Tag Archive | White Labs

Insert something witty here

Let’s start today at the BJCP Style Guidelines. Scroll through the list of styles. What do you see? Sure, it’s a manual, a valuable tool for any brewer. But for the beer lover, it’s also one part journal and one part little black book, with mental check marks next to the styles you’ve tasted and/or brewed … while unfamiliar styles call to you siren-like, the anticipation of conquests you haven’t yet made. Just like flipping through the pages of an old journal, you’re bound to have some regrets, some “what was I thinking?” moments (style 1A. Lite American Lager, anyone?). But also like a journal, the later entries leave you feeling a lot less embarrassed than the earlier ones, and certainly by the time you get to the English Pale Ales (starting with 8A. Standard/Ordinary Bitter) you’re starting to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Then halfway through, you see it: that entry that makes you question your judgment all over again, sitting drab and dull like a cat turd in the gold mine of your zymurgical adventures.  The reminder of the giant noob you once were. And you ask yourself again, “What in the world was I thinking?”

I speak, of course, of 16A. Witbier.

Whether you call them wits, wittes, Belgian whites, or even bières blanches, chances are that you or someone you know has laughed derisively at this light, easy-drinking style in the recent past. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because so many commercial examples are so-called “crafty” offerings from industrial lager producers padding out their product portfolios with under-attenuated, over-flavored wits to provide a clawhold onto the elusive craft beer market and a talon in the door of the non-beer-drinker. Or maybe because witbiers are something we see as behind us, the non-threatening gateway beers we drank before graduating to today’s Imperial Everythings, and IPAs with IBUs approaching the GDP of Luxembourg. Witbiers are familiar, and after all we’ve been through … boring.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little creativity, witbiers are a useful addition to the recipe book. They’re very forgiving of temperature fluctuations during fermentation (i.e., great for beginners), and are especially handy when you need a batch of beer to go from grain to glass in a couple of weeks (i.e., great for anyone strapped for time).

The traditional wit recipe is roughly equal parts continental Pilsner malt and unmalted/flaked wheat, with oats on top of that at around 5-10% of the grain bill. A multi-step mash is usually performed with a beta-glucan rest at 110°F (or a protein rest at 120°F) and a saccharification rest around 154°F. The multi-step mash breaks down proteins that make the flaked grains gummy, avoiding the frustration of a stuck mash (replacing it, in my opinion, with the frustration of missing multiple step temperatures in my converted cooler mash tun … but more on that in a moment). In the boil, a small early addition of noble hops for bittering is typical, with coriander and orange peel (often Curaçao bitter orange, also known as laraha) added near the end.

My variation was developed in response to the need for an easy brewday and my desire for a bit more flavor than is offered by most commercial witbiers. First, the grain:

  • 4.25 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt
  • 4.25 lbs white wheat malt
  • 1 lb flaked oats
  • 0.25 lbs (4 oz) Munich malt

The substitution of malted white wheat for flaked wheat eliminates the need to do a multi-step mash, but just to be safe – since I still had about 10% flaked oats – I included 8 oz of rice hulls to keep the lauter flowing freely and did a single infusion mash at 151°F. The Munich was included to bring a little color and a touch of malty flavor.

I boiled for 100 minutes – longer than my usual 90, but just by accident. I added 0.55 oz of 8.2% AA American Santiam hops at the 60-minute mark. Santiam is a hop I hadn’t used before, but being related to German Tettnanger and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (and thus more noble than American “Tettnang” hops which are actually descended from Fuggles) it seemed a worthy candidate. I got floral and peppery notes from it.

But the end of the boil was where things really got interesting. With 1 minute left in the boil, I added:

  • 0.2 oz dried bitter orange peel (left over from a previous batch)
  • 1 oz fresh blood orange zest (about 4 oranges’ worth)
  • 12 g crushed coriander
  • 3 g crushed grains of paradise

The original gravity was 1.053, technically a point past the upper end of the style, but I’m not complaining. I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale Yeast, an obvious choice for the style – but underpitched slightly by using a 900 mL starter. This should lead the yeast to produce more clove phenols to counterpoint the fresh zest and peppery spices. I started the fermentation at 68°F, but gradually heated the chamber up to 72°F by the third day, which should also accentuate the phenols. If it seems like I’m hedging my bets on phenol production, I am. This is my third wit, and the other two didn’t have nearly the fermentation flavor I was looking for.

I keg it two weeks from brewday, and I’ll be serving it just in time for the beginning of March and my ultimate reason for brewing this: a month of Game of Thrones viewings to prepare for the new season starting in April. It’s the reason I named this brew Wit Walker White Ale, and I think it’ll be a perfect beer to have on tap for Game of Thrones catch-up. It’s light enough to go with a variety of snacks. It’s sessiony enough to keep drinking through hours of viewings without getting drowsy or losing the plot in a beery stupor. And yes, it’s accessible enough to share with all my friends, even those who aren’t on the hardcore brew bandwagon yet. And by loading it up with flavors I like, I can guarantee myself something I can still be proud to drink along with everyone else … something so familiar, but completely new.

Une saison à la maison


In French, the word means season, as in the seasons of the year. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter. A generic term, a category with specimens so varied that each is the opposite of another.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the beer style we call “saison” is a varied, open-ended style as well. Call it a seasonal beer unattached to a particular season.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Look it up anywhere from Wikipedia to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and you’ll learn that saison has its roots in the farmhouses of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who spent the winter brewing spicy, refreshing ales to be consumed in the summer by workers pulling long shifts in the fields. So traditionally it’s a summer beer.

But the Wallonian brewing tradition was highly improvisational and localized. Each farmhouse brewed their own beer with the ingredients available at the time, often raised on their own farms. The resulting beers were, unsurprisingly, vastly different from place to place and from month to month.

So unlike the seasonal beers of, say, Germany – which tend toward profile standards of characteristic Teutonic rigidity, with names easy to mark on your calendar like Märzen, Maibock, and Oktoberfest – this traditional Belgian seasonal can be light or dark, strong or sessiony, and anything in between. A December 2006 Style Profile article from Brew Your Own magazine lists a wide disparity of characteristics for the modern style in regards to color, mouthfeel, residual sweetness, strength, hop profile, and spices. The main common thread is the yeast, descended from traditional Belgian strains that produce a characteristic spiciness, an estery je ne sais quoi that makes these beers decidedly farmhousey, even when made in the (sub)urban backyard.

With that range of profiles, I’d say seasonality goes out the window. A strong, dark, spicy saison would be a great nightcap on a cold winter night. I like light, refreshing saisons in spring (I’m pretty sure spring in Texas feels like summer in Belgium anyway). So I brewed one now to be ready by the last week of March.

There was another reason for my timing besides the oncoming vernal equinox. The last beer my wife and I drank together was a bomber of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, the day before we learned she was pregnant. Our baby is due in April, so what better beer to have on hand to celebrate her return to the world of the ethanol-metabolizing than a hop-forward saison?

I started my brew with a clone recipe of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace from the December 2011 issue of Brew Your Own and a Gallic sense of laissez-faire. The recipe called for 11 lbs (5 kg) of Belgian Pilsner malt, which I increased to 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) to compensate for lower efficiency on my system (more on that below). This made up the bulk of the fermentables along with 1 lb (453 g) of dextrose in the boil. The recipe also used a 3-step mash, which I did not. I did a single infusion mash at 146°F (63°C). The low mash temperature makes a more fermentable wort, but saccharification takes a little longer so I mashed for 90 minutes instead of my usual 60.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is hopped entirely with Sorachi Ace hops, which I couldn’t get locally. Instead of replacing it with a similar substitute, I took a different path entirely. I used 16% AA Warrior hops for neutral bittering, two additions of .37 oz (10.5 g) each at 60 and 30 minutes (~6 AAU in each addition). At flameout, I added 3 oz (85 g) of 15% AA Summit.

I had prepared a 2-liter starter of White Labs WLP 560, an Austin Homebrew Supply-exclusive Classic Saison Yeast Blend. That starter was decanted and pitched into a wort with an OG of 1.073, eleven points higher than my target OG of 1.062. Eleven points!

Not your grand-père’s farmhouse brewery.

Little mishaps are common in brewing, and usually a good sign. Minor, easily correctable problems during the brew day keep the brewer on his/her toes, and (I think) make us less prone to serious mistakes that can’t be fixed. But overshooting target gravity by this much is a new kind of problem for me.

Is it even a problem? Obviously my efficiency is much higher than I thought – I’m noting the data for future batches – and the extra malt I added was unnecessary: a “problem” many brewers would love to have. I’m not entering any contests, so the fact that my OG landed past the upper limit of the BJCP range for saison doesn’t concern me. If it fails to attenuate completely, I may end up with a beer that’s too sweet. But if I got the kind of fermentability I was shooting for out of my low mash, that extra sugar should ferment out, leaving me with an ABV higher than I intended.

So if I’m lucky, I’ll be welcoming the spring with a dry, high-alcohol saison. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to qualify as an “imperial saison”, but it should be worthy of some noble title. I’d settle for “ducal saison” or better yet, “marchional saison”. With its extra kick, it might be a little too intense for farm work, but it sounds about right for celebrating the birth of a new Marchese.

Unfinished business

With November half over, I'm faced with several unfinished brewing projects and more on the way.

A few days ago, I racked my ginger mead to a carboy for conditioning. Because of my pathological aversion to work which isn't absolutely necessary, I'm a believer in long primaries and won't rack beer to a carboy unless there's a damned good reason (no empty keg available, need the primary vessel for a new beer, cat fur stuck to the inside wall of the bucket, etc.) and I get good beer with up to 6 weeks on the yeast cake.

But for mead, we're talking upwards of 6 months of conditioning, and for that there's no way around racking to a carboy. Not only is it better to get the mead off that autolyzing yeast for the extended aging, but it's essential for clarity: the mead won't clarify until it's removed from the gross lees. It's amazing, in fact, how quickly it does start to clarify as soon as it's racked. Just a few days have passed since I racked it, and it's already several shades darker than it was in the primary due to the yeast flocculating out.

At racking time, the gravity measured 1.001 and the mead had a fruity, floral taste with a little ginger bite but sadly no hint of ginger in the flavor or aroma. My fermentation chamber did its job well keeping the fermentation cool, and