Last week Andreas Krennmair, author of the book Historic German And Austrian Beers For The Home Brewer, published a post on his blog called: A Turn of the Twentieth-Century California Steam Beer. It got me thinking about California Steam Beer, alternatively titled Common (as Anchor Brewing is litigious in protecting its right to use “Steam Beer” and thus other brewers won’t use it). So I decided to turn my attention to what I believe is the only Common Beer in the Steam Beer style in DC today: Atlas Brew Works District Common.

We can count on IPAs flying off the shelves and out of the taprooms today, as the 4th of July is typically the biggest beer-selling holiday in America, but the California Steam Beer also known as “Common” is more tied to American history.

Atlas’ District Common has been around for as long as the brewery and it upholds some of the conventions of Common beer from over a hundred years ago. While most beers have radically changed in ingredients and practices, the Common beer brewed by Atlas has some qualities I found surprising in that they adhere to the historic article as it was described when the American Handy Book was published in 1901. The specifications of Steam Beer were laid out in the American Handy Book of Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, a reference book for brewers, fermenters, engineers, malt janitors, and all interested parties at the turn of the 20th century.

The first similarity is its strength. In 1901, California Steam Beer was listed at 11 to 12.5 Balling. While the balling scale is no longer used (at least not in any of the dozen plus breweries in the District of Columbia today) it is largely the same as degrees Plato, which is how most if not all measure today. District Common is currently brewed to a strength of 12.0 Plato. The beer is 5.1% alcohol by volume.

American Handy Book
The American Handy Book, via Google Books

But what of the materials used to give the beer this strength? Well in 1901 it could be an all-barley beer or it might not be! If it had cereals it might have had corn, or rice, or other cereal grains, or sugar or syrups. Here’s what page 777 tells us: “Malt alone, malt and grits, or raw cereals of any kind, and sugars, especially glucose, employed in the kettle to the extent of 33 1/3 per cent.” In the case of District Common, the beer has no corn, rice, syrup, or sugars (or wheat, rye, or sorghum or soybeans) used in its production.

Sean Palmateer, Head of Quality Assurance at Atlas Brew Works tells me that the beer is 100% malt. “It’s a very simple grain bill, with only 3 types of malt – roughly 2/3 pilsner malt and 1/3 Munich & Crystal.”

It’s fitting that the beer uses these malts as the 1901 Handybook states “The barley is malted as for lager beers. Roasted malt or sugar coloring is used to give the favorite amber color of Munich beer.”

As it was mashed in 1901, so it is in 2023: using an infusion mash. The 1901 specifications state that the beer is boiled from 60 to 120 minutes, and indeed Atlas’ Common is boiled for 90. Here’s an obligatory Dogfish Head reference, to make you consider a beer that is continually hopped for 60 or 90 minutes. Dogfish Head 90 Minute has the superlative from Food & Wine that it is “one of the most important American craft beers ever brewed.” I would argue the same about Anchor Steam Beer, though of course a 9% IPA is important, if nothing else, in that it precedes America’s best selling IPA today: Voodoo Ranger Imperial IPA.

Hops are added at the beginning of the boil, but perhaps more hops are added at later times in the boil in 2023 than in 1901. Certainly the whirlpool hop additions so common in 2023 are not mentioned and the word, “whirlpool,” is not mentioned at all in the 1901 text. This does not mean there was no dry hopping or other means of imparting aroma hops; the hop-back is mentioned in the section on Top Fermentation Beers under the Brewing Systems subheader. “Dry Hopping” is also mentioned in the 1901 text.

Specific to hopping in the California Steam or Common Beer, the Handybook states “The hops used depend upon the quality. Of a good quality, three-fourths of a pound per barrel is used and added in the usual way.” Atlas’ Common uses closer to a half pound of Saaz per barrel, but consider that today’s hops are generally in much better condition than in 1901. Vacuum sealed and stored cold from harvest to brewhouse, this was not the industry standard then as it is today. In 1901, “good quality” necessitated three-fourths of a pound per barrel hopping rate “very good quality” hops (I’m not joking, this was a hop metric in 1901). It may be the equivalent of a half-pound ot today’s hops.

One interesting difference from 1901 to today is pressure. The Handybook lists 40 to 70 pounds of pressure in a Common beer. Today’s typical head pressure in a keg would be 15 PSI (pounds per square inch). The modern Common may reach 30 PSI in can, but it is typically carbonated at 2.65-2.7 volumes of C02.

Atlas’ yeast is pitched at roughly the same temperature as it was in 1901, 62 Fahrenheit. Their beers are entirely fermented in steel cylindroconical fermenters, different from the beer coming out of a fermenter in 1901 (likely wooden and pitch lined), which the Handybook says is then run into “wooden clarifiers” for two to four days.

The Heurich Brewery here in DC, 1919 or 1920
The Heurich Brewery here in DC, 1919 or 1920, via the Library of Congress

Counter to the 1901 beer that needed to sit to build up pressure in its wooden cask, District Common is ready for serving when it hits the saloon after leaving the distributor’s truck. It seems that in 1901, in some cases, 15 gallon kegs could get up 4 to 6 gallons of not-quite-done beer to build carbonation and rouse up that massive pressure. It also seems that this necessitated some casks “closed with iron screw bungs” to keep that much pressure inside. Along these lines, according to the handybook, some casks needed to be left with the bung open overnight in the saloon to allow some carbon dioxide to escape.

Finally, what happened to the beer after it was packaged? Glad you asked! Let’s turn to 778 in our 1901 text: “If the brew is properly brewed and handled it makes a very clear, refreshing drink, much consumed by the laboring classes. It will keep for some time in trade packages, i.e. from 2 to 6 months, but is usually brewed and consumed within a month or three weeks.”

I regularly find the beer clear and refreshing, but don’t take my word, ask Palmateer, who writes “clear and very refreshing! It has a solid malt backbone and some subtle fruity esters (reminiscent of Fuji apples), but it’s crisp and balanced.” He also mentions a shelf life of 6 months.

atlas cans outside, pic via the brewery, as is the cover photo

If you’re interested in trying District Common, it can be purchased at the original brewery at 2052 West Virginia Ave NE #102, or at the Navy Yard brewery, just up the block from the Nats outfield entrance at 1201 Half St SE suite 120 for $11.99. It should be available in stores as well, and if you live further afield, you may be able to have it shipped to you!

Finally, if you want to try Anchor Steam from San Francisco before you no longer can, Erika Goedrich, owner of Craft Beer Cellar DC just got a few more cases. Go visit her at 301 H St. NE.