Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Berliner Weisse
If you ever talk to me about beer, or even just read this blog on a semi-regular basis, you know that I love sour beer. Really, really love sour beer. Now, what you know about sour beer (and the whole long process required to create it) is between between you and god, so let me sum it up quickly: it involves a number of microrganisms not typically used to ferment beer, and it takes a painfully long time compared to most styles. However, there are a few ways to "cheat" and create a less complex, but vaguely similar product.
One such style — a historical German beer based on a sour mash method — is the Berliner Weisse. The style used to be huge in Germany, and Napoleon dubbed it the "champagne of the North" because of its highly-carbed, tart effervescence. A traditional Berliner is soured purely by Lactobacillus, one of the main microorganisms responsible for making sour beer. Rather than aging for a year or two, lacto works by itself and thus over a short period of time, either during a sour mash (lacto is added, it sours the wort, and the wort is only boiled after that, killing off the Lacto and allowing it to be fermented the rest of the way as a standard ale) or, sometimes, during primary fermentation, giving the Lacto a bit longer to work. (For my particular sour mash method, which I think worked very well and should allow for great consistency from batch to batch, drop down to the very bottom of this post.)
I realize I probably didn't do the best job of explaining all that, but it boils down (pun intended?) to a basic principal: simpler methods make a simpler beer. But sometimes — as in the case of Berliner Weisse — you just want a tart, unique, refreshing beer that doesn't take ages to make. Even so, a Berliner Weisse strikes me as one of the easiest — and most tragic — styles to f*** up, particularly if you're going the sour mash route. If something goes wrong, you can end up with a beer that smells like (literally) vomit. Other people have reported fecal smells. Yummy! Don't believe me? Buy some grain, toss it in a bucket, and then pour some water in there. Wait a few days. (This is basically what you're doing with a sour mash.) When you come back to your lovely grain soup, stir it up and try to suppress your gag reflex. You're playing with fire here — so I guess I can somewhat understand why German brewers moved on to easier, less disaster-prone styles.
But when done right, a Berliner Weisse is a lovely drink — not far off from champagne, as it happens, though typically this style is very low in alcohol, ranging from 3% to 5% ABV. The lactic acid doesn't build up to a sharp tongue-lashing sourness like you'll find in lambics, but instead makes for a tart beer with a nice bite and a hint of funky sourness. While the mouthfeel and flavor has that smooth, creamy wheat feel you get from hefes and wits, Berliners have a dry finish, making it much more thirst quenching and satisfying, in my opinion. There's a unique "funk" from the lacto, plus some fruity aromas you won't find anywhere else. So while it's not the most complex or memorable style out there, it's interesting and satisfying, and very drinkable.
As a Berliner Weisse
So what about mine? How does a Berliner Weisse hold up, when bears are in the mix? Wonderfully, I'm happy to say. All that I described above is true of my own Berliner Weisse, with nary a flaw to be found. Even with my unique fermentation strategy — that 100% Brett primary fermentation, which I'll get to more in a bit — this has to be one of the most successfully "true to style" beers I've brewed so far. For the first time ever, I can't pick out any obvious flaws in my beer. Which isn't to say it's the most amazing thing ever — I've brewed other (flawed) beers that I still preferred more, just based on preference and all that, but I think my Berliner Weisse holds up to any of the commercial examples of the style I've tried. (Though it's certainly not up to the level of the fantastic Bayerische Bahnhof Berliner Weisse Brettanomyces Lambicus.)
The sourness came out relatively clean, free of unpleasant off-odors, with a nice smooth fruitiness and tart bite. Sorachi Ace hops at the end of the boil might have enhanced the fruitier aspects of the beer somewhat, but I can't pick out any significant hop presence, so any appropriate hop would undoubtedly work fine. If I could change anything to make this a better Berliner Weisse, I would just try to bump up the sourness a tad. Not much — it's almost there. I thought that adding a healthy dose of acid malt (base malt that has been covered in lactic acid, which should theoretically add some sourness of its own) would help, but it doesn't seem to have contributed much. In future batches, I'd either bump up the acid malt or ditch it altogether — as is, it's just not offering much help.
As 100% Brett Beer
I had one other trick up my sleeve with this batch — a pretty major trick that nonetheless didn't end up producing much noticeable outcome. That trick was 100% Brett fermentation. Now, that's a whole can of tangents that I don't want to open right now, so I'll try to explain quickly once again: Brett is a wild yeast, typically used to infiltrate a beer after a standard ale yeast has done its thing, where it eats up just about everything in sight, drying out and funking up a beer. However, when Brett is used by itself — as the sole yeast used to ferment a beer — it doesn't act like that. It produces clean, fruity flavors, and often there are only hints of its usual funky character. The reasons for this paradox are, most agree, one of the great mysteries of the universe. Adding to the fun, 100% Brett fermentations finish in much less time — only about the same amount of time that a normal ale yeast would require.
My original name for this beer was "triple method sour," as it was my hope that three alternate, faster (and most would say, inferior) methods of souring or funking up a beer might, with their powers combined, lead to something more complex, interesting, and sour than any one method on its own. Make sense? It did to me. Well, it's not that the results are bad in any way, but as I talked about above, this just tastes like a solid Berliner Weisse. The all-Brett fermentation (maybe) added a bit of fruity character, but not much else that I can discern.
There really is no cheating sourness, but if you're wondering what yeast to use in a Berliner, I still say 100% Brett is worth trying. It may not add much, but it should still add more character than a neutral ale yeast. And especially if you can find a way to add some more bite, this is a winner.
2.5 Gal., All Grain
45.7 % pilsner malt
37.2 % Wheat malt
8.5 % Cara-pils
8.5 % Acid malt
1 oz Sorachi Ace @3 minutes
Orval Brett B (cultured from bottle)
Mashed one gallon of wort (brew in a bag style, on stove), cooled to ~120 degrees, then transferred to 1 gallon jug. Added handful of grain and topped off with seltzer water — the carbonation drives out oxygen, the presence of which is a major contributing factor to "puke" smells in the sour mash. Plugged the jug with rubber stopper, set inside cooler mash tun, filled cooler around jug with tap water at its hottest setting (115 degrees.) 115 degrees Fahrenheit happens to be the ideal temperature for lacto to work while inhibiting the other organisms that create rancid smells. Every 8 to 12 hours, I drained the cooler and refilled with 115 degree water, in order to keep jug at ~110 degree temps. This worked extremely well. Ended the sour mash after ~40 hours and boiled. Probably could have let it run another 20 hours for more sourness.