California Common,  Hybrid

California Common, BJCP Style 19B

In the fall of 2017, my family and I took a road trip to southern California to see a giant mouse. On our way down the California coast, we stopped for a couple of days in San Francisco where I became smitten with the most famous example of the California Common style, Anchor Steam Beer. Available fresh from the tap in any San Francisco bar or restaurant, this is truly a fantastic beer. Served cold and clear in a stemmed glass, Anchor Steam has a gorgeous amber hue, a fine off white persistent foamstand, and wonderful lacing that trails down the glass as it vanishes quickly because it is so drinkable. The aroma is slightly fruity and malty with a lovely medium caramel malt character and exhibits fine woody, “minty” hop notes from the Northern Brewer hops used in the brewing of this beer. The body is medium, lightened by fairly high carbonation and the flavor is off-dry with caramel malt that is tempered by substantial Northern Brewer hop flavor and bitterness. Paired with clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, Anchor Steam is a heavenly combination that is surely a bucket list item for any beer aficionado travelling through San Francisco. The imported bottled versions available to us in Canada seem to lose something in translation and do not do this beer justice the way the fresh examples do.

Delicious Anchor Steam.

For the remainder of that trip, all I could think about was how I could create something like Anchor Steam as a homebrew, and replicate that fresh from the San Francisco tap house experience at home. So I put my thinking cap on and formulated what I thought would make a killer version of the style.

After listening to several podcasts, doing some online recipe research, I decided upon the following targets, and finally got to brewing the beer on November 29, 2017.

Homebrew 19B, First Attempt

Devil’s Island, California Common BJCP 19B

Targets (71% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):

PBOG = 1.038, OG = 1.049, FG 1.010, ABV ~ 5%

SRM = ~11

IBU = ~42

BU:GU = 0.80  

Malt bill:

4.25 Kg Rahr Pale 2-Row (81%)

0.494 Kg Great Western Malting Crystal 60 (9.4%)

0.200 Kg Briess Victory (3.8%)

0.200 Kg Briess Special Roast (3.8%)

0.100 Weyermann Acidulated (1.9%)

Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 4g CaCl2 + 3gCaSO4 added to mash.

Mashing Regime: 1st rest at 143F/ 66.7C for 45 minutes, 2nd rest at 155F/68.3C for 30 mins, 3rd rest at 168F/75.5C for a 10 minute mash out.

90 minute boil, pre-boil OG was 1.042.

Hops: mix of Northern Brewer and Perle hop pellets added as First Wort Hops (FWH) to an estimated 26 IBU (Rager). Northern Brewer Hop pellets added at 20 mins (~8.8 IBU), 10 minutes (~4.5 IBU) and 1 minute (~ 1 IBU).

Yeast: 1 Wyeast 2112 California Lager Activator pack stepped up twice with 1L then 1.5L starters. Smack pack dated Sept 25 / 2017.

Actual OG  was 1.052, a bit on the high side. Chilled wort to 56 F/13.3C, pitched decanted Wyeast 2112 starter and added 120 seconds of pure O2. Set temperature controller to allow free rise to 62F/16.7 C.

The fermentation showed signs of activity the next day, and was going strong 48 hours post pitch. After 4 days I started slowly bumping up the fermentation 2F/1.1C per day, all the way up to 72F/22.2C to finish out. A week later, I slowly cold crashed the beer to 48F/8.9C, and kegged with gelatin finings a week after that. Final gravity was 1.010, as predicted, but due to higher than intended OG the ABV ended up at 5.5%.

I carbonated to approximately 2.8 volumes and tasted the beer after 1 week. My tasting notes say this: “Loving this. Super clean, clear, fruity on the nose, firmly bitter, we’ll see how it does in comp.” Little did I know I was about to be fed a giant slice of humble pie.


In early 2018 I submitted my California Common to the first 3 competitions of the year. To my surprise, this wonderful beer I was so proud of didn’t medal.

