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CBN California Common Blind Tasting

CBN Blind Tasting Panel
• Jay R. Brooks, Tasting Panel Director, Cranky Oldster, CBN
• Tom Dalldorf, Editor/Publisher, CBN
• Vic Kralj, Owner, The Bistro, Hayward, Calif.
• Special thanks to Mike Long, BTP Tasting coordinator/head steward

In a perfect world, this heading would read “Steam Beer,” which, in our opinion, is what this style ought to be called. Once upon a time, there were over 50 breweries in San Francisco brewing steam beer, though today no one is exactly sure how such beers were made. What is known is that they were (and are) hybrid beers, made with lager yeast but fermented in long, shallow fermenters at the higher temperatures that are usually reserved for ales. This was done because ice was difficult to get in California in the days before refrigeration, and brewers needed to improvise to quench the thirst of a growing population fueled by the gold rush. Thus steam beer became one of the only (some would say the only) truly original American styles of beer. Supposedly, the name came from the sound that kegs made when CO2 escaped when they were first tapped. While this is probably not true, it made great PR for the style.

By the time America came out of Prohibition in 1933, the recipe for steam beer had been lost, and a few breweries made their best approximation of this unique style. By the mid-1960s, Anchor Brewery was the only remaining steam beer producer left in San Francisco, and it was about to close its doors forever when a young Fritz Maytag stepped in and impetuously saved the brewery, sealing his fate as a maverick brewer nearly a decade before the craft-beer revolution officially began. At a time when few people had even heard of steam beer, much less were making it, Maytag shrewdly trademarked the name. And while we can’t begrudge the business savvy in doing so, it seems a bit like trademarking porter or pale ale. In any case, we’re now saddled with the clumsy-sounding California common to describe steam beers other than Anchor Steam Beer. Perhaps steam-style beer would be a better choice. It certainly sounds better.

California common beer today is defined as having a medium body and being light to dark amber in color. Caramel malts are the norm, with medium hop character (35–45 IBUs), and balance should be the keynote.

Other available examples of this style, though not available for this panel tasting, include Bear Republic Up in Smoke Ale, Eel River Climax California Classic, Flying Dog’s Old Scratch Amber Lager, Lake Tahoe Brewing’s Tahoe Steamer, New England Atlantic Amber, Nodding Head California Common and, last but not least, the cheeky Steamed Fritz from Manayunk Brewery in Pennsylvania.

Anchor Steam Beer
Anchor Brewing Co., California

Light nose of subtle hop aromas. Golden-amber color and great head retention. Great balance, with rich malt flavor and a big, long, lingering finish. This beer defines the style … by law! A truly classic beer from a classic brewery.


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