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Common Beer
An edited excerpt from the book "Louisville Breweries."

Common beer was an American term which first denoted a low gravity, light to dark amber ale, as distinguished from lager beer, porter or stout. Common beer was brewed in a similar manner to other beer, but instead of aging, the beer it was put up in kegs before the fermentation was complete and immediately offered for sale to the saloons.

There appears to have been two distinct varieties of common beer. The pale type was variously known as cream beer, cream common beer, cream ale, present use or blonde ale. The brewing process was mostly identical to pale lager but with about a third less hops. The usual method was to allow the beer to ferment out and add 10% Krausen (i.e., partially fermented beer) at the time of kegging.

Dark common beer, made chiefly in the Louisville area, had crystal and black malt added to give additional body and color, usually a medium or dark amber. Sometimes a portion of about 2% of lactobacillus was added to the yeast culture to give it a slightly tart taste. Brown sugar was also sometimes used. Common beer could be made with 2 row or 6 row malt, and with or without cereal adjuncts or sugar. Outside of the Louisville area, dark common beer was known (in brewingt exts, anyway) as Kentucky Common beer, but its manufacture seems to have beenlimited to the Ohio Falls cities.

All of the small Louisville breweries and some of the larger ones at the turn of the century made one or more types of common beer. Regardless of type, common beer was made fairly quickly and consumed within a few weeks of brewing. One characteristic of common beer, whether it is Kentucky Common, cream common or California common beer (also called steam beer) is a high level of carbonation. Before bottled CO2 tanks, the method of getting an ample head on beer was to put it up before it was completely fermented, or put some unfermented beer into the kegs. Pressure of 50 to 60 psi was typical (compared to 5 to 10 lbs.on modern kegs). Special threaded iron bungs were sometimes used, as the pressure sometimes ejected wooden bungs. When a keg of common beer was tapped, great care was taken to draw it off into metal receptacles, as the pressure was so great that it would break china or glass.

The beer was shipped out to the saloons, where the barrels were aged in the cellar a few days before tapping. In this way a small brewery without refrigeration machinery and little storage capacity could turn out a large quantity of beer. Common beer had a tremendous increase in popularity in Louisville during the early twentieth century:

"Another potent factor in our business is the enormous increase in the sales of Common Beer, and to-day three times as much Common Beer is sold as there is Lager."
-- Letter to the Stockholders of the Falls City Brewing Company from the Board of Directors, January 10, 1912

One important reason for the popularity of common beer was its price - generally $5.00 a barrel or $1.25 a keg, compared to about $8.00 a barrel for lager. A bucket of dark common beer cost 10 cents at most saloons, but comments of old-timers as to quality was mostly favorable.

 

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 3312 Plaza Drive
 New Albany, IN 47150
 (812) 949-2804
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