Someone once told me that California Common was the only truly indigenous American beer style—that of all of the interpretations and variations in American beer, it was the one that was created out of environmental and agricultural necessity. The cool air of Northern California and the ready access to woodsy and rustic Northern Brewer hops led to the creation of this unique style during the California Gold Rush. Now, I don’t know if I believe that, but one thing is for certain: this is a great beer to brew, drink, and have on hand throughout the late summer and into fall.
Cal Common falls into that odd in-between world known as “hybrid” beers—these are beers that are neither purely ales nor purely lagers. Instead, they are usually made with either an ale strain at cooler temperatures or a lager strain at warmer temperatures. The result is a beer that has some of the clean and rounded flavors expected from a lager but also a bit of esterification and action from the fermentation.
In the case of Cal Common, the yeast should add a touch of fruit (usually red, ripe berry) to the flavor profile, but that’s about it. The beer should be dry and fairly bitter, with a noticeable hops flavor, but it should stop well short of drifting into the American amber’s neck of the woods. If you ask most people, they’ll tell you that what defines Cal Common is the emphasis on Northern Brewer hops, which impart a minty flavor. They’re right, but more importantly (in my mind) is the combination of that American-but-not-citrusy hops character and a collection of interesting-but-not-heavy-or-sweet malt flavors. It’s also a fairly light beer, and my recipe comes in at only 4.5 percent ABV. Much like the English mild, it’s long on flavor and easy on the liver, and you can enjoy more than one while watching football or enjoying the fall weather.
Let’s start with yeast. Many brewing authorities will tell you that you should really use a lager yeast to get the “true” Cal Common flavor. But as someone who has had more than a few judges say that his beers are too “clean” (one suggested I’d brewed a Vienna Lager and cross-submitted it as a Cal Common), I tend to push back against that advice. I find it’s much easier to get a little fermentation character out of an ale yeast that’s held in check than it is to get the same out of a lager yeast that’s been pushed a bit out of its cold comfort zone (which can yield its own issues). So I start with Wyeast 1007 (German Ale) yeast, and as you’ll see below, we treat it just like a lager. This yeast has never had any trouble drying out the beer for me, and if you notice that it does for you, then just increase the temperature below by a degree or two.
This is one of the few times you’ll see me recommending American 2-row malt, since it feels wrong to go all Anglo-German here (as I’m wont to do in my grist). So for my Cal Common, I use a 50/50 blend of 2-row and Maris Otter as a base (about 35 gravity points, or just about 4 lb/1.8 kg of each for 5 gallons/19 liters) and then add 1.5 lb (680 g) of Munich. That should give you a good blend of grainy, bready, and toasty flavors. For specialty grains I add 1 lb (454 g) of Fawcett 45L Crystal and just 3 oz (85 g) of Chocolate Rye, which should give you all of the caramel-but-not-sweet character and a touch of drying-but-not-roasty in the finish that you’ll need.
And now for the hops. Yes, we’re using Northern Brewer. No, that’s not all we’re using. Doing that puts you at the mercy of a particular hops harvest and producer, which always makes me uncomfortable. It also means that if you get an unexpected water/yeast interaction you might end up scrubbing out/muting your hops flavors if the hops you’ve chosen are susceptible to that. Blending is the way to go here, and luckily, there’s an abundant hops variety that is a great complement to Norther Brewer: Crystal. It’s an American hybrid of some classic German and American hops and echoes a lot of the rustic profile we get from Northern Brewer, while adding a bit more in the way of an herbal/earthy note. I blend 50/50, and add 1 oz (28 g) at 60 minutes, 1 oz (28 g) at 10 minutes, and 1 oz (28 g) at flame out, which yields about 35 IBUs.
Treat this beer just as you would your lagers, but maybe a degree or two warmer in fermentation (I hold it at 54°F/12°C for the duration). After two weeks in a primary fermentation, it’s usually ready to go. That German Ale yeast is pretty robust, and I’ve never had an issue with it attenuating fully. Final gravity on this beer should land at about 1.009, but if you’re having issues getting there, you might consider lengthening your mash and/or adding a dose of oxygen when pitching (if you’re not already). If it comes out too clean, you can bump up the temperature a bit the next time until you get what you want.
The nice thing, too, is that there’s no particular need to lager this beer. I’ve served it nearly straight out of the fermentor (in a pinch—had to take it to a homebrew club meeting!), and it was terrific just 16 days after brewing. Get in there while the hops are nice and fresh.
This is one of my favorite beer styles because it gives you lots of good “beer” flavors without being overly sweet, overly bitter, or overly heavy. It’s what I reach for when my heart says, “Barleywine!” but my head says, “Working tomorrow!” And if it’s true that this is the one real “American” beer style, we’ve done all right for ourselves in brewing.