Tag Archives: berliner weisse

An Outlandish Theory about Northern German White Beers

Since I started researching for my first e-book, I read quite a few things about white beers that were brewed in Northern Germany, and I noticed some similarities, not primarily in the ingredients, but in how the beers were described and compared.

Let’s start with the archetypal Northern German white beer, Broyhan. It is said that it was first brewed in 1526 in Hanover by a brewer named Cord Broyhan or similar. Said brewer had learned his trade in Hamburg, and then went back to Hanover to brew beer like in Hamburg. But allegedly, the brew didn’t quite work out, and the beer turned out to be different, but still tasty, so it was swiftly sold under the brewer’s own name. Most likely, Cord Broyhan wanted to brew Hamburger Weissbier. Now what was the difference between Hamburger Weissbier and Broyhan? We don’t know. The sources don’t say. But we can safely assume the beers must have reasonably similar. Maybe the malt was treated differently, maybe the local water had an influence, maybe the local brewer’s yeast yielded different results, maybe the brewer simply forgot to acquire hops (Broyhan is said to have been brewed without hops). But what we do know is that it was a slightly sour beer style.

The next one is Kottbusser Bier, a beer style from Cottbus. Several sources describe it as white beer “like Broyhan, but with hops”. Typical recipes include various malts in different ratios, all of them air-dried, then usually sugar, and sometimes honey, as well. Hopping rates suggest a very restrained or even unnoticeable bitterness, and no hop aroma whatsoever. Historic sources also confirm that it definitely was a sour beer.

Then there’s Berliner Weisse. It’s made from pale malts (which used to be air-dried), and it’s sour. The sourness was something that was only established in the 18th century through the introduction of yeast from Cottbus breweries. Interestingly, Berlin brewers had to constantly renew their yeast through new shipments from Cottbus, as the mixed fermentation culture was not stable and caused too much sourness when repitched several times. It also means that Berliner Weisse and Kottbusser Bier shared a common character through the yeast and the lactic acid bacteria, while also having a relatively similar grist. And then there’s this historic source from the 18th century that describes the production of Berliner Weisse and contains an interesting formulation: the wort was made without hops, while a separate hop extract was produced, and this extract was added to the Breihan (merely a different spelling of Broyhan), which in this context clearly refers to the unhopped wort. It’s unclear whether Broyhan was a generic term for any unhopped beer, or whether Berliner Weisse was brewed just like Broyhan at that time, the main difference being the addition of hop extract.

And finally, Gose. Nowadays, Gose is brewed with coriander and salt, and is also slightly sour, but historic sources mention nothing about coriander or salt, but do describe it as sour, in one instance even as essentially being the same as Broyhan.

And that’s how my outlandish theory is formed: since several historic sources describe close relationships between Broyhan, Kottbusser Bier, Berliner Weisse and Gose, either in taste or in ingredients, I think that this is a indicator that these four beers are the same beer style, or to be more specific, the respective local expressions of beer with a specific aroma, flavour and colour. Despite a certain difference in ingredients, the similarities were recognized, and so the beers satisfied the customers’ expectations of sour white beer. Each were individual in their own ways, but each would very likely be in such a condition that they could replace any of the other beer styles of that group and still meet the expectations of beer drinkers. And all four beers are representative of a beer fashion that dates back about 500 years ago.

That being said, there is a reason why I titled this theory to be outlandish. It is based on conjecture, riddled with assumptions, and probably too good to true. Nevertheless, whenever I read about the sour white beers of Northern Germany, I get the feeling that they’re just so similar to each other, almost like they’re related. In some ways, I want it to be true, but then, there is no way to prove such a strong relationship. And finally, there is another question that remains completely unanswered: whether there was any relationship between Northern German white beers and Belgian lambic or gueuze.

Brewing a Historic Berliner Weisse

It’s March, and I’ve been wanting to brew a Berliner Weisse for quite a while. So what better time to brew a Märzen-Weisse?

Relatively little is actually known about Märzen-Weisse. What is known is that it’s a stronger version of a regular Weisse. In his 1947 brewing notes, the brewmaster of Groterjan brewery mentioned a high-gravity version of 16-18 °P that some breweries produced occasionally. I don’t know whether that’s the Märzen-Weisse strength, but it definitely sounds intriguing.

For this brew, I teamed up with Franz Pozelt of Slowfood Berlin, to do one Weisse according to my recipe, and then one Weisse according to his recipe. Last Sunday was the first of two brewing dates.

We started off with a historic Berliner Weisse recipe that calls for 20 parts pale barley malt, 10 parts wheat malt, and 2 parts oat malt. We didn’t know where we’d end up in terms of gravity (because it’s a no-boil recipe, see below), so we used 4 kg Pilsner malt, 2 kg pale wheat malt, and 400 g oat malt.

The mash schedule was also based on historic methods: with dough-in at about 40 °C, we then slowly rose the temperature until we reached 50 °C to rest for 15 minutes. Then we continued to slowly heat up until we reached 62 °C, which we held for 45 minutes. We then drew a thin decoction and boiled it for about 5 minutes. At this point, we also added the hops, literally 3 leaves of Hersbrucker, to boil it. Mash hopping is another historic method in Berliner Weisse.

We then mixed the decoction back to raise the temperature to 72 °C, held that temperature for another 15 minutes, and then moved the mash to the lauter tun. With enough vorlauf to achieve a bright and clear wort, we then went on to sparge. Since this was going to be a no-boil Berliner Weisse, we didn’t know what efficiency to expect, so we simply collected enough wort until we reached 16 °P.

The wort was then heated up to 95 °C, and the temperature held for 20 minutes. This was a bit of a compromise, as older recipes lauter directly to the cooling tub resp. the fermentation vessel, but the Groterjan brewmaster mentions this as a possibility to prevent beer infections (such as Pediococcus) without having to resort to a boil. Interestingly, the resulting wort had 17 °P. That may be due to a measurement error earlier, and we didn’t mix the wort properly before (my experience is that during lautering, the runnings don’t mix well, most likely due to different specific gravity, so you get wildly different measurements with the refractometer depending where you take your sample).

Right after that, the wort was transferred to the fermentation vessel, and cooled down to 30 °C.

Fermentation itself is where my approach deviates from history: to better control the resulting sourness, I decided to sour the wort with a big starter of Wyeast 5335 Lactobacillus buchneri, and when sourness will have approached a good level, yeast will be pitched. I decided for US-05, as it’s a relatively neutral ale yeast which has been shown to successfully ferment even in wort with a pH level of 3.38, plus it’s cheaper for me to get several sachets of it than e.g. a single vial of WLP029 or a smack-pack of Wyeast 1007.

Since the brewday went without any issues, the lacto is doing its work now, and I’ll keep measuring the pH levels and tasting the souring wort. The yeast will be pitched when the sourness is right. In addition to that, the fermentation vessel was used to ferment and mature a batch of porter with Brettanomyces, so I expect an infection with B. claussenii, as well, which is perfectly fine for the style.

I’ll report about any results. At the moment, the lactobacillus is slowly fermenting away, producing some CO2. I suppose that’s fine, as L. buchneri is heterofermentative.