I took a quick trip to California last month, and naturally, my thoughts turned quickly to booze.
Flying into San Francisco, I knew it was only a quick trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to reach the vineyards of Sonoma County, with the Napa Valley not much further beyond that.
However, I had people to meet in the famed Mission District, so instead of crossing the bridge to visit wine country, I headed into the heart of the city to visit Anchor Brewing, makers of the unique style known as California Common Beer.
First brewed during the California Gold Rush era around 1849, California Common Beer is also sometimes known as Steam Beer, and San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing is the most prolific producer of this beer style.
Consumer preferences were starting to shift from ales to lagers, which presented a problem in 1849 San Francisco, as the brewers had no access to refrigeration, or even naturally cold water, which made brewing lager beers particularly troublesome.
As a reminder to those readers who do not brew beer at home, ale yeasts ferment at 13-24°C, but lager yeasts ferment at 9-14°C, which means California summers were basically too hot to brew lagers.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the local brewers transferred the hot liquid wort to large open-topped concrete pans on the roof of the brewery for fermentation, which allowed the cool fog blowing in from the San Francisco Bay to naturally chill the beer to a temperature more preferred by the lager yeasts.
This new beer style was more palatable to the lager-loving public, which marked the birth of California Common Beer.
This type of beer uses a lager yeast, but is fermented at a temperature more suited to an ale, which results in a unique flavour profile that is a combination of both ales and lagers.
This beer is considered a specialty brand today, but back in the days of the Gold Rush, California Common Beer was the most popular brew around.
Made for the working classes, this was a very inexpensive beer, often using only a small amount of barley, then adding lesser grains or even plain sugar to keep the fermentation levels up.
Without refrigeration in those days, beer would spoil quickly in the California heat, so this beer style had a nasty reputation as foul rotgut. However, even a warm and skunky beer was a welcome relief after a day of backbreaking labour while prospecting for gold, so California Common Beer was rarely on the shelves long enough to go bad.
Starting business in 1896, with only brief interruptions due to things like earthquakes and fires destroying much of San Francisco, as well as a hiatus during the failed experiment of Prohibition, Anchor Brewing has been in near-continuous operation for over 100 years, and their flagship beer is remarkably true to the original recipe.
Sure, they use newfangled temperature control and sanitation technologies that did not exist a century ago, but the basic formula of fermenting a lager yeast at a higher temperature in an open vessel is still used.
The beer itself pours a deep amber colour, and normally has a thick and firm white head.
The mouth feel has a breadlike flavour from the barley malt, which is dominant over the light hopping. A bit of caramel on the finish from the use of a small ratio of dark malts gives a nice balance to the beer, and makes it an easy-drinking session lager, with the more robust structure of an ale.
Anchor Brewing was near bankruptcy in 1965, when it was purchased by Fritz Maytag (of the Maytag Appliance empire), who quickly turned the brewery around, growing in leaps and bounds for decades. To this day, many consider Maytag to be the father of craft beer in California.
Maytag sold off the brewery in 2010, and it was acquired just a few months ago by Sapporo Brewing out of Japan. Faithful readers may recall that Sapporo is also the parent company of Canada’s own Sleeman Brewing, which puts Anchor Brewing in good company.
So, if you would like to sample an authentic piece of history without the effort of staking your claim on a vein of gold out in the hills, pick up a six-pack of Anchor Steam Beer at your friendly neighbourhood alcohol merchant.