On Friday, we brewed what we hope will be a very traditional rendition of a Berliner Weisse, a sour, very pale wheat beer, fermented with a combination of saccharomyces (standard beer yeast) and lactobacillus (souring bacteria). The word “Weisse” means “white” in German, but when talking about Bavarian-style Weissbier, it’s used more or less interchangeably with the similar sounding “Weizen”, meaning “wheat”. Berliner Weisse is something completely different, bearing, if anything, a slightly closer resemblance to Belgian-style white ales and sour ales than it does to southern German wheat beers.
It was our friend, Andrew Pogue of Andrew Pogue Photography, who first suggested that we consider brewing Berliner Weisse, and who ultimately won us over with an outstanding homebrewed rendition. At first, we were somewhat resistant to the idea, because we already had a lot of other beers we wanted to brew, and because we weren’t sure what sort of original contribution we could make to a category that none of us knew very well. Upon tasting Andrew’s version, though, any questions that we might have had about whether it deserved a spot on our brewing calendar immediately disappeared. The beer was tart, refreshing, complex, full of character, and completely unlike anything currently available in Texas. And at roughly 3% alcohol by volume, it was something that could be enjoyed in relative abundance over the course of several hours: a great “session beer”. I wanted more of this stuff—we all did—so regardless of any concerns that we might have had, our course of action was clear; we had to brew it.
A good deal of research had gone into Andrew’s homebrew recipe, and he made a number of different variations before presenting it to us, but brewing 30 barrels of it would present a different set of challenges, for which we felt as though we might need a few more tools at our disposal. So we reached out to European beer historian Ron Pattinson, whose blog contains a wealth of meticulous, well-documented historical research on Berliner Weisse and its variations (as well as on practically any other European-beer-related topic that you could imagine). Ron helped point us in the right direction, and through him, we got in touch with Kristen England of the soon to open Pour Decisions Brewery in Roseville, Minnesota, who has probably brewed more variations of Berliner Weisse than anyone else on the planet. Kristen’s guidance has been instrumental throughout the process. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude, and can’t wait to taste his beers.
This is the fourth session beer that we’ve brewed so far at Jester King, and chances are, it won’t be the last. Our love of session beers, as we see it, is simply rooted in our love of beer, not just as a special treat to be savored a few ounces at a time, but as an everyday drink to be enjoyed with conversations and meals. Session beers are flavorful enough to be interesting, restrained enough to avoid wrecking the palate after two glasses and low enough in alcohol to be enjoyed over the course of several hours with friends. Beer writer Lew Bryson’s Session Beer Project neatly lays out what session beer is all about. We enjoy “extreme” beers every now and then, but for us, drinking them exclusively would be akin to eating nothing but dessert, and while we realize that there are those who would rather eat nothing but chocolate mousse or drink nothing but imperial IPA, this isn’t really our taste, and it isn’t the philosophy upon which Jester King is based.
Commercial Suicide, a 3.3% dark mild, was the first beer we released. Immediately afterwords, we saw several comments about how we had named it appropriately, and I’m sure there are those who still feel that’s the case. We were particularly amused by one comment that said we screwed up a perfectly good stout and an inquiry about when we were going to brew a “full strength” version. As we planned and built our brewery, though, we constantly found ourselves wishing that a beer like Commercial Suicide was available. We wanted something that we could drink and enjoy while working without putting the quality of our work at risk, and knew that, during the long days that would lie ahead, we’d want this even more. So we brewed it, knowing that 30 barrels could be a lot to go through on our own if no one else was interested in this sort of thing, but that we’d go through it eventually if we had to. When we did our first collaboration with Mikkeller, Drink’in the Sunbelt, we chose to make that a session beer, as well. Soon we will be releasing bottled versions of both of these beers. One of the two farmhouse ales that we’ve been brewing, and hope to have ready later this summer, Das Wunderkind! Farmhouse Table Beer, is also a session beer of roughly 4.2%.
The grain to liquid ratio in the Berliner Weisse was even lower than in any of our other session beers, resulting in an even more modest alcohol content. We’re anticipating a final ABV somewhere between 2.9% and 3.2%, with little to no residual sweetness. Only an extremely minimal amount of hops were added, and in order to preserve the starchy character of the wheat, the wort was never fully boiled.
Berliner Weisse mash with only about 900 lbs. of grain. Black Metal’s mash is about 2,500 lbs. by comparison.
2.2 lbs. of hops in the recipe for about 2 IBU in the finished beer
The wort was not boiled so as to preserve the rustic, starchy character of the wheat.
After the wort was chilled and transferred to the fermenter, a 1.5 barrel starter with roughly one trillion cells of lactobacillus was added along with a standard pitch of the same yeast that we use for Commercial Suicide, Wytchmaker, Black Metal, and Drink’in the Sunbelt. As of today, primary fermentation is nearly complete, and now we just have to be patient while the lactobacillus does its job. This will most likely require at least 8 weeks bottle aging, and possibly much more. If all goes well, we could have some available as early as sometime this summer, but if we feel like it needs more time, that date could be pushed back to fall, winter, spring, etc… and, of course, if we’re not happy with how it’s coming along, we won’t release it at all.
Is our local market ripe for a starchy, yogurty beer of around 3% ABV? We don’t know, but it sounds pretty good to us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have brewed it.