Hybrid Sour Mash Berliner Weiss – a predictable method!

berliner wiesse photo

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.

Procedure:

  1. Mash in Base Malt and Wheat at 149-150 F for 60 minutes. ( I used a thick mash of 1.3 quarts per pound )
  2. When mash is complete add 10% Acidulated Malt and let cool to 100 F ( I let sit overnight in my cooler.)
  3. 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.)
  4. Cover the top of the mash with sanitized plastic wrap to keep out oxygen and nasties that thrive on it.
  5. 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. )
  6. Mash out, sparge and boil as normal. 90 min boil recommended for pilsner malt.
  7. 60 min boil addition of hops. Note to keep the IBU low, as this beer is generally not bitter and has no hop presence.
  8. Ferment using your normal method. I chose to use White Labs WLP 090 San Diego Super Strain and fermented at 66-68 F.
  9. 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.

Serving Recommendattions:

  • 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.

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38 Responses to Hybrid Sour Mash Berliner Weiss – a predictable method!

  1. Jacob says:

    Is there a reason why you do a 60min boil instead of doing a low/no boil schedule?

  2. MadMatt says:

    Thanks for the question Jacob! I’ve done a low / no boil technique before using lacto in primary fermentation, but I found that method too unpredictable. I would get great beers one time and terrible beers the next. I really loved the subtle flavors from a no boil though. It had great wheat / grain flavor. But I also got a lot of trub in the bottle / keg. With a sour mash you get all the sourness upfront, but need to make sure you kill all the nasties from the mash prior to primary fermentation. A 60 or 90 min boil lets you boil down the wort a little and boils off any dms you might get from a short boil especially if you use pilsner malt. Your mileage may vary, but I won’t be going back to souring berliner beers in primary. It just never go sour enough for my taste, and had too much dumper beer to go back.

  3. Jacob says:

    Ah, fantastic. I had forgotten about the DMS issue. Thanks for getting back so quick. Cheers. I’ll be using your method soon enough.

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  5. MetaBrewing says:

    Have you brewed this since doing it the previous two times? I’m interested in hearing if your predictable results have continued. I have had issues with the sour mash method in the past (smelled like vomit mixed with durian fruit), but did not bring my pH down to 4.3 before the extended mash period. I also didn’t keep the wort in the mash during the souring period (I still see no reason to keep the wort with the grain, but would be interested in hearing opinions on that).

  6. MadMatt says:

    I’ve had the same results on multiple batches. Unfortunately its going to smell like vomit, probably because of the huge amounts of lacto producing the acid. All of mine have smelled like this during the rest period. After boiling and fermentation it seems to be reduced from boiling and co2 production. I think the acidulated malt gives this method the added kick of sourness I was looking for. My wife loves super sour berliner weiss.

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  8. MetaBrewing says:

    I version remains smelling like Parmesan cheese a year after brewing mine, so my traditional sour mash method didn’t work out. I plan to attempt either your version, or a post boil lacto pitch version this weekend.

    My system wouldn’t need to wait until overnight to cool to 100. In fact, I could probably get there a few hours after mashing given the fact that I mash in a stainless steel kettle (non insulated). Would you see any reason not to pitch the handful of grain the same day when I get to 100? I’m trying to make this process take 2 days instead of 3.

  9. MetaBrewing says:

    One more question, did you use San Diego Super Strain because you were working with a low pH wort? I’m trying to figure out how a typical 001/1056 yeast strain will perform in attenuating wort with a pH in the 3.2-3.4 range down to at least 1.004-1.005?

  10. MadMatt says:

    I would add your crushed grain as soon at it hits 100 F. It just took a long time for my mash in the cooler to drop. Once at 100 let it sit. This method gives you a pretty tart beer. The lacto fermentation can be superior, but it always was so unpredictable for me I just use this method now.

  11. MadMatt says:

    I used it mainly because that’s what I had at the time. I’m sure any other yeast would work well. I just used this method on a leftover imperial ipa mash, and fermented it with WLP007. It fermented out just fine. I did get an odd fruity funk in the beer, and I’m not sure if it was the yeast or the sour mash.

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  13. MetaBrewing says:

    I followed a similar process to your sour mash method on Saturday night (lowered the pH by adding 10% acid malt). I have yet to check on the mash, but will be doing so today to see if it is ready. I asked this question on HBT, but thought you might have an answer about how sour the mash runnings should be so that they translate to a tart beer when diluted with sparge water:
    http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f127/berliner-weisse-sour-mash-how-tart-do-you-go-402086/#post5065583

  14. MadMatt says:

    I have found that souring with this method on a thick mash, and sparging and boiling results in a very tart beer. There probably isn’t a way to measure the flavor, as the runnings are unfermented and will still taste sweet. My recommendation would just be trial and error. Can’t wait to hear your results.

