Beer and wine

The Complete (Chicago) Beer Course: California Common

When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.

Style

California Common, aka Steam Beer

History Lesson

California Common owes its origin to a single event: The California Gold Rush. As hundreds of thousands of fortune-seekers headed west, German immigrant brewers saw a market for beer and tagged along. Naturally, they brought lager yeast with them.

For one reason or another, those brewers pivoted away from traditional lager brewing upon arrival in the Bay Area. Exactly why they did so is unclear. Bernstein writes in The Complete Beer Course that brewers lacked access to either cool caves or a steady supply of ice, precluding cold fermentation. Jeff Alworth argues in The Beer Bible, however, that it was more a matter of economics; there was so much demand for beer at San Francisco’s taverns that brewers could not afford lager’s long fermentation times. Either way, sources agree that brewers fermented their beer in large, shallow fermentation tanks on rooftops, allowing for a quick fermentation period aided by cool Pacific Ocean breezes.

Perhaps due to the steam coming off of brewery roofs, or maybe because of the beer’s high-pressure packaging, the end result was dubbed “steam beer.” While steam beer was popular along the West Coast in the 19th century, by the 1960s San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing was the only one still making it. That’s when Fritz Maytag stepped in and bought the struggling brewery. He recreated the original brewing process with modern equipment and released the first modern batch of steam beer in 1971. Maytag then trademarked the term “steam beer” in 1981, leading other breweries to use the term “California Common” ever since.

BJCB Description

“A lightly fruity beer with firm, grainy maltiness, interesting toasty and caramel flavors, and showcasing rustic, traditional American hop characteristics.”

Fun Fact

Anchor updated its label this January. The verdict? Everyone hates it.

Third Coast Review’s Take

This is California’s Yuengling: A no-nonsense, old school amber lager.

I Tried

  1. Anchor Steam Beer
  2. Kinslahger Chicago Common

Anchor Steam Beer is the classic California Common (and the only variant still legally allowed to call itself “steam beer”). It’s light-bodied, but full of malt character with a bright hoppy finish. Now nearly 50 years old in its modern iteration, Anchor Steam Beer seems conservative by the standards of 21st century craft beer, but remains remarkable in its execution. It’s best paired with sourdough bread while enjoying a cool Pacific evening.

Let me start with a disclaimer: Kinslahger Chicago Common is not a California Common. In fact, it’s “a style all its own,” albeit one that is ” fermented with the unique lager yeast from San Francisco.” Given the paucity of California Common beyond the West Coast, as well as Anchor’s dominance (it’s to the style what Guinness is to Irish Stout), we elected to highlight a local lager that shares some characteristics. Named after the nondescript bricks that make up the exterior of so many Chicago buildings, Chicago Common is a big, hearty lager. Clocking in at 7.5%, it’s full of rich malt and rye character with enough earthy hops to balance it out.

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