Part of the awesomeness of homebrewing is being able to drink a beer that you can’t buy. If you want to make a chocolate mint stout with a little bit of cardamom in it because it reminds you of your groom’s cake, you can. If you want to make a wheat ale inspired by the 13th-century Italian civil war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, you can (I might). And if you hear about an obscure beer that people are enjoying in another part of the world, instead of shaking your fist at the heavens and cursing the wretched stars for the circumstances of your birth, you can just make the beer yourself.
In February 2011, I saw a vial of White Labs WLP630 Berliner Weisse Blend at my local homebrew shop. I’d read a lot about Berliner Weisse, a refreshing, low-alcohol sour wheat beer fermented with ale yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria. It sounded delicious, and apparently is available everywhere in Northern Germany, even hot dog carts (frankfurterwagens in the vernacular, I believe) and brothels. But it’s hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic. I was stoked to find the necessary yeast blend – all I needed now were some common malts and hops. “At last! You will be mine!” I shouted, and cackled as I slipped the vial containing the precious mix of microbes into my shopping basket.
Then I got home and started reading about brewing sour beers, which I had never done before. The first rule of Sour Club is you need to be very careful to avoid cross-contamination: that is, you don’t want the bacteria in the sour beer to infect equipment you use to make traditional “clean” beers that ferment with just yeast, because they can turn all your “clean” beers sour. Plastic equipment is very susceptible to cross-contamination, because plastic surfaces get tiny scratches over time that harbor bacteria. I use almost exclusively plastic (I’m clumsy, and would so drop a glass carboy filled with 5 gallons of beer), so for me this basically meant that I needed a whole new set of brewing gear. I panicked. I didn’t have the money to invest in a second set of equipment just to make a beer I wasn’t even sure I’d like. So I stuck the vial in the fridge and forgot about it.
The yeast blend expired in May 2011, but I held onto it for weeks. Weeks became months. Soon it was February, and for all I knew, 99% of the yeast blend was probably dead. It was only then, having become a man with nothing to lose, that I found my courage.
I decided to make a 1-gallon batch of Berliner Weisse, my rationale being:
- A new set of small batch gear was cheaper than a new set of 5-gallon gear.
- If most of the yeast blend was dead, I’d have better luck with a smaller volume of wort.
- I wasn’t sure how much Berliner Weisse I’d need around the house anyway.
I brewed it on March 3. The recipe was based on “Saures Biergesicht” from Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer’s Brewing Classic Styles, scaled for smaller volume but lower efficiency:
- 1 lb Bohemian Pilsner malt
- .75 lb White Wheat malt
I mashed at 149°F for 90 minutes in a pot on the stove; brew-in-a-bag, no sparge. I added .22 oz of Hallertau Saphir hops (4.2% AA) and boiled for 15 minutes. I transferred 5.5 quarts of wort with a gravity of 1.035 into a 2-gallon bucket I’d outfitted with a stopper and airlock. Then came the moment of truth: pitching the year-old yeast/lacto blend.
On account of the Teutonic heritage of the style and the unholy act of bringing microbes back from the dead, I named the brew “Bacillusferatu” after my second favorite German expressionist horror film (I plan to honor my favorite one soon with a pyment mead of buckwheat honey and Cab Sauv grape juice called “The Cabernet of Doctor Caligari”). But I never had much hope that my creation would live. Surely there was not enough magic left in that vial.
But man, was I wrong. It took a couple of days to get started, but it did. And it fermented wonderfully.
I racked Bacillusferatu into a small carboy 3 weeks later at gravity 1.006. Now it sleeps quietly, the bacteria continuing to ferment the beer and develop its characteristic tartness. In 6 months or so, it should be ready to emerge from its slumber and be unleashed upon the world …
I still have no idea how this beer will turn out. Right now it tastes good and funky, but with no tartness yet. But I have learned two important lessons from brewing it. #1 – As a homebrewer, I alone control my drinking destiny. #2 – Douglas Adams and Charlie Papazian were right. Don’t panic. Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew. To which I’d add: Never be afraid to try something new.