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  16. Stefan says:

    What about making a regular DME starter, correcting the pH down with food grade lactic acid and then throwing in some malt? Let this sour for a few days at ~100F and use this as a relatively controlled starter of Lacto.

    Busy doing something similar but without correcting the pH, so a more classic sour starter for a sour mash.

  17. MadMatt says:

    I really didnt like doing a lacto ferment, it just didnt get sour enough for me. But I think that method would work.

  18. berliner says:

    If i produce this beer this way will my mash tun forever be a part of my “sour equipment?”

  19. MadMatt says:

    Nope, because its on the pre-hot side you will be ok. Ive done several in my plastic mash tun and it hasnt added any permanent odors etc.

  20. Ted says:

    I’m in the process of brewing a sour Belgian blonde using a similar, although not parallel, strategy. I’m interested in your thoughts on whether you think the process I’m using could be used to get a similar result for a Berliner Weiss. In the method I’m using (derived from a post by Michael Tonsmeire), I first developed a Lacto 3 liter starter using DME and a handful of milled grain. I kept the starter at about 110 F for three days, resulting in a very tart (think sour apples) slurry. I then brewed a Belgian blonde recipe as usual, through sparging. Once I gathered enough wort and achieved a boil, I cut the heat and pulled half the wort off, chilling it to about 90 F. I pitched the Lacto starter and have it fermenting at about 80-85 F. I continued the brew on the remaining half of the wort as usual, adding all the hop additions in normal quantities as if I was brewing the entire batch. The remainder is fermenting alongside the lacto batch. I plan to blend the two after the lacto batch has soured (probably 3-5 days after pitching the lacto). Once blended, I will complete the fermentation as usual. It seems like this approach could be used in place of the multi-day sour mashing technique you described, and get similar results. Interested to hear your thoughts.

  21. MadMatt says:

    I think that sounds like a good method for getting a good lacto culture going. Ive heard of people using apple juice as a lacto starter medium as well. I think your method is a good way if you are looking to do a sour fermentation which is great for a berliner. For my tastes I could never get it sour enough in a predictable way, so went the sour mash route. This way my beer comes out the same every time. Please let me know your results, as I would maybe give it a try myself.

  22. Boludo says:

    I’m a bit confused about something, and it seems as though a few others who commented
    are as well. The source of the confusion is this:
    Do you believe that keeping the wort on the grain produces a different/faster souring than performing essentially the same process on the runoff/wort instead? For the sake of simplicity, the only difference would be running the wort off the grain. Everything else would be kept the same: thickness of the mash; acidifying and seeding with grain at the end of the mash; no sparging (to maintain pH, sugars %, etc. of the runnings); 100F temp when souring; no O2; and possibly even putting some grain in a mesh sack in the souring vessel.

    A few people have asked essentially this same question, but your responses have been somewhat obfuscatory. You seem to prefer your sour mash method, but don’t say whether it is simply because this method has worked for you, and so you are sticking to it (like many sour brewers). Or, you have reasons why you think the method above (using the runnings) will produce different results than what your hybrid method produces in the mash tun (prior to sparging).

    I can think of many reasons why a sour mash might work better when done using the grain bed- it’s possible that there could be a significant quantity of bacteria left in the grain bed; or that the surface of the grain bed itself creates a better physical environment for the lacto bacteria. In your reponses to the other comments, you seem to lump the method proposed above in with the standard lactic or lactic/yeast ferments you have done previously (with varied success). This method I (and I think others) are proposing is much closer to your sour mash method, than to your previous lactic ferments.

  23. MadMatt says:

    Some good questions Boludo. Thank you for your detailed comments. I’m sorry if I’ve confused anyone with my thoughts or explanations of what I have done. I have no real data to back up any of it, and I’m definitely not a scientist. In response to your thoughts above:

    — “Do you believe that keeping the wort on the grain produces a different/faster souring than performing essentially the same process on the runoff/wort instead?” — Good question. I’ve not tried it. I’m not sure that keeping it on the grain has any real positive benefit or negative impact on flavor or souring. My personal thought is that the mash / runoff is in the mash tun already and in my case is insulated so I can easily keep it at 100f for souring. Unless you need to get on with another brew in the next day or so and need to use the mash tun, there is really no need to remove it. It keeps the process simple for me I guess. No need for a separate container, carboy etc. But the real test would be to try it side by side and see.

