American Craft Beer Week “SF Indigenous Flight”

  • May 16, 2017
  • by Tim Mullins

We Celebrate American Craft Beer Week 2017 by Featuring a Flight of: The 49er, California Common and Cable Car IPC.


This American Craft Beer Week we celebrate the California Common. California Common is one of five beer style considered to be of American origin, the others being Cream Ale, Pre-Prohibition Lager, American Light Lager and the “Imperialized” craft brews. California Common is a bit like the Kolsch from Cologne, or Alt from Dusseldorf, in that they feature unique “ambidextrous” yeast strains. The beer world is typically divided into “ales” (saccharomyces cerevisiae) and “lagers” (saccharomyces pastoris) with the defining characteristic being that ale yeasts ferment warm, and lagers yeasts prefer cool fermentation temperatures.

In the case of Kolsch and Alt, they are ales that are fermented at cooler temperatures and then lagered (German for “to store”) for an extensive period of time, giving them a “lager-like” character. Basically, a combination of warm fermentation with cold maturation.  In the case of California Common, the situation is reversed: it is a specialty lager yeast fermented at higher temperatures, closer to an ale than a lager. This results in a beer with the cleanness of a lager, but with some of the complexity of an ale.

How did this unique American brew come about?

In the small, foggy, coastal town of San Francisco at the edge of the American Continent, gold was discovered in the nearby hills in 1849 which launched the “Gold Rush”. The town suddenly became the size of a city and German immigrant brewers arrived to sell beer to the massed gold diggers. They brought with them their cherished lager yeast strains and brewing traditions, but frontier California was, and is, nothing like the Bavarian Alps with plentiful ice and caves in which to store lager beer. They had to improvise and began to ferment their beers in shallow coolships which allowed the heat from the boiled wort to dissipate more rapidly. It is believed that the hot wort was pumped up to the coolships located on the roof, where the cool Maritime fog aided in their efforts. This caused billows of steam to rise from the brewery roofs, which is believed to be the origin of the name “Steam Beer.” Once the wort was cool enough, the yeast was added to start the fermentation under these somewhat primitive conditions. It worked up to a point. The original lager yeast used by the German brewers eventually adapted to their un-lager like working conditions and higher temperatures, producing a beer with a good amount of ale-like esters but with the dry finish of a lager, which is now considered part of the style.

Another theory to the origin of name “Steam Beer” also derives from the lack of available ice. Without ice there wasn’t the traditional long, slow fermentation and maturation preferred by the German brewers. This factor, coupled with the California sun, likely made for a vigorous secondary fermentation in the barrels which would have led to high levels of carbonation. It is believed that when tapped, a hiss emerged that sounded like escaping steam, leading to the name.

Steam beer was brewed by multiple breweries in San Francisco, but eventually over time, one last brewery remained brewing the style- Anchor Brewing Co. Shortly after it was acquired by Fritz Maytag (the Godfather of the American Craft Beer Renaissance), Anchor Brewing Co. wisely trademarked the term “Steam Beer” since no one else in the country was brewing the style. It was then decided that if a brewery was going to bring one to market, it had to be labelled “California Common.” Which leads us to where we are today…

Our SF Indigenous Beers

Offered only during American Craft Beer Week, we will be serving a true to style “California Common”, fermented with this specialty yeast, but also featuring Munich and Biscuit malts for a toasty, bready flavor, along with a touch of crystal and chocolate malts for an amber color and a rich malt taste. The hops selected were Perle and Sterling, both of them from “Noble” heritage. These hops are closer to what hops would have smelled and tasted like before the rise of modern hop varietals that exhibit pine/citrus or tropical notes. Perle and Sterling have more woody, spicy notes for example.

The second beer fermented with California Common yeast is “The 49’er”. When formulating this beer, I thought about the primitive, “uncivilized” condition of San Francisco in 1849 and the lack of resources available to the brewer. The 49’ers and the brewers had to make the best with what they had and it seems unlikely one had access to lovely specialty malts of various colors and flavors and bouquets of hop varietals. With that in mind, I brewed a golden beer with a simple mash bill of traditionally floor-malted British Maritime Pale Malt coupled with the Perle hop for a refreshing elixir in honor of their labor.

The third exploration of our native yeast is “Cable Car IPC”. IPC stands for India Pale Common, a twist on that other 19th Century beer style the India Pale Ale (IPA), which was also created under harsh conditions for the East India Trading Company. But that is another story… Back to the matter at hand, I wanted to see how this yeast played with higher hopping rates prevalent in the modern American Craft Beer movement and its hop forward preferences. A solid malt bill was generously hopped with two American classic  varietals, Cascade and Centennial, providing the cherished pine and citrus aromas. Brewed in the American tradition of innovation.

As always, all beers were brewed with certified organic malt, hops and yeast in the Thirsty Bear way. Join us during American Craft Beer Week to celebrate by enjoying our SF indigenous beers.