The first scoresheets I received were from Cowtown Yeast Wranglers, where the judges gave scores of 29/50 and 27/50. I noticed that it had been mistakenly judged as a 19A (American Amber), and thought perhaps that was the problem. Then, I read the Judges’ comments. Both judges noted acetylaldehyde (green apple) flaws and suggested there may have been a fermentation problem. They also noted a lack of hop flavor and aroma.

Judgement from the next competition, Lethbridge Werthogs Wertcontest, was less kind. Both Judges awarded scores of 16/50, and also noted severe acetaldehyde in the beer (green apple / rotten pears) and went so far as to call it “unpleasant to drink”. Both judges in that competition also noted harsh bitterness and a lack of malt and hop character. Could this really be my beer that they had judged?

Finally, my best scores were from ALES open where judges gave my Cal Common scores of 31/50, 32/50, and 37/50. Two of the three Judges noted acetaldehyde, and those same two judges noted that bitterness was too high and seemed to contribute to an astringent mouthfeel that impacted enjoyment.

I did get full marks (3/3) for appearance from all judges in all 3 competitions.

I did a self re-evaluation of this beer shortly after reading through all of the scoresheets, and agreed that the comments regarding high bitterness were certainly on point. I also detected a not so pleasant squashy-fruity aroma which backs up what the judges noted as acetaldehyde, but could also have been evoked by a combination of things, perhaps a recipe and pH issue. I found it tough to believe that the fermentation was bad as I had built a large healthy starter, didn’t rush the beer into the keg and I also re-pitched that same yeast on a Baltic Porter which went on to win several medals (more about that in a future post). Taking the judges’ feedback and my own assessment in to account, I knew that this wasn’t a great example of a California Common and so I got to work planning out version 2.0.

Main Competition Feedback Take-Aways:

  • Acetaldhyde

Eliminate any fermentation problems that may cause acetylaldehyde. Innoculate the wort with a large, healthy pitch of yeast and do not rush fermentation.

  • Unpleasant malt character / astringency and mouthfeel 

I believe my malt bill was far too complex for the style. At least 2 malts likely contributed negatively to the flavor profile, the Special Roast and the Acidulated malt. I don’t recall exactly why I chose these ingredients. Certainly, with the large (~9%) 60L Crystal addition further reducing pH with acidulated malt was not a good idea. Special Roast can contribute a tangy, sourdough flavor.  all I can think is that I was subconsciously remembering that delicious sourdough bread in SFO that was so good with the Anchor Steam and that may have influenced those 2 malt choices.  

  • High bitterness / low hop aroma and flavour

I suspect that the large FWH addition of Northern Brewer was the issue here, and that in conjunction with the strongly acidic malt choices could have masked the aroma and flavor hop contributions.

Revision and Re-brew

In May of 2018,  I was back in San Francisco and made it a point of visiting the Anchor Brewery, to talk to the Brewers and gain some insights as to how to make a decent version of their Steam Beer at home.

Anchor Brewing Co.

All of the staff were very busy but I did manage to find one brewer who was happy to talk about Anchor Steam with me. He told me,

“Anchor Steam is just 2-row and Crystal 40. Generally, we use Great Western Malting or Briess malts. Nugget is used for bittering, Northern Brewer for finishing. We use the same proprietary yeast strain we’ve had for years, and we krausen then filter the beer before packaging. It takes 30 days to turn this beer”.

The simplicity of Anchor’s grain bill backed up my assessment that my recipe was far too complicated. Normally, I change only 1 or 2 variables at a time when I tune a recipe, but this one deserved a full re-write because it performed like such a **** in the 2018 competition circuit. This is the revised California Common recipe I came up with.

C U Next Tuesday (Devil’s Island Mk2)

Targets (71% BHE, 31L boil, 23L wort in fermenter):

PBOG = 1.038, OG = 1.049, FG 1.010, ABV ~ 5% (unchanged)

SRM = ~11 (unchanged)

IBU = 35 (reduced ~ 7 IBU)

BU:GU = 0.72 (reduced by 0.8)  

Malt bill:

4.85 Kg Rahr Pale 2-Row (88.6%)

0.500 Kg Great Western Malting Crystal 40 (instead of c-60, 9.1%)

0.125 Kg Thomas Fawcett Pale Chocolate (new, 2.3%)

Special Roast, Victory and Acidulated malts removed.

