If there’s one beer style that perhaps lies closer to my heart than most others, it’s the California Common (also known as the Steam Beer).

It was one of the first styles of beer I brewed with consistent frequency as a homebrewer and as a pro brewer, it eventually became the basis for my craft brewery, Hate City Brewing Company’s first production beer, Insurrection Steam Beer.

Although Hate City is a thing of the past, I still love brewing California Common beers and think they are a perfect balance between accessible and super-flavorsome beers.

Let’s see how to brew a great one!

California Common: What’s it All About?

California Commons are hybrid beers. What does that mean?

Well, unlike ales and lagers, hybrid styles mess around with how either lager or ale yeasts are generally used in brewing.

California Commons are beers that utilize lager yeast as though they are ale yeasts. So, instead of fermenting at low temperatures, followed by a long maturation period (i.e. lagering), Cali Commons call for fermenting the wort using larger yeasts at ale temperatures, and forgo a lengthy maturation period.

What you get is a very interesting, flavorsome beer with the following attributes:

  • A well balanced beer that displays fruity flavors, but with a solid malt backbone (more malty than a typical lager)
  • Malt flavors: Bread, biscuit, some caramel
  • Hop flavors: Cali Commons use a specific hop variety: Northern Brewer. Although you can use other hops, it’s worth trying Northern Brewer. When used throughout the hopping cycle, the beer takes on a slight minty, herbaceous note which is unique and extremely food friendly.
  • Yeast flavors: When fermented at higher temperatures, lager yeasts produce more fruity flavors than is generally the case, while maintaining a highly attenuated, crisp and dry finish.
  • Carbonation: moderate, somewhere between a lager and an ale (2.5-2.6 vols)
  • ABV is accessible, in the 4-5% range.

Recipe Formulation and Method

To create a really exceptional steam beer, you’ve got to aim for a balance of biscuity malts, a solid, hoppy counterbalance, and a healthy fermentation. Let’s look at each in more detail.

Grain Bill

Cali Commons tend to have slightly more complex grain bills than lagers, but less caramel heavy malts than what you might find in amber ales or some pale ales.

I’ve found that a good, solid pale malt, combined with light Munich malts are good grains to start with. Then, add just a touch of medium caramel malts, and you should be in a good space (I’d recommend a 70 / 20 / 10 split of Pale malt, Munich and Caramel as a good starting point)

When in doubt, steer towards simplicity rather than an over-laden grain bill. I’d also avoid Pilsner malts. Not only will it be too close to lager-like styles, but the grainy nature of Pilsner malts don’t pair well with the hops or fruity nature of the fermentation.

To add to the dry finish, you might also consider adding a brewing sugar, like Belgian Candi or Lyle’s Golden Syrup to help things along. Keep these adjuncts to less than 5 % of the total fermentable bill, however.

Hops

A key characteristic of the California Common is the flavor that Northern Brewer hops lends to the finished product. This hop varietal is pretty unique, and has touches of mint, thyme and earthiness that are difficult to find in other hops.

Hopping can be pretty classical, with some kettle, some flavor and some aroma. No dry hopping required, but it could be an interesting variation.

Aim for a bitterness ratio of between 0.600 – 0.690 and you won’t be disappointed! Not sure how to calculate the ratio? Check out our calculator here.

Yeast and Fermentation

Since this is a hybrid beer, we’ll be using a lager yeast. Anything relatively clean, like a classic German Lager strain will work just fine. Remember that we’ll be fermenting this at room temperature (or just below), and lagering will not take place.

As a result, you’ll have to be careful of diacetyl build-up, which can be a problem with lager yeasts. Doing a diacetyl rest will solve that problem. To do this, wait until your beer has reached its final gravity, then raise the temperature slightly (about 3 degrees Celsius) for 3 days. Then cold crash or bottle as normal. For homebrewers, this can often be achieved by simply moving the fermenter to a warmer part of the house, or placing it in lukewarm water.

Don’t use an ale yeast, please.

Doing that defeats the purpose of the exercise! What we’re aiming for are the unique fruity flavors and crisp finish that a lager yeast, fermented at a higher temperature, will produce.

And despite the fact that you won’t be lagering the beer, be sure to give it all the time it needs to ferment and integrate. Don’t rush it! If you do, there is a serious risk of too much sulphuric compounds remaining in the beer from the lager yeast’s fermentation.

Bottling and Carbonation

California Commons are well carbonated beers, and tend to hit the mark somewhere between the light carbonation of an ale and the high carbonation of lagers.

If bottling, aim for 2.6 – 27 volumes: In a 19 liter (5 Gal) batch, that equates to around 141 grams of corn sugar. If kegging, you can pressurize at 5 degrees Celsius at 17 psi.

Sample Recipe: Simply Stoked Steam Beer

Here’s a solid California Common recipe based on what we’ve covered above. Let me know how yours turn out!

All-Grain Version (BIAB) – For a 19 Liter / 5 Gallon Batch

The Grain Bill

  • 2.9 kgs Pale Malt
  • 800 grams Light Munich Malt
  • 350 grams 80L Crystal Malt
  • 170 gram Lyle’s Golden Syrup

Hops

      • 60 Minutes: 15 g Northern Brewer (8.5 % AA)
      • 15 Minutes: 22 g Northern Brewer (8.5 % AA)
      • 0 Minutes: 35 g Northern Brewer (8.5 % AA)

Yeast

While liquid lager yeasts are fine for this recipe, I would also recommend a classic German dry yeast strain like Fermentis’ W-34/70, which works extremely well in this style.

Method

Using the BIAB method, mash in using 26 Liters of brew water at 73 Degrees Celsius for a mash temperature of 67 degrees C.

Mash for 75 minutes, then heat the mash to just below 76 C for 15 minutes and lift the bag to drain naturally.

At the end of your 60 minute boil, chill your wort rapidly to around 22-24 degrees C and pitch your yeast.

Ideally, you want to keep your fermentation temperature at a steady 17-18 degrees Celsius for the best results. Ferment for at least 14 days and remember to do a diacetyl rest for 3 days prior to cold conditioning and bottling.

Bottle with 142 g of glucose or dextrose and mature for 2-3 weeks before serving.

Extract with Specialty Grains Version

Instead of the base malts (i.e. Pale Malt) and the Munich malt, use 2.4 kgs of Dried Malt Extract (DME).

Steep the cracked caramel malt for 30 minutes at around 60-70 degrees Celsius (140-158 F) in 22 liters of brew water before the boil starts. Then boil for 60 minutes and add the hops as indicated above.

The Numbers

Here are the recipe’s vital statistics:

      • Pre-boil Gravity: 1.043
      • Original Gravity: 1.050
      • Final Gravity: 1.011
      • IBUs: 31
      • Bitterness Ratio: 0.630
      • ABV: 5%

Final Thoughts

California Commons are wonderful, tasty and relatively easy beers to brew. I’m often surprised how few homebrewers have actually tried them.

But they are well worth it! As long as you keep your fermentation temperature stable and your grain and hops schedules simple, you can’t go wrong.

Try your steam beer with any barbequed meat, especially pork. The minty notes of Northern Brewer hops really work well with it!

Good luck and tell me how yours turned out!

 

Photo Credit: Christer Edvartsen

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