Tuesday 2 October 2012

Brewing a Berliner Weisse

Since I finally got around to bottling both halves (cherry and non-cherry) of my Flanders Red - that I originally brewed over 18 months ago - I thought it was time to brew another Sour beer. I had originally intended on delving deeper into Sours, and maybe trying a different style every 3-6 months, since it takes so long to build up inventory of them... but unfortunately, it didn't happen. Some Sour beers take longer to reach their peak than others; Berliner Weisse - a very pale, low-ABV, tart, acidic, refreshing beer - doesn't take quite as long as some (a minimum of 3-6 months), so I decided to go with this style. Throw in the fact that the last few batches I've bottled have been >7-8% ABV, and it makes it a no-brainer!

Berliner Weisse (nicknamed "Champagne of the North" by Napoleon... not Dynamite) comes from the Berlin area of Germany, dating back to the 17th century. Apparently it used to be a lot more popular (in terms of brewery production) than it is now. In Germany, it is still often served with a choice of flavored syrups to cut down on the tartness, but on this side of the pond most people drink it un-syruped.

One of the more readily-available Berliners (in the U.S., anyway) is Dogfish Head's Festina Peche. It's a tasty peach-flavored beer, but not one that I would really call very tart or acidic. I had a better example of the style on tap at Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland, ME... Haverhill Brewery's Beerstand BerlinerWeisse, from MA. It was great - very tart, slightly sour, and extremely refreshing on a warm day. Unfortunately, Berliner Weisse isn't a beer style that is commonly brewed by most breweries. I would imagine this is due partly to the time necessary for it to achieve the appropriate sourness and acidity, as well as that many consumers don't want to spend more money on craft beer that has LESS alcohol. Sadly, big flavor usually doesn't win over big-alcohol, even for most beer geeks.

As for your standard Berliner recipe, you're not looking at anything complicated, here. Basically a 60/40 or thereabouts ratio of Pilsner malt and Wheat malt... that's it. No specialty malts, no adjuncts; at least not for the majority of the recipes I've seen floating around. The hopping is even MORE simplified - you're only looking to provide 3-8 IBUs here, with no flavor or aroma additions needed. The reason for this basically comes down to what really sets apart this style from other beers.

Like other Sour beers, Berliner Weisse requires the addition of bacteria. You CAN achieve the sourness in this beer in other ways, notably adding lactic acid to bring the pH down ("like microwaving a steak", according to Jamil Zainasheff), or by performing what's known as a sour mash, where you throw in a couple handfuls of grain after the mash is complete. Grain is notoriously coated with Lactobacillus, which creates lactic acid and therefore provides the acidity needed. The sour mash method requires more guess-work, because you have to decide how LONG to let the sour mash continue, and you may be unintentionally adding other bugs as well.

The other method is more expensive, but is a simpler and more accurate way of getting the acidity and sourness that this beer needs. This involves adding commercially prepared bugs, or specifically, Lactobacillus. Wyeast 5335 is a Lactobacillus delbruckii culture that you can add along with a yeast strain. I went ahead and purchased one of their private collection smackpacks, Wyeast 3191 Berliner Weisse blend, which has a German ale yeast, Lactobacillus delbruckii, and a Brettanomyces strain as well. I've since been told by other homebrewers that this blend doesn't produce as much acidity as one may desire from this beer.

According to this recent presentation at the 2012 NHC, the best way to get the most acidity in a Berliner would be to first pitch a Lactobacillus strain for one week, and THEN pitch an ale yeast, to allow the Lacto to start making some acid. Apparently the presence of the ale yeast can inhibit the Lacto to some degree. Lactobacillus is a bit finicky; it grows best at temperatures around 90 F, does a bit better with lower amounts of oxygen, and HATES HOPS. This is why you want your IBUs so low... a "bitter" environment will inhibit Lactobacillus growth. Because of this, you don't need a lot of hop utlilization in the boiling stage, so Berliner Weisse only needs to be boiled for about 15 minutes. In fact, I've seen recipes before where the wort isn't even technically boiled... just brought up to about 210 F for awhile, and then chilled.

I plan to leave the beer in primary for three weeks or so, and then rack to secondary for about 6 months. Like other Sour beers, it takes time for the bacteria to produce enough acid and the Brettanomyces to give some funk. I may decide to rack some of the beer onto some fruit at that point, but right now it's just another waiting game. Hopefully it won't take the 15 months the Flanders Red took before I was happy with the flavor!

Recipe targets: (5.5 gallons, 75% efficiency): OG 1.031, FG 1.006, IBU 4, SRM 2.7, ABV 3.3%

1.59 kg Bohemian Pilsner
1.14 kg Wheat malt

Hallertau - 21 g (2.75% AA) @ 15 min

1/2 tsp yeast nutrient @ 15 min
1/2 tab Irish moss @ 5 min

Yeast: Wyeast 3191-PC Berliner Weisse Blend (PD Sept 11/12)

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered

- Brewed Sept 30th, 2012, by myself. 50-minute saccharification rest with 9 L of water for a mash temp of 149 F. Mashed-out with 4.5 L of boiling water, resulting temp low at 162 F. Let rest for another 10 minutes, then vorlaufed 3-4 L and drained into kettle. Sparged with ~4 gallons of 168 F water, stirred well, and left for 5 minutes before vorlaufing and draining into kettle again, for a total volume of 6 gallons.

- SG 1.031 (target 1.029). 15-minute boil. Began chilling at flameout; took about 35 minutes to get to 66 F. Poured into BB. OG a bit high at 1.033. Pitched yeast, aerating by shaking well for several minutes before and after.

1/10/12 - In AM, already signs of activity in airlock. By PM, some beer in airlock, bubbling 2 times per second, temp 72 F.

2/10/12 - In AM, airlock had blown off. Replaced with new one, bubbling every 4-5 seconds, temp 72 F.

22/10/12 - Racked to secondary.

10/4/13 - Gravity reading of 1.006 (target FG).

6/5/13 - Racked about 8 L onto 700 g of frozen and then thawed cherries. Bottled the other ~3 gallons with 137 g table sugar, aiming for 4 vol CO2 with a max temp of 72 F reached.

UPDATE: I apologize for forgetting about this post! I never did put up any tasting notes, the reason being that the beer never got very sour and I stubbornly waited for the pH to drop a bit more, but it never did. A recent reading had it at about 3.85. I'd say both beers, the plain half and cherry half, would at best be described as "lightly tart". The cherries do provide a pleasant fruitiness to the beer, but otherwise, as a Berliner Weisse, it's extremely lacking. I know now that pitching Lacto on its own, and then fermenting out the beer after the pH is where you want it, is the way to go.


  1. How long do you plan on secondarying this, and what type of container do you secondary your sours in, or beers you plan on secondarying for longer periods of time?

  2. I think I'll probably go at least 6 months as I mentioned, but there's a good chance I'll have to go longer if I want to get a good sour character to the beer. I have a couple of 5-gallon glass carboys that I normally use for secondary conditioning (the Berliner is in one of these now), as well as two 3-gallon Better Bottles, if I wanted to divide the beer and add fruit to one half, for example.

  3. Replies
    1. Hey David... I've been holding off on posting the tasting notes for this beer because I'm really disappointed with it... the sourness and acidity are way lower than I had hoped. Even after all that time! I'll probably post something soon, though, and then maybe compare in another few notes.

      The other two gallons are still in secondary on cherries; I imagine I'll be bottling that batch soon.