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.

One thought on “An Outlandish Theory about Northern German White Beers”

  1. I want to propose a counter argument. All the white beers are the same in some aspects these are:
    – All where exclusively brewed with air dried malt, this lead to the color and to a certain taste that was different to the brown or red beer.
    – All where brewed with a mixed culture since there where no such thing as single strain yeast

    Where there all differ are in the details that make such a beer taste different:
    – Hamburger Weissbier was quite strong (around 20-30 plato) which lead to a sweeter beer and the sourness would not be as pronounced as in lighter beers.
    – Gose was a spontaneus fermented beer in the early days so there are lot of similiarities to lambic with the biggest difference in the hopping rate (much lower than lambic) and therefore the sour character should be a more lactic forward.
    – A lot of those beers where brewed to be consumed quite fresh and therefore not to get sour at all
    I think a lot of brewers got it that if you hop your beer quite strong it holds out longer due to the antibacterial/lacto inhibiting qualities of hops. But this beer would be noticable bitter that is why a lot of people did not like it . Weissbier was a nice change to the bitter beers so they where embraced and developed a lot of culture around it. I think there are similarities but the mixed cultures that evolved around the beer got more and more different over time and this lead to even more different beer in the time. The wine like qualities that are so praised stem from brettanomyces esterifying a lot of the acids that are created from the bacteria. Brett almost certain a partner there since brett is present in a lot of woods and wood was most of the time involved in one vessel on the cold side (like the container for the yeast slurry etc). Just take the example of a 25° Plato beer and a 10° Plato beer. The bigger one leads to a higher alcohol which will slow down souring severely. There is a difference allready 🙂

    Cheers
    Benedikt

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