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Why Common Beers Don’t Have Much in Common

April 23, 2019

By Diana Hubbell, April 23, 2019

A traveler wandering the streets of Louisville, Kentucky around the turn of the century might have wondered if they were on the right continent. More than 48,000 of the city’s inhabitants were at least half-German and many still considered the language of the old country to be their mother tongue. Locals sent their children to learn German in the public schools, shopped for German charcuterie in Butchertown, and often worshipped in either the German-founded synagogue or one of the city’s 13 German churches.

Many got their news from the Louisville Anzeiger, where they would have seen ads for a dark cream ale. This distinctive local style was so ubiquitous in the region that it became known as the Kentucky Common. It was so popular that Oertel Brewing Company, one of the largest original breweries in Butchertown, used to brew 325 barrels of it a day.

“If you read the German newspaper, they just called it cream beer. Of course, there’s no one alive that ever tasted it because it was so long ago,” says Leah Dienes, co-founder of Apocalypse Brew Works and a proud member of the Louisville Area Grain & Extract Research Society, often simply referred to as the Lagers Homebrew Club. “Prohibition just killed all the breweries and that style. You can look at the old archival records and see where they were brewing less and less and then they weren’t brewing anymore.”

Although Kentucky has an especially robust brewing culture prior to 1920, few breweries survived the Puritanical purge and most of their recipes disappeared along with them. The Kentucky Common wasn’t the only style of beer almost lost to history or, somewhat confusingly, the only brew to bear the moniker “common.’” Over on the West Coast, the California Common, thought to date back to 1896, was wildly popular.

“I think they just called it ‘common beer’ because there was so much of it. In the early 1900s, there weren’t a whole lot of styles,” Dienes says. “People would make, like, a dark beer and a common beer.”

In more recent decades, a resurgence of interest in our country’s brewing heritage means that commons are once again becoming, well, not exactly common, but certainly more appreciated. The revival of the California Common by now is the stuff of brewing legend. In 1965, Fritz Maytag purchased Anchor Brewing Company and brought the once-obscure style into the national spotlight. Sensing he was on the cusp of something great, Maytag copyrighted the term “steam beer,” meaning that in later years other breweries producing a similar style would have to use the term “California Common” instead.

We realized that there was an uptick in interest around the country in different regional styles of beer that had almost died out. People are always looking for the new thing—why not look into our past?”

“The term ‘steam beer’ was used to describe the style of beer that was made under those primitive conditions, with open coolships for cooling the wort and open fermentations in shallow pan fermentors,” says Scott Ungermann, brewmaster at Anchor Brewing Company. “It’s an elegant beer that is perfectly balanced in malty body, caramel sweetness, moderate bitterness, and delicate aromatic hopping.  The open fermentation provides an array of fruity and floral esters that evoke the scent of bananas, cherry blossoms, and red berries.”

The California Common became so well-known that it inspired some brewers in Chicago to loosely emulate the style. Interestingly, there are a couple of breweries currently producing a Chicago Common, yet the term refers to different beers.

“One is by our good friends at Revolution Brewing—we did a collaboration with them back in 2017,” Ungermann says. “It appears to have been a straight-up steam beer knockoff that was fermented warm, but not in an open fermentor.”

While Revolution Brewing’s Chicago Common is a close cousin of the California incarnation, Kinslahger Brewing Company’s version is a different animal altogether. Its popular Chicago Common, which is one of the brewery’s flagship beers, uses San Franciscan yeast in a nod to steam beer, then takes matters in another direction. Unlike both the California and the Kentucky Common, both of which are relatively low in alcohol, Kinslahger’s is a full-bodied brew with a bit more punch from its 7.5% ABV. Curiously, the brewery chose the name Chicago Common not as an homage to the California Common, but as a reference to the Chicago common style of bricks used to rebuild the city after the Great Chicago Fire razed much of downtown in 1871.

“It has a reddish body and a lot of heft that reminds you of a brick. The malt is balanced with the hops and the hops are sort of earthy and piney to give you that grounding,” says Steve Loranz, head brewer at Kinslahger. “It was really just a matter of trying to come up with something new. We’re a lager-focused brewery, but we try to come up with unconventional things that people might not automatically associate with lagers.”

Although Loranz and his colleagues set out to make something unique, they still opted to do so with an eye on the specific history of their hometown. Though they may have different origin stories, Commons all share an appreciation for the past.

All that brings us back to Kentucky, where that connection came perilously close to vanishing forever. For years, details about the beer were scarce and debate raged as to what it actually tasted like. It would have been gone for good were it not for the fact that in the 1990s, the former Oertel’s brewmaster Friedrich W. “Fritz” Finger Jr. was recruited to try and bring it back. The venture failed, but the recipe fell into the hands of Jan Schnur.

“What happened was that the wife of the last brewer had it sitting in their basement. She was getting rid of things and she said to the Lagers Club, ‘Do you want this box of stuff?’” Dienes remembers. “We told our local beer historian and he was like, ‘We should make the original Kentucky Common.’”

The hand-scrawled notes were faded with time, but Dienes recognized them immediately as an original brew log.

“People probably had different recipes, but the cool thing about this brew log is these were German brewers, so it’s pretty precise,” Dienes says. Right away, the log began to help clear up some of the mysteries surrounding the Kentucky Common. For instance, for years, the widespread belief was the Common had been a sour.

“Looking at the timeframe of when they made the beer and put it into production, we believe that it probably was not a sour style. It was just a clean fermentation,” she says, although she acknowledges that there may well have been variations. “We also realized that soured versions probably coexisted in the local market.”

One of the other ambiguities was which precise hop varietal was used. By digging through archival records, however, Dienes determined that since New York State, which was one of the largest hop producers of the era, predominantly grew Cluster hops, these were the most logical choice.

“I’ve used them in a number of pre-Prohibition recipes,” Dienes says. “They’re more earthy and herbal in contrast to that fruity deliciousness you have coming from the Pacific-Northwest right now.”

The result of all this effort was 1912, a clean, balanced dark ale with a hint of caramel malt and an ABV of 4.5%. We’ll never know for sure if this is exactly what the Kentucky Common tasted like around the turn of the century, but by all indications, it’s pretty damn close. In the end, the details matter, but the most important thing is that all of these Commons keep the stories of their respective cities alive.

“We realized that there was an uptick in interest around the country in different regional styles of beer that had almost died out,” Dienes says. “People are always looking for the new thing—why not look into our past?”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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