Steam beers are a quintessentially American brewing style, originating as a thirst quencher for labourers in nineteenth-century California. As such, they were initially seen as being crude and basic – produced rapidly at higher temperatures than the lager yeast would usually prefer. Their popularity declined and it wasn’t until Fritz Maytag rescued a certain San Francisco brewery that they regained popularity. The Anchor Brewing Company have since trademarked the term ‘Anchor steam beer’ with their flagship ale first brewed in 1971 (the trademark was not issued for another ten years). Of course, only the name is theirs – the style is very much up for grabs – and there are plenty of examples from several American breweries. And now, one Scottish brewery.
One of the newest producers in Scotland, the Knops Beer Company are based in the BeerCast’s home city of Edinburgh – great to see another brewing name starting up in the capital. Having said that, the founder of the KBC Robert Knops currently has to rely on other sources for his beer. Knops California Common is at the time of writing cuckoo brewed at Traditional Scottish Ales in Stirling, a term which to me implies some malice on the part of the newcomer, as if they turf out the incumbent to make way for theirs (which may not be a bad idea for most TSA beers).
Robert graduated from the highly-esteemed Brewing and Distilling course at Heriott-Watt University, and then took a number of roles in Scotland and the north of England. As with many who decide to do something in the end, it was the frustration of working away from the nuts and bolts that prompted him to leave his position (then at the Stewart Brewery in Loanhead) to go it alone. Unfortunately setting out from scratch requires enormous time and money, and Robert eventually realised a one-man operation would be just too unreasonable a thing to attempt. So after a spot of crafty homebrewing in his Dad’s garage, the whole scheme was scaled up and transferred to Bridge of Allan and TSA’s equipment.
California Common is of course the generic name for the steam beer style, adopted by those not wishing to fall foul of Anchor’s legal department. It’s an unusual and brave choice for a new start-up, to produce and market an un-traditional type of beer (for Scotland, that is) – particularly with the vibrant summery label suggesting something light and golden inside. We sampled the beer on it’s own, and then in direct comparison with the California Common king, Anchor Steam. Knops California Common is not intended as a copy of San Francisco’s most famed beverage – and there are differences in the base ingredients used – but putting a newcomer up against the established champ is always an interesting exercise.
The first thing that strikes you about KCC is the voluminous head – a pillowy two inches that retains almost all the way to the bottom of the glass, dispersing into frothy peaks. There’s a large amount of carbonation going on, rising through a lovely clear nut brown body. The aroma is malt forward with a rich earthiness about it, some hops at the end with a touch of fruit. The taste is really something, malty with some mingling hops, and a lasting crisp bitterness. Classic steam beer flavours – they always tend to remind me of a traditional best bitter – with just a touch of sweetness, as it’s predominantly dry – and extremely drinkable.
When compared with Anchor Steam, it stands up even more. Although they use different hops (Tettnang and Pilgrim as opposed to Anchor’s Northern Brewer), they pair together very closely indeed. Anchor seems slightly softer in the finish, and has nothing like the carbonation – but they both have the characteristic toasty maltiness you look for in a steam. As a first beer, Knops California Common is outstanding – taking on an atypical style and not only doing it justice is one thing, but producing something that stands up to the dominant market leader should really be applauded.