to two hours. The wort is then pumped to the surface cooler, and then over the Baudelot cooler and cooled to about 60° to 62° F. (12°to 13 ° R.). In breweries where no cooling apparatus is used, the wort is exposed over night, or until it is cooled to about the above temperature.


The wort is now run into tubs of the starting tub style and size, where it is pitched with about one pound per barrel of a special type of bottom fermenting yeast and well aerated. In about 14 hours a thick, heavy Kräusen head appears from which the beer to be racked off is Kräusened. The temperature of the beer is now about 2° to 3° F. higher or about 62°to 63° F. (13° to 14° R.) if pitched at 60°. After Kräusen have been taken it is run into long, wide shallow vats called clarifiers, which are made of wood, about 12 inches high. Precautions should be taken that clarifiers, in which the beer stands six to eight inches high, are not too cold, so as to give the wort running out of the tubs a sudden set-back which may check fermentation. … The wort then ferments in the clarifiers for two to four days.

There is more in the Wahl and Henius text including details on all the processes of the time so you can check the book out to see what “in the usual way” really means. The details on priming the kegs is perhaps interesting in that Kräusen of about 33 to 40 per cent was used – kegs had to be fined just like for classic English ale casks since there was yeast in them.

However, some things to note from the above, written nearly 50 years after the California gold rush,

  • The beer wasn’t always all grain, it could be one third adjuncts.
  • Coloring came from roasted malt or burnt sugars, for color like Munich beers.
  • The beer apparently became more carbonated as it aged, a sign of poor sanitation.
  • The wort was chilled via a surface cooler (a.k.a. a coolship) and a Baudelot cooler – both are open chilling techniques that can invite souring organisms to party on the wort.
  • If you didn’t have cooling equipment you could just leave to wort out over night to chill to pitching temperatures, that sounds just like a lambic process.

It is not surprising then to learn that the modern reference for the California Common style and that is the name in Whal and Henius, the beer we know as Anchor Steam, really has nothing in common with the historic style other than the name. The Anchor Steam trademark was registered in 1981 and the current beer was developed after Fritz Maytag purchased the Anchor brewery in the 1960’s.

Some have claimed that California Common is the only style developed in the United States but that ignores Cream Ale, the largely defunct Kentucky Common, the American Light, Standard, and Premium Lagers, the Classic American Pilsner, and the more recent styles like American Brown Ale, American Amber Ale, American Stout, and a series of imperial styles.

The Recipe

The target for the recipe is a beer with an original gravity of 1.054 and about 41 IBUs. The recipe is for 5.5 gallons of wort. That should give you a full five gallons of beer in the fermenter after losses in the kettle.

All Grain Version

Pounds Malt
9.45 Pilsner Malt
1.18 Dark Munich Malt
0.95 Crystal 40°L
0.47 Victory Malt
0.12 Pale Chocolate Malt

The specialty grains are there to give you some of the toast and caramel notes of the style. The pale chocolate is used at a low level mainly to add a little color and complexity. The grist should be mashed with at 150° F with about 4.05 gallons (1.33 quarts per pound of grist) of water for about 45 minutes. A mash out at 168° F is optional.

Extract Version

The extract version just replaces the pale malt with light liquid malt extract to reach the same original gravity.

Pounds Malt
6.50 Amber Liquid Extract
1.18 Dark Munich Malt
0.95 Crystal 40°L
0.47 Victory Malt
0.12 Pale Chocolate Malt

Since the Munich and Victory malts have to be mashed, the grains are mini- mashed (steeped) in about four quarts of water at 150° F for 30 minutes.

If you don’t have the ability to boil the full 7 gallons of wort in the extract recipe try for the largest boil you can handle. If your boil volume is significantly below 7 gallons you will probably want to increase the hop quantities (below) by 10% or more because the hop utilization will be reduced due to the higher specific gravity in the boil. Remember that a partial boil is going to result in a slightly darker colored beer than you would get from the same ingredients used in a full volume boil.


You should be able to produce this beer with water with low sulfates, high sulfates tend to accentuate the hops too much for this style. Low to moderate carbonate is also appropriate.

The Boil

The hop bill is as follow:

Amount (oz) Hop Variety Time Left
0.82 Northern Brewer Pellets @ 7% 60
1.38 Northern Brewer Pellets @ 7% 15
1.38 Northern Brewer Pellets @ 7% 1

The style really depends on the signature Northern Brewer hops so while it is reasonable to change the amount of hops and the addition times to match your preferences there are not a lot of alternative hop varieties to try if you want to make a California Common.

Post Boil Processing and Fermentation

At the end of the boil you need to chill the beer to the primary fermentation temperature for your yeast strain of choice. The choices include the typical steam beer strains including Wyeast 2112 California Lager and White Labs WLP801 San Francisco Lager. Both yeasts are really lager strains that will be used at a cool ale temperature. Fermentation at 60° – 62° F is appropriate, the yeast will work cooler but it isn’t required to make a really clean lager for the style.

To prime 5 gallons of the beer with corn sugar, if the beer is at 68° F, you will need 0.27 pounds (4.39 ounces by weight) of corn sugar. The carbonation calculator in programs like ProMash make it easy to determine the amount of priming sugar to use based on the temperature of the beer at bottling time. Once you prime and bottle the beer you will need to store the beer at the primary fermentation temperature for a couple of weeks.


Robert Wahl and Max Henius, American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, Second Edition, 1902

Recipe files

California Common recipes: