This is my contribution to The Session 129, aka Beer Blogging Friday.
As someone who lives in Berlin, I would call myself rather privileged when it comes to beer diversity: there is a vibrant craft beer scene, including a number of microbreweries, places dedicated to specifically German or Belgian beer culture, and generally a great availability of everything. Except for one thing: cask ale.
One of my great pleasures in beer is cask ale, that is fresh beer, usually top-fermented and of a British style, conditioned with live yeast in small casks, and served directly from it or via a beer engine. When done right, this is probably the best beer you can have, and you can have more than one of it. Now, if I said that there was no cask ale in Berlin, I’d be lying, because there is in fact one pub called Loch Ness, a pub run by two Germans who are rather… enthusiastic about Scotland, including the beer culture, and so cask ale is usually available which they import themselves once every few weeks. Once a year, they even do a Real Ale Festival. The only problem is: it’s rather far away. From where I live, it is surprisingly hard to reach, we’re easily talking about an hour. Ironically, Försters Feine Biere is only about 30 minutes away by foot, but for me to get there, it takes me about 30 minutes as well, so it works out the same in the end. This difference is owed to the layout of public transport in Berlin: while Försters is close to an U-Bahn line which runs close to mine, Loch Ness is close to an S-Bahn line which is rather out of the way and would require me to travel to Brandenburg gate.
But then, that’s not even the point. I don’t want one pub that serves cask ale, I want several. I don’t want outrageous beers in them, but rather easy-drinkable beers that are just well done, think of beers like Landlord, Harvey’s Best, London Pride, Old Peculier, or for when I want a hoppier beer, something like Jaipur. I’m not saying I want exactly these beers (I certainly wouldn’t mind them, though), but rather something like it, possibly and preferably even locally brewed.
My other interest in beer, besides drinking it, is the history of beer. One truly local beer style that I miss in Berlin is Berliner Braunbier. You’ve probably never even heard of it. Berliner Braunbier is the other local top-fermented beer style in Berlin besides Berliner Weisse. Unlike Weisse, the Braunbier was a proper brown beer, made from a very dark kilned malt, and was not sour (or if sour, only very little). But just like Berliner Weisse, it was put in casks while it was still fermenting and sent to the local pubs and inns, where it finished fermenting. Also like Berliner Weisse, it was diluted before it was served or bottled.
Berliner Braunbier existed in two variations: one was a rather sweet version, barely hopped, while the other was strongly hopped, a so-called Bitterbier. Already in the 19th century, some beer writers argue that Berliner Braunbier are actually two distinct types of beer because of the vast differences in the different Braunbiere that were served in Berlin.
The Braunbier itself was brewed from a high-dried malt, some sources even claim it was four-row barley malt. Because of relatively simple smoke kilns at that time, the malt was smokey, but the malt was left to mature for several months in order to lose some of that smokiness. The resulting beer was described as very dark, and hopped differently, at rates ranging from 1.4 g/l to 11 g/l. Again, already in the 19th century, some literature notes that for efficiency and flavour reasons, roasted malt together with a paler malt could be used instead of producing a dark malt. Does that ring a bell? It sounds similar to English Porter used to be brewed: first it was formulated as 100% diastatic brown malt, and only later the amount of brown malt was reduced in favour of pale malt and black malt.
In some ways, that makes Berliner Braunbier a kind of local convergent evolution that shares several similarities to Porter, but is historically unrelated to it. How can we be sure that it is unrelated? Because Germans knew and liked Porter, and when German brewers produced something like a Porter, they would call it a Porter, even going so far as making their own German Porter beer style (which is a whole topic on its own).
Funny side story: in February or March this year, I attended a talk by Joe Stange about German and American brewing and the mutual influences, hosted at Vagabund Brauerei. In a discussion, one of the brewery owners noted that Berlin’s water is relatively hard and quite suitable for brewing dark beers, so he wondered why there’s no local dark beer style. Haha, there actually was! It’s just been completely forgotten about, and like many top-fermented beer styles that were popular in Northern Germany, died out when pale Lager beers became popular and revolutionized the beer market.
If you want to brew Berliner Braunbier yourself, here are some rough specs. You will find a number of historic recipes in my upcoming e-book about homebrewing historic beers which I will hopefully be able to release soon. So anyways, here’s roughly what the beer looked like:
- OG 15-16 °P (1.061-1.065)
- 96-97 % dark malt (e.g. Munich malt)
- 3-4 % black malt
- Any German noble hop variety, with a hopping rate of e.g. 1.4 g/l, 4.4 g/l or 11 g/l.
Dough in malt with hot water into a very thick mash at 61 °C, then rest for 30 minutes. Add boiling water while stirring to raise temperature to 76 °C, then rest 120 minutes. When lautering, add another 9 liters of boiling water. Boil for 90 minutes, add all hops at the beginning of the boil. Ferment with a top-fermenting yeast strain at 23 °C.