My first experience with Berliner Weisse was in the Biergarten at Bube’s Brewery with my buddy Kory somewhere around 2010. As far as I know, this was also my first experience with sour beer of any kind. We saw other people ordering the beer and getting various fruit syrups added and we decided that we had to get in on this.
We each ordered one and drank about half of them straight before asking the bartender for some syrup. We were delighted by what we dubbed “Easter Beer,” so called because the aroma reminded us of Paas egg dye. That doesn’t sound like a good thing, but somehow it worked for us. I believe Kory left with growler of the stuff.
I didn’t have any more Berliner Weisse for a few years, and in fact came to remember only Easter Beer. I’m not sure when I was reacquainted with Berliner Weisse, but I eventually put together that it was the beer Kory and I had that night and decided I needed to do some more research.
There are a lot of different ways to homebrew a Berliner Weisse. The key to the style is lactic acid, which you can simply add before packaging the beer, if you want to cheat. To be more authentic, though, you need to ferment with lactobacillus to achieve the acidity naturally. You can add ale yeast and lactobacillus together at the beginning of fermentation, however this can take several months to achieve the desired acidity. Standard ale yeast will overtake the lactobacillus and eat all the sugars it likes before getting out of the way. Lactobacillus can ferment sugars that aren’t fermentable by ale yeast, so it will make a come back and slowly sour the beer, but you’re going to have to wait.
I chose to add the lacto on it’s own at the beginning of the fermentation and let it sour the wort before setting the saccharomyces loose. Since I use mostly plastic fermentors and was nervous to set this beer souring organism free in them, I decided to conduct the lactic fermentation right in my stainless steel brew kettle, then boil the wort to kill it before racking into one of my normal carboys. Since I was brewing this soon after this year’s batch of Amy Ni-Kölsch, I adjusted my schedule so that I could rack right onto the yeast cake from that beer’s primary fermentation, giving another touch of authenticity with German Ale yeast. But back to the lactobacillus…
You can buy comercial strains of this yeast, but it is one of the more common wild yeasts that is living on you and all of your stuff right now. One of it’s favorite places to live is on grains, including brewing malts. You can culture up enough of the stuff to ferment your batch of Berliner Weisse with just a handful of malt left to sit in a cup of water for a week. I will post a more in depth how to later, but there really isn’t much to it. Malt + water + time = lactobacillus, wort + lactobacillus = beer.
Before you even get to the lactic fermentation the brewing process for Berliner Weisse is unique. This beer has almost no hops, in fact since you’re a homebrewer, you don’t need to add any hops at all if you don’t want to. The beer is not traditionally boiled, so to make it legally “beer,” brewers add hops during the mash. This may add some minimal hop character, but since it’s not boiling, it adds virtually no bitterness. I did add hops this time, but I may skip it in the future.
I’m jumping around a lot here. How about a quick overview of the whole brew day and fermentation? It is very different and much quicker than normal. Here is how I did it, though as I said, there are many other methods you can consider.
I heated my strike water just as normal. You want an extremely fermentable wort and a dry finished beer, so you want to mash at as low a temperature as you can to get conversion. Once you hit your temperature, you can start the mash as normal. Your grist should be about half Pilsner (or Pale Malt) and half Wheat Malt. I’ve heard of American craft brewers adding rye and some specialty grains, but this isn’t traditional. You are shooting for a gravity of about 1.030 and a final strength of between 3 and 4% ABV, adjust your mash size to match your efficiency.
If you want to add some hops, just throw them right into the mash along with the grains. If you add hops, they should probably be German Noble hops, but I plan to skip it all together in the future. When your mash is done, a single temperature infusion is fine, and it’s what I did, though a single decoction is more traditional, begin sparging right into your brew kettle. You can use a wort chiller after you collect it all, but I didn’t and I wouldn’t recommend it. You normally add the wort chiller before the end of the boil and sanitize it, since you’re not boiling, it is a possible source of infection. Lactobacillus likes to work between 100 and 130º, anyway so it won’t take long to get to the top end of that, which will be good to get the fermentation going quickly.
Your lactobacillus starter should have been prepared a week ahead of time. Once your wort is down to 130º, just dump it, grains and all into the brew kettle. I added another handful of fresh malt as well to be sure, but I don’t know if that helped anything or not. Cover your kettle in aluminum foil or plastic wrap to keep other yeast and bacteria out. I used aluminum foil, but I think I’ll switch to plastic wrap next time to make it easier to watch without opening. You can either put this in a warm spot, or do what I did and sit it on the stove. I left it there and turned the stove on low whenever I was around the kitchen get the lactobacillus working quick.
You can sample the beer as it goes, the length of time you let it ferment will determine how sour it gets. Berliner Weisse should be sharply sour, but if you’re not planning to cut it with syrup, you may need to be careful. I’ve read that five days is pretty standard and that is how long it took mine to reach a point I was happy with. Sampling after three days would probably be good, but be prepared to wait over a week, especially if it’s not very warm.
Once you’re happy with the sourness, take off the cover, boil the beer for a few to ten minutes to kill the lactobacillus and rack to a carboy. Add some ale yeast, something that will ferment very dry. I used White Labs’ German Ale, but Nottingham dry yeast is my normal go to when I want the beer very dry and I’d consider that in the future. It should take less than a week to finish fermenting and you don’t need this style to be clear, so you should be packaging the beer within two weeks of brew day. That is rare for any beer and unheard of for any other sour beer. I was nervous every step of the way but I couldn’t be happier with how this beer turned out. The recipe is summed up pretty well above, but it is much more concise below.
Style: 17A: Berliner Weisse
Brew Date: 1/22/2014
Serve Date: 2/26/2014
FG: under 1.010
50% German Pilsner
50% White Wheat
1 oz. of aged East Kent Goldings in the mash. Noble hops would be better. No hops would be fine.
Home cultured Lactobacillus and German Ale/Kölsch yeast or anything else that will finish dry.
Easter Beer will return as I will definitely be brewing more of this style of beer for the Summer. I’ll post about Ich Bin Ein Berliner Raspberry Berliner Weisse, the Bizarro version of this beer, as well as some more information on Berliner Weisses tomorrow.