Brewing Our Own
American microbrewers have done more than their share in the past 30 years to enrich and enliven the brewing tapestry. They have reintroduced literally all of the traditional styles, put a unique Yankee twist on some of them and even invented a few of their own.
But, what about our indigenous brews? We do indeed have three: California common (steam beer), cream ale and classic American pilsner. What do they have in common, how do they differ and why have they become what they are to begin with? All were created at about the same period in American history with a combination of homegrown and immigrant influence and a desire for a simple, working class tipple. They are adaptations of Central European lagerbier in one way or another, with a healthy dose of improvisation.
Not only are they historical, all-American beers, but they reflect some of the important and dynamic periods that came to shape the United States. They can be brewed with total respect to their traditional ingredients, or tweaked to add a modern or personalized touch. Purely grassroots brews that play well into the hands of homebrewers, they are unusual and underrepresented. Their American/European hybrid nature is apparent, and rather shrewd, when you make the effort to craft them at home.
Classic American Pilsner (CAP)
Often referred to as “Pre-Prohibition pilsner,” CAP was intended to emulate the popular pilsners of Continental Europe in the middle of the 18th century. Pilsner, invented in Plzen, Bohemia in 1842, spread like wildfire among European breweries within 20 years. A concurrent wave of German immigration to the U.S. from the 1840s through the 1870s brought brewing expertise, lager yeast and an insatiable thirst for the new golden elixir. Primarily laborers, craftsmen and farmers, the new arrivals had all the ingredients to make an ambitious go at brewing.
European pale lagers were made with100 percent malted barley and centuries-old “noble” hop varieties. The immigrants made due with native ingredients like less-desirable six-row instead of premium two-row barley. Six-row did have two advantages: more enzymatic energy and husk, important for converting and filtering the adjunct grain in the grist, usually corn grits.
You can build a recipe around a combination of two-row, six-row, corn, Carapils and light dried malt extract depending on your skill level. Six-row will convert an equal amount of corn in a side mash. Flaked maize is perfectly acceptable and can be mashed as is, but yellow corn grits are more authentic and flavorful and need to be cooked first. White corn grits will make a more neutral brew (Dixie CAP?) if desired. Rice, rice syrup or rice syrup solids can also be used.
Clusters hops were grown extensively in the 19th century United States, so they would be the most genuine choice to bitter, flavor and aromatize your beer. With the assortment of U.S.-grown nobles (Tettnanger, Hallertauer and Saaz) and noble pedigrees (Crystal, Liberty and Mt. Hood), the recipe can be modernized with excellent results. Hop like a Bohemian pilsner, three additions and roughly 35 IBU, since this is intended to be a full-flavored beer all the way around. Select a German, Czech or Bohemian yeast and shoot for an original gravity from 1.050 to 1.060.
Many cream ales on the market today are essentially ale versions of mainstream adjunct pale lagers: thin, under-hopped and bland. These would be more accurately categorized as “Post-Prohibition” cream ale. Microbrewed examples often approximate Pre-Prohibition cream ale, being more substantial and flavorful. In a nutshell, historical cream ale is very much like classic American pilsner described above, but a bit lighter and fermented with ale yeast. They were produced to compete with American pale lagers when bottom-fermentation wasn’t feasible.
Cream ales are intended to be refreshing and lively. A strategy similar to that of CAP can be employed with regard to the grain bill or extract recipe. For extract brewers, use the lightest DME that you can find and make about 20 to 30 percent of the fermentables either rice syrup solids or corn syrup/sugar. Try a varietal honey or agave syrup cream ale. A half-pound of Carapils or light crystal malt will be needed to add some body.
For all-grain and partial-mash brewers, make 20 to 30 percent of the fermentables adjunct. I prefer yellow corn grits at 20 percent, but since this is a lighter brew, flaked maize, white corn grits or rice might be preferred for a summery specialty. Flaked rye or wheat would be an excellent way to flavor cream ale. Go with the hop varieties suggested for CAP, but back off on all additions, with 25 to 30 IBU, and minimal aroma hop favored by most brewers of the style.
The top-fermenting yeast that you choose can really tailor your brew. Neutral strains, like the popular American ale yeast, work very well. My preference is one of the liquid Kölsch or American wheat strains. They add a bit of “lager” character and some depth. Original gravity should be 1.040 to 1.050. Note: The rare Kentucky common is cream ale with a small measure of dark crystal, black or roasted barley, and slightly soured.
Perhaps better known as steam beer, California common would have fallen entirely by the wayside had not Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing revived the brewery’s now-famous Anchor Steam in the 1960s. He saved a beer style and awakened a brewing culture. Anchor Steam was initially brewed in 1896, but the common beer style of San Francisco goes back even further, when the city was adolescently wild and rambunctious with sailors, prospectors and speculators.
Anchor Steam is brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast, selected over time to perform without worry at ale yeast temperatures. This is probably the first hybrid yeast culled in America to suit the climate. It is known as California lager yeast and ferments best at subdued temperatures (58º to 63° F), like ale yeasts of Köln and Dusseldorf, Germany.
Truly a local brew, steam beer was made with premium six-row barley grown in Central California, and Cluster hops grown in the Russian River basin (still a beer and wine hotbed). The eternally cool climate of San Francisco allowed brewers to utilize lager yeast at the top end of its comfort zone, a limit pushed upward over many batches of beer. That yeast survives today and is probably the most critical ingredient in making authentic California common.
Wiped out by Prohibition, California common once resembled “Munich” beers. Anchor Steam is, indeed, full amber in color and made with a blend of American two-row and crystal malt. It is historically an all-malt beer, though there is the odd reference to adjunct. I’ve had good luck with a blend of American two-row and Vienna or Munich malt. Two-row and crystal malt at 10 percent would be a simple and authentic grain bill. Extract brewers can go with light DME alone, or in tandem with Munich malt extract for some malty character, and crystal or Caramunich malt. Aim for a gravity of 1.050 to 1.060.
Northern Brewer or Cluster hops would be good choice for their earthy, woodsy character, with Sterling, U.S. Saaz or Mt. Hood also an option for aroma hops. Bitter to about 35 IBU, give or take.
All of these brews would make a great party favor for those patriotic holidays. Experiment with adjuncts, or use California lager yeast to make other “pseudo-lagers.” This is, after all, The Land of Opportunity.