I personally think that my love of California Commons and San Francisco go hand in hand. After finishing college, I went on a road trip with a good friend along the west coast and into the mountains. At the end of the trip, I had decided that I was going to move from Chicago to either Denver or San Francisco. I ended up getting a job offer in Denver, and the rest is history. But if I had received an offer in San Francisco first, I probably would’ve moved there. I’ve made it a point to visit the Bay Area twice since then. The city is so beautiful, and the hoodie weather suits me very much. On top of that, the beer culture in the city is fabulous. It’s no wonder I have an affection for San Francisco.
I’ve wanted to brew a California Common ever since my second trip to San Francisco. My wife and some friends were touring the Anchor Brewery and admiring their gorgeous copper brewing equipment. The end of the tour came, and it was time to sample. The Anchor Steam I had that day blew every single bottle of theirs I’ve ever had out of the water. I knew right and there that I had to brew something like that. Later on that day, we were having lunch at a restaurant on the Bay, and I was drinking an Anchor while staring out at Alcatraz Island and listening to the sea lions bark into the waves. It was perfect. The Anchor tour did a lot to educate me on the history of the style, as well as the history of the brewery. I’ve also done a little personal research as well.
The California Common beer style originated on the west coast during the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800’s. Some research indicates that the style may have originated in Nevada, but the style really came into prominence in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area. The style as it exists today is probably very different than the beers that were being served in local saloons in the early 1900’s, but there’s also got to be some semblance. For instance, we know that lager yeasts were probably being used, as most brewers of the day were of German descent and were used to traditional lager fermentations. However, the technology available and climate in San Francisco was very different from where the brewers were transplanting from. These new settlers didn’t have refrigeration or ice, so keeping the beer at lager temperatures was next to impossible, and most were fermented close to ale temps. To get the beer from boiling temps down to fermentation temperatures, many breweries would transport the liquid to the roof of their breweries and let the cool San Francisco evening air do the work. The steam that would appear on the roofs of the breweries is one theory why this style was also known as “steam” beer. Back inside the brewery, they would ferment in shallow fermenters with the windows open to keep the ambient temperature close to their target. To get the beer to have the proper flavor characteristics, using the proper yeast at a temp closer to room temperature is extremely important.
Since there were at least 20 different breweries in San Francisco producing this style, the parameters for it do vary greatly. Therefore for our beer, we had a little bit of leeway. The most historically accurate hop to use would probably be Cluster, but the Northern Brewer hop has become so affiliated with this type of beer that I decided to go that route. Northern Brewer does have a rustic side to it, along with woodsy and a touch of mint, so I think that rusticness pairs well with the gold digger heritage of the Cali Common. While the beer should have a solid malty foundation, we made ours a touch more bitter and hoppy that other versions you’ll find, due mostly to a large whirlpool addition and some dry hopping. The malt is evident with a touch of caramel, but I think you’ll find the yeast and hop flavors a little more prevalent. We also used an authentic Cali Common yeast from a prominent producer of the style.
The best known example of this style is from the brewery Anchor, which was founded in 1896. I’ve always been a big fan of Anchor’s story. The brewery started making beer late, the Gold Rush was “over” by 1855 and there were plenty of other breweries in San Francisco already making the style. However, due to Prohibition and changing consumer tastes, the style was all but extinct by the 1960’s. In fact, Anchor was the only brewery still producing it. Anchor itself was not doing that well, and bankruptcy was allegedly imminent. However, a young Fritz Maytag heard about their financial troubles, and rather than lose his favorite beer, he decided to buy 51% of the company. At the time of the sale, Anchor was beset with a multitude of problems, including infected batches and inconsistency. Fritz changes the culture and put an emphasis on quality. The company boomed under his leadership, and started to define the modern craft beer movement on the west coast. Before long, they were making multiple styles, some of which are still regarded as world class today. Anchor is still most well known by their flagship “Steam”, and they copyrighted the term in the early 1980’s, which resulted in the beer style becoming known as a California Common. I’ve had Anchor on tap at the brewery as well as other bars in San Francisco and it is a true delight.
Our beer is named after one of the lead characters in the 1999 film, “Any Given Sunday.” Played by Jamie Foxx, Willie is a 3rd string QB who suddenly finds himself in the starting role, and excelling in it. Since we’ve never brewed a Cali Common before, I likened that to us being the 3rd string QB. Maybe assuming we’ll have the same type of success that Beamen had in the movie is a bit presumptuous, but you should know by now that we don’t take ourselves that seriously and that type of comparison would be tongue in cheek. Then again, I unsurprisingly enjoy our beers quite a bit, so maybe it works. Hmmmm.
Steamin’ Willie Beamen is an American Amber Lager with light fruitiness from warmer lager fermentation, woodsy and rustic flavors and aromas from Northern Brewer hops and a light hint of caramel and toast from the malt. It comes in at 5.9% abv, 40 IBU and 12 SRM. Anchor may have been a major inspiration for this beer, but like their wonderful beer, Willie is a true original. His name is Willie…Willie Beamen! He’ll keep all his fans…scream-in’! Is there a better Cali Common out there? You must be dream-in!