Somebody recently asked on Reddit about whether historic recipes of California Common from the late 19th or early 20th century exist, like something that Jack London would have drank when he lived in San Francisco, so here is an extended version of my initial reply on Reddit.
Historically, California Common has been more commonly known as Californian Steam Beer, but since “Steam Beer” is nowadays a brand of Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, the term “California Common” has found its way into the beer style guidelines.
A large majority of homebrew recipes for that style that float around nowadays are straight up clone recipes of Anchor Steam Beer, or at the very least heavily inspired by it as many style guidelines have based the style essentially upon Anchor’s beer.
But in reality, this beer goes back much further and has been more varied. This is very well documented in a brewing book from 1901, the American Handy Book of Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, edited and published by Robert Wahl and Max Henius, two Chicago-based brewing scientists.
In this book, California Steam Beer is described as a beer that at the time was consumed throughout the state of California. The name, according to that source, goes back to the high effervescence of the beer and the high pressure (“steam”) in the serving cask, ranging between 40 to 70 psi.
It has an original gravity of 11 to 12.5 Balling (Plato), which is equivalent to a specific gravity of 1.044 to 1.050. The ingredients used varied: some brewers made this beer from 100% malt, others from a combination of malt and grits or really any other raw cereal, as well as sugar like glucose syrup. The malt used is described as “malted as for lager beers”. The colour of the beer was apparently similar as Munich beer (dark lager), and was achieved through the use of roasted malt or sugar colouring.
The approach of mashing also greatly varied: some brewers simply used an English-style single infusion mash, while others have turned towards a multi-step infusion mash with rests at 60-62 °C, 65 to 66°C and finally 70 °C where the mash is held until all sugars have been converted. If raw cereals were used in the mash, they were cooked first and added in some way as if lager beer was being brewed (which I interpret as a cereal mash). Lautering and sparging commenced after a final 45 minute rest, with the sparge water at 75 °C.
The collected wort is then boiled for 1 to 2 hours, hops are added (presumably at the beginning). The amount depends on the quality of the hops, so with high-quality hops, 3/4 of a pound per barrel of finished beer were described as sufficient. Then the wort was cooled to about 15°C to 16°C. In the fermenters, a “special type of bottom-fermenting yeast” is pitched. After about 14 hours, a thick head should have formed. The fermenting beer in this state was added to other beer that was just racked into casks (more on this later).
The fermenting beer is then transferred to shallow “clarifiers” where it finishes fermentation. When the beer was finished fermenting and is clear, it is racked into trade packages, where a substantial amount of Kräusen are added, typically 33 to 40% of the overall volume. The casks are then closed with special iron screw bungs, and left for a few days so they can build up the necessary pressure. In the saloon, the cask was then left to settle for 2 days, and the bung was opened over night so that some of the CO2 could escape. This was called “steaming” and was only necessary when the beer was poured directly from the cask so that it wouldn’t foam too much.
The beer itself was very clear and refreshing. It could keep 2 to 6 months in (unopened) casks, but was typically consumed with 3 weeks to a month.
Based on this description, we can develop our own recipe, but there is actually a lot of variation possible. The grist could be something as simple as Pilsner malt and either a small amount of roasted malt or an addition of caramel colouring to get the beer to Munich dark lager colours (about 33 to 56 EBC), or something more complex like Pilsner malt, corn grits, and glucose syrup, again with caramel colouring for to set the right colour.
As for the mashing, a malt-only grist could do with a single infusion mash, while using corn grits would warrant a more complex cereal mash where most of the malt is mashed in and undergoing a step mash. The corn grits are then mashed in with a small amount of malt, with a single rest, then boiled and finally mixed into the main mash for the final increase of mash temperature.
As for the hops, California-grown Cluster hops would probably be the most appropriate, or any Cluster hops really if California-grown ones aren’t available to you. 3/4 pounds per barrel translates to a hopping rate of 2.9 grams per liter, bittering addition only.
The “special type of bottom-fermenting yeast” is California Common yeast, a bottom-fermenting yeast that has adapted to warmer fermentation temperatures. Such strains are readily available to home brewers by a multitude of yeast manufacturers, e.g. Wyeast 2112, White Labs WLP810, Imperial Yeast L05, Mangrove Jack’s M54, etc.
When fermentation is finished, the final beer should be highly carbonated (be careful about the maximum pressure your kegs or bottles can withstand!).
This is what I came up with to brew 22 liters of it, but you do you:
- OG: 11.7 °P
- Bitterness: 50 IBU
- Colour: 41 EBC
- ABV: 5.0%
- 3.4 kg Pilsner malt
- 0.9 kg corn grits
- 0.25 kg glucose
- 63g Cluster hops (7% alpha acid)
- Wyeast 2112 California Lager yeast
Please note that this recipe does not conform to the BJCP Style Guidelines for the California Common beer style, so don’t use this to brew beer and get bad marks for it at home-brewing competitions.