Water Treatments: Vancouver BC water (~RO) with 1g SMB + 3g CaCl2 + 6g CaSO4 added to mash. changed to a 2:1 Sulphate to Chloride ratio to favour a dry, crisp finish.

Mashing Regime: Simplified to a single infusion mash, 150F/65.5C for 60 minutes. I really don’t know why I chose the more complicated step mash in the previous version.

Hops:  90 minute boil, Nugget at 60 minutes (25.5 IBU), Northern Brewer at 15m (9 IBU) and 1m (1 IBU).

Yeast: 1 package Imperal L05 Cable Car, manufactured 10/11/2018. Stepped up with a 2.5L starter and decanted before pitching.

I kept most of the target specifications the same, except I reduced the IBU target by ~7.

I chose just 3 malts for the grist. 2-Row and Crystal 40 as per the guidance of the Anchor Brewer, and a small amount of Thomas Fawcett pale chocolate malt, mainly as a colour adjustment because I couldn’t figure out how Anchor gets 11 SRM with just pale 2-row and C-40. The pale chocolate also was intended to add a subtle toasted malt overtone that is described in BCJP 19B.

I modified the water treatments slightly, to favour a dry, crisp finish as mentioned in the BJCP guidelines for 19B.

For hops, I used Nugget for bittering and Norther Brewer for flavour and finishing. I added the bittering hops at 60 minutes instead of as first wort hops in an attempt to reign in the bitterness.

I brewed the beer on Sunday January 13, 2019. The brew session went ok, although my numbers were a bit off. My mash efficiency was higher than expected, resulting in a pre-boil OG of 1.044, 6 points above the intended target. To compensate, I dialed back the boil intensity but still ended up with an OG of around 1.052. As this falls squarely within the style parameters, I accepted the results but not without some disappointment.

I chilled the wort quickly to approximately 63F/17C, siphoned it into a SS Brew Bucket and them moved the bucket into my fermentation chamber to stabilize to 60F/15.5C. I pitched the decanted Imperial Cable Car yeast starter and then added 60 seconds of pure O2.

Although I missed my target OG, I was happy with the appearance and flavour of the wort. I also think I nailed the bitterness and the colour.

Will this iteration of my attempt to brew 19B produce a good example of the style? We’ll find out over the next couple of months, stay tuned!


  • Mark Hubbard

    Great article Alex, hope to read more posts like these throughout the year and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for your name in the Cali Common category in comps!
    – Mark in Toronto

  • Jason Fuller

    Oof, if I ever get panned on a beer during judging I’ll remind myself that Alex C got a pair of 16’s once. Haha!

    Thanks for the detailed write-up with the thought process behind your decisions, it’s a lot more interesting to read why a recipe is the way it is, than just read the recipe! There is hardly an example I can think of in my homebrewing experiences where simpler wasn’t better. Maybe imperial stouts is an exception, but I’ve never made a great one before.

    Looking forward to reading future posts, especially your Tripel for this year! I tend to only brew Belgian / farmhouse styles (with a few exceptions), as I am bottle conditioning everything and I want to focus on beers that will excel with bottle conditioning. I’ve already brewed my Tripel for this year, so I’m stuck with what I’ve got now!

    • Alex

      Glad you enjoyed this post Jason.

      Sometimes I miss the mark by a wide margin and fail badly, and that fits the premise of this blog well – using unbiased feedback from BJCP certified competition scoresheets to make better beer. You can expect many of my future posts will include scoresheets with low scores and brutal feedback from the judges. I stand naked (metaphorically speaking) before my readers!

      I won’t get to Tripel for a while, probably not until the summer, but it’s on the list.