    — “You seem to prefer your sour mash method, but don’t say whether it is simply because this method has worked for you, and so you are sticking to it (like many sour brewers).” — I prefer the sour mash method mainly because as you state, its been predictable for me and am sticking to it. In previous batches where I did a normal mash, did a short boil, and fermented with lacto cultures I found my results unpredictable. I made some great beers that way, and some dumpers. It just wasn’t repeatable for me. My method is a compromise. Lacto fermented beers in my opinion are superior IF I could get them sour enough or to turn out drinkable. This method produces clean, and really sour beers. I’m not really looking for subtle flavors and complex ferments. I’m looking for sour every time, with clean flavors that my friends like. So to answer directly, – It worked for me, I don’t really see a need to change, unless I can find a better method. And there very well may be.

    — “I can think of many reasons why a sour mash might work better when done using the grain bed- it’s possible that there could be a significant quantity of bacteria left in the grain bed; or that the surface of the grain bed itself creates a better physical environment for the lacto bacteria.” — I can honestly say I haven’t thought it through that well. I’m not sure. This sounds plausible, and maybe someone with more scientific knowledge than myself could provide insight.

    “In your responses to the other comments, you seem to lump the method proposed above in with the standard lactic or lactic/yeast ferments you have done previously (with varied success). This method I (and I think others) are proposing is much closer to your sour mash method, than to your previous lactic ferments.” — I’m not sure others have really stated exactly what you have about draining the mash tun and souring just the runoff in a separate vessel apart from the grain. I think Ted was stating he was doing a lacto starter, by adding grain to a wort mixture. He then was going to use it in a ferment on wort that was a subjected to a short boil. This is the method I find unpredictable and does not get sour enough for my taste. But this could be my own experience. Looking back at Stefan’s comment, he was really thinking of doing a lacto starter as an added culture for a sour mash. I think I misunderstood him ( maybe after too many visits to the keggerator), thinking he was doing a starter for a lacto ferment just as Ted proposes. Stefan’s method should work well. The steps may be redundant though, I’m not sure. It would definitely give the sour mash a good start, and is probably similar to my method of adding in the acid malt. He’s adding lacto thats ready to go, AND its partially acidified, which probably helps.

    Thanks again for the comment, I don’t know if that helps clarify my statements or makes them worse :) . If you have results from any method you do experiments with I would love to hear your results. Please post them here, and maybe we can do an update to this article, and I can try your method as well. Brew on friends!

  24. Boludo says:

    Thanks for the quick response. I think several comments, especially one of the early ones in which the need to keep the wort on the grain was specifically cited, were wondering about this. I think sour mashing the run-off (usually called “pre-boil” or “kettle” souring, I think) is a popular method, because of Raj Apte’s essays on the matter where he advocates this. One thing you do that Raj does not (and I feel is beneficial) is to pre-sour (reduce the pH of) the mash/runoff (with acid malt, acid, or a lacto starter). This step, along with usual temp and no O2, aids in limiting unwanted bacterial activity (enterobacter?).

    I like the sour mash approach as it makes things both faster, and, as you say, more predictable. I think with some basic guidelines, several paths to the same destination can be achieved. Souring the mash itself may have some built in advantages, and deviating from that may require adhering to additional constraints, instead of just jumping ahead to the next step and souring. Assuming the sparge water will change (usually raise?) the pH, and the sugars will definitely be diluted, limiting sparging may be one of those constraints. If the thickness of the mash matters (pH, sugar %), then skipping a step to sour the runoff may require a “no sparge” approach. Low grav worts usually dictate less than full volume sparges anyway (topping up the kettle with water, like extract brewers) to reduce over-sparging (tannins), so this shouldn’t be that big a deviation. If a “no sparge” approach is required, the loss of efficiency, which won’t be that costly for such a low ABV beer anyway, can be mediated by sparging the residual sugars in the mash for using in a starter for the yeast for the batch (or canned). Even without reclaiming those sugars, the efficiency loss may be worth it to some who prefer to “pre-boil” sour for reasons of convenience.

    I am one of those. My desire to sour the runoff is because I believe dealing with liquid for souring seems simpler. In addition to easier general logistics, there are additional techniques that are work better post runoff, like heating the wort to kill off unwanted bacteria prior to lacto souring.

    I’m going to brew a Berliner in the next couple of weeks, and will likely use the “pre-boil” kettle souring method, then dilute the wort for the boil. If that works well, next time I might try just pitching yeast after souring for a “no boil” version.

    If only this approach worked for making true sour beers. From the reading I have done, it’s one of those things that really cant be rushed. Similar to sauerkraut, which has to pass through stages of bacterial/fungal activity, Belgian style sours also have growth/decline/synergistic phases of the various bugs. The turbid mashing regimes of many Belgian lambic brewers make sense, now that the life cycles in the barrels has been (at least partially) decrypted. It’s incredible they developed their methods with virtually no knowledge of the underlying processes.

  25. bloombrews says:

    I hope this blog is still fermenting…Great Blog!
    I brewed my first BW with wlp630 Berliner Weisse Blend. Good easy slamming beer, but not much sourness,,,,
    Then I took the dregs from the corn keg n Shazamm! The Lacto el Nateral is 10fold better now! I WIll do the “Hybrid” method and use a good 2000Ml. Of the stepped up Dregs with your hybrid method n repost in a month….Its Summer almost…n I flushed the first batch down so easy…! MmMMMmmmm…..more sourballs coming!

  26. MadMatt says:

    We are still here fermenting away, but busy with life in general :) I found that with the sour mash I didn’t need to ferment with the lacto, I had the same experience you did, just not sour enough. Let us know how this works for you and what you did. I need to get off my tun and brew some of this for the summer!

  27. James says:

    You say you use heating pads and a temperature controller to keep the mash at 100F… do you mash in a cooler? If so, how well does the heating pad work through the cooler wall?

  28. MadMatt says:

    I do mash in a cooler, and insulate the cooler well with sleeping bags etc. I found that if the mash temp is correct, when you start, the heating pads help mitigate the heat loss. I’ve done this in a bucket and found it worked ok too. I think it just depends on what you have available to use. You can overwork the heating pads by placing the temp probe in the mash as it takes forever to change the temp through the cooler wall. So a bucket or even metal pot might work better, and just insulate around it with whatever you can. If you can rig up a fermentation chamber to stay warm that’s probably the best method.

  29. Colin says:

    Matt,

    How would you modify this to produce a lesser sourness for a gose?

  30. MadMatt says:

    Not sure, I suppose the sourness level you are looking for can determine how much acid malt and or how long you let the sour mash sit. You might find acid malt is enough sourness on its own, or cut the souring time.

  31. Richard says:

    Hi Matt,

    I’m going to try this technique next week, but sour the runoff in the boil kettle rather than the mash. You say that the pH needs to be 4.3 to ward off any unwanted bugs and for the lacto to get started, can i ask what pH you ended up with as from reading around the internet they all seem to be in the 3 – 3.6 range?

  32. MadMatt says:

    Sorry, I didn’t do any pH readings of the final wort / beer, so I’m not sure.

  33. MadMatt says:

    Just recently found a recipe from Bootleg Biology using acid malt to sour in this same manner Link to recipe PDF – http://bootlegbiology.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Bootleg-Biology-Berliner-Bear-Recipe.pdf

  34. bloombrews says:

    After much research, and my first stab at this great beer, my first try was good…but NOT a SOUR BW!!! I used WLP630 Berliner Weisse Blend, with a decoction, and a NO boil. The beer was very nice and drinkable,….but NO SOUR Lactobacillus to speak of…
    Then I came upon THIS way of doing a BW! ShaZAM! Dead-on-Awesome!
    Only after 8 days in my 14.5 gallon conical fermenter, I could NOT stop drinking “samples” from the sampling tap! My Wife LOVES this recipe! She says “It’s better then Witte Kirke!” I agree! Thanks Madmat! You have the process down pat!!!Flat!!! MadMat!!!

  35. MadMatt says:

    Awesome! I’m glad to hear it worked out well. My wife loves this too. A great summer beer.

  36. Leif says:

    I don’t have a good way of maintaining a temperature of 100 for the mash, but I /could/ keep it at around 85 or 90. Does anyone have experience with doing a sour mash at this temperature, and would there be a higher risk of contamination?

  37. MadMatt says:

    My guess would be any additional risk of contamination would be minimal. But lacto souring may take a bit longer at the slightly lower temps. I think ideal lacto temps are at about 100 to 110 F. The acid malt addition should drop the pH low enough to ward of any contamination.

  38. Leif says:

    Thanks, that’s reassuring! I’ll go ahead and try it.

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