Berliner Weiss is one of those beers that has always been very elusive to me. Much like the fabled unicorn. Beautiful to behold, yet impossible to tame. Brewing it made me afraid, like Nicolas Cage in Gone in 60 Seconds, when he goes to steal Eleanore. My successful brew average has always been about 40% with this beer. Mainly because the unpredictability of souring the beer by means of lacto bacteria in the fermenter leaves you with either a superb beer, something that is not sour enough, or the funk is just too dominant. If you look back at my previous recipes for this beer (and here ) you will see that the mash was completed as normal, the wort is brought just to a pasteurization temp and then chilled with no boil. The wort is then fermented with Lactobacillus (Wyeast Labs #5335) and a clean fermenting yeast like Chico strain or German Ale. This method works, and I have made an award winning beer this way. But after having several mediocre attempts and dumping 2 batches in a row I had almost given up on this elegant beer. Also, buying the lacto culture is expensive. $8-9 just for a pack of lacto bacteria plus another $6 for yeast is just plain silly for a 3-4% abv beer. But lacto added to primary fermetation is just one way to make this elegant lemonade of beers.
The second way to brew this beer is with a sour mash. This process works by allowing the lactobacillus that naturally occurs on the grain to sour a portion of your mash for a day or two, which is then added to your main mash. The resulting wort is then boiled, and fermented with a clean fermenting yeast. The great thing about this method is all of the souring is done before you even boil. But the bad part about this method is that it also has an inherent unpredictability. You can create some awful smelling and tasting sour mashes this way if some nasty critters take over your mash tun. So what can we do to make this method more predictable?
I propose to you a third method, the Hybrid Sour Mash Berliner Weiss method. Some time ago, I read an article on Sour Beer Shortcuts in the March / April 2011 issue of Zymurgy by another fellow Wisconsinite named Matt Lange. His method for creating a sour starter from grain involved allowing the starter to sour to below a pH of 4.3 before checking its quality, then bumping it up to use in brewing. This magic pH of 4.3 helps keep the bad bacteria to a minimum before the lacto has a chance to start to work. I filed this article away in my brain, hoping to use the method someday, but was still leery of brewing this mysterious beer.
Months later, I was again doing some searching for the silver bullet of Berliner Weisse recipes on the interwebs. I came across a recipe for Berliner Weisse on Weyermann’s FAQ page which utilized Acidulated Malt to give the beer some tartness without lacto fermentation or sour mashing. The lactic acid in the acidulated malt is naturally created by lacto bacteria, so that it fits into the Reinheitsgebot purity law. Then it hit me that it is basically grain that has already been soured mashed. Whaa?!?! Well, technically sour malted, but you get where I am going with this.
My brain made the connection that this could be a replacement for the sour mash. But I really didn’t like the idea of adding the acidulated grain at the beginning of the mash, as it would make the mash pH all wonky and way too low and could effect conversion, efficiency etc. Also, I didn’t want to just rely on the acid malt for all of the lactic acid to produce the sourness. I did want some of the lacto fermentation character to come through. So I thought “Let’s just add it at the end of the main mash like a regular sour mash procedure!” This would then push the pH down to 4.3 or lower, and then… wait. pH 4.3 … I went back are re-read that Zymurgy article on quick sour beers. I then immediately questioned ALBC’s resident scientist, Weird Science. She confirmed that a pH in the 4.3 range does hinder the growth of the bacteria we want to keep out of our sour mash / sour starter.
So I then hypothesized that I could create a predictable “cheater” sour mash by the following method: Mash main part recipe as normal, then add the appropriate amount of acidulated malt ( 10% of acidulated malt as part of the malt bill reduces the pH by 1.0 ) to reduce the pH of my mash to below 4.3, kick starting the sour mash and giving the lactobacillus a head start by hopefully eliminating the enemy. This also gives a known amount sourness to the beer right away. The mash is then allowed to cool to 100F. Some crushed grain is then added to the mash to introduce additional lactobacillus and kept at 100F for 24 hours to sour even more.
I proceeded with the experiment. Success! The beer was assertively sour, with a lemonade quality, and a nice frothy creamy head that actually hung around for quite some time. The acidic quality was clean, tart and not artificial like you might get by adding lactic acid to the beer as a cheat method. A little bit of the funkiness from the sour mash carries over, just enough to add character and depth. My keg was emptied in no time. It’s so easy to drink, and with a low ABV, a pint is gone in a flash. The one drawback to the recipe I used on first go-round was it relied on US 2-row for the basemalt. All of the other batches I had brewed were done using pilsner, and as J-Man pointed out, this beer was missing that bready grainy character. I decided to brew a second batch right away, but kept the recipe the same as the first, just to see how predictable it was. Again the beer was the same as previous. Assertively sour, clean, crisp and drinkable to no end.
Follow the basic recipe below for a first try:
- Est O.G. 1.028- 1.032 @ 3-4% ABV
- 60% Pale Base Malt (2 Row or Pilsner )
- 27% Wheat Malt ( type optional, could also use flaked wheat as a portion )
- 3% rice hulls ( optional )
- 10% Acidulated Malt ( added after end of main mash )
- Sterling or other noble hops – 60 min boil addition – keep the IBU low at about 6 or so. ( I used about .045 ounces per gallon of beer – 6%AA Sterling )
- Clean fermenting yeast of your choice. Keep it simple.
- Very soft water. Use calcium chloride (or other method) to get mash within range of 5.3 pH as needed.
- Mash in Base Malt and Wheat at 149-150 F for 60 minutes. ( I used a thick mash of 1.3 quarts per pound )
- When mash is complete add 10% Acidulated Malt and let cool to 100 F ( I let sit overnight in my cooler.)
- Once 100F has been reached, add a handfull of crushed base malt, and/or Acidulated malt to the mash. Stir well. ( This will add some wild lactobacillus to the mash and get things souring even more.)
- Cover the top of the mash with sanitized plastic wrap to keep out oxygen and nasties that thrive on it.
- Let sit for 24 hours at 100 F. ( I use a temperature controller and heating pads to add external heat to my cooler. I also wrap the cooler in a sleeping bag. )
- Mash out, sparge and boil as normal. 90 min boil recommended for pilsner malt.
- 60 min boil addition of hops. Note to keep the IBU low, as this beer is generally not bitter and has no hop presence.
- Ferment using your normal method. I chose to use White Labs WLP 090 San Diego Super Strain and fermented at 66-68 F.
- Secondary Fermentation is not necessary. This will ferment quickly and need little time to age. Bottle or keg as per your usual method, keep the carbonation as high as you dare in bottles. Keg at high volumes of CO2.
I would like to point out again that the mashing / brewing process is extended over several days. This can either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. I mash in on a Thursday or Friday night, and let cool to 100 F until the following morning. I then add a handful of crushed grain to the mash and stir it up. It then sits for 24 hours. Next proceed to the mash out and boil. I like to brew this beer when I am busy, and will have only a few hours to do my boil on the weekend. It splits up the brew session over the course of a few days, making each step feel small even though its taking almost 3 days to get the beer into the fermentor.
- Use a high quality tap for keg serving, with low foaming. This will keep the beer sparkling in the glass. I prefer the Pearl “flow control” faucet. This allows you to perfectly dial in the flow for low foaming. Serving speed will be a bit slower but worth it.
- Serve with raspberry or other traditional syrups to sweeten to taste for those who like that sort of thing. I prefer to drink as is, in a frosty glass.
- Over-Ice. Don’t freak out. Serving this refreshing beer over ice is a great summer-time option. Treat as you would lemonade. Add a slice of lemon as garnish. People can not tell this is “beer.”
There you have it. A hybrid Berliner Weisse recipe that is predictable. I encourage you to experiment with base malt and types of wheat and yeasts, to develop the taste you are looking for. My other favorite option is to add fruit in secondary to increase depth of flavor. Add a bit of fresh apple, berry, or grapes to your secondary and see what you get. I advise brewing this beer in a large quantity, as the drink-ability and popularity with wine or cider drinkers will drain your keg quickly.