Sunday, 3 February 2013

Brewing a California Common

It's been said before, and bears repeating - every homebrewer has had batches that just haven't turned out. Whether it's due to infection, stale ingredients, incomplete/improper fermentation, or any of 100 other reasons, it's really frustrating when you consider the money, and especially the time and work, you've put into it. It's a hopefully-not-too-common result of homebrewing many batches, but that doesn't make it any easier when it happens to you!

I'd say one of my first really disappointing batches was my first (and until today, only) attempt at the California Common style. A beer style that truly originated in the U.S., California Common, or Steam beer as it is sometimes known, is quite unique. It is an amber-colored, toasty, firmly bitter beer that is fermented with a lager yeast that works at unusual temperatures: in the low 60s F (low for an Ale, and high for a Lager). The style usually showcases the Northern Brewer hop, which is known for giving woody/minty/"rustic" qualities to the aroma and flavor. The most well-known California Common is Anchor Steam, from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. A very tasty and drinkable beer, Anchor Steam is definitely the example that a lot of California Commons strive to imitate.

When I brewed a Common in May of 2010, I was still using dry malt extract, but I had upgraded to an outdoor propane burner and larger kettle... all-grain brewing wasn't far away. I also did my second partial mash with this beer, using a bit of 2-row with some Munich malt, Crystal 30 L, Victory malt, and a touch of Pale Chocolate malt. This followed the recipe from Jamil Zainasheff's "Brewing Classic Styles". Everything seemed to go smoothly, including the boil, chilling, and transfer to the primary fermenter. I pitched the Wyeast 2112 California Lager yeast starter (at 3.25 L, high enough to supposedly get the proper cell count), aerated the beer, and set the fermenter in a downstairs room with the ambient temp hovering around 60 F.

After this, I'm not really sure what went wrong. The fermentation temp got up to 65 F, I moved the fermenter into the garage, and brought it back in about 10 hours later, where the temp read 63 F. The airlock showed activity, but after a couple of days of moving the fermenter in and out, the beer finished at a FG of only 1.024, where the target was about 1.014. I did what I could to try to encourage further activity: roused the yeast, increased the temp, pitched some rehydrated Nottingham yeast... nothing. All things considered, the beer didn't end up tasting THAT bad, but it was obviously underattenuated, and the perceived bitterness of the beer was too low as a result. I'm not sure if the fermentation stuck because of yeast health, or because of a large temperature drop when I moved it into the garage (I was at work, so wasn't monitoring it).

Sorry about the long story. Anyhow, I've finally decided to revisit this style, and have been planning to ever since I've had the temperature-controlled fermentation chamber, not to mention 1/2-lb of vacuum-sealed Northern Brewer hop pellets. I changed the recipe some, after reading about the California Common style in Ray Daniels' book, "Designing Great Beers". Instead of just 2-row as the base malt, I went with a 50:50 mixture of 2-row and Maris Otter, to try to increase the toasty character. The Crystal (now 40 L) and Munich malt are still present, as is the small amount of Pale Chocolate malt.

The kettle-hopping is virtually the same as Jamil's recipe, resulting in about 46 IBUs of bitterness. However, at Daniels' suggestion, I'm going to cold-crash the beer to about 50 F for a couple of weeks, as well as dry-hop with some more Northern Brewer. I'm still going to ferment the beer with the 2112 California Lager yeast, which is the replication of the strain that Anchor uses for their Steam beer. Hopefully with proper temperature management (I plan on keeping the fermentation temp around 60 F, the lower end of the range listed on the Wyeast website for the 2112), I can coax the yeast to actually bring the terminal gravity down to target, resulting in a cleaner, well-attenuated, and more-bitter beer.

Recipe targets: (5.5 gallons, 80% efficiency) OG 1.051, FG 1.013, IBU 46, SRM 10.4, ABV ~5% 

1.59 kg (36.3%) Canadian 2-row
1.59 kg (36.3%) Maris Otter
682 g (15.5%) Vienna malt
454 g (10.4%) Crystal 40 L
68 g (1.5%) Pale Chocolate malt

Northern Brewer - 28 g (7.7% AA) @ 60 min
Northern Brewer - 42 g @ 15 min
Northern Brewer - 28 g @ 1 min
Northern Brewer - 42 g dry-hop for 7 days

1/2 tab Irish moss @ 5 min

Yeast: Wyeast 2112 California Lager (PD Dec. 19/2012, with a 2.5 L starter)

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered; 5 g gypsum added to the mash

- Brewed Feb. 3rd, 2013, by myself. 50-minute mash with 14.5 L of strike water, mashed in at 153 F (target 152 F). Mashed out for 10 minutes with 7 L of boiling water, resulting temp 165 F. Sparged with ~4 gallons of 168 F water for final volume of ~6.75 gallons in the kettle.

- SG 1.039 (target 1.042). 60-minute boil. Chilled to 58 F in about 20 minutes with immersion chiller. Poured and filtered into Better Bottle. OG low at 1.048. Pitched yeast starter at 58 F, aerated by shaking for several minutes before and after pitching. Placed BB in fermentation chamber with temp controller set at 60 F.

4/2/13-5/2/13 - Consistent activity, bubbling in the airlock averaging about once per second.

6/2/13 - Bubbling slowed to about every 2 seconds. Turned temp up to 62 F.

21/2/13 - Decreased temperature in the fermentation chamber to 50 F.

24/2/13 - Racked beer to 5-gallon secondary fermenter, placed back in fermentation chamber.

2/3/13 - Added dry hops. FG 1.015.

9/3/13 - Bottled with 112 g table sugar and ~1/4 pack US-05 rehydrated yeast, aiming for 2.5 vol CO2 for 5 gallons with a max temp of 64 F.

24/6/13 - Tasting notes; came out much better - toasty, with a strong NB hop presence.


  1. How'd it turn out?
    A very underrated style, that if done right, is delicious! I love that yeast too.
    Did one recently with the base malt being 1/3 Pale, 1/3 Maris & 1/3 Vienna = very toasty and delicious..

  2. Pretty tasty; I like what the dry-hop did for it after a bit of time. I'm WAY behind with my tasting notes... I'll put them up for this beer very soon, I promise!

    Thanks for the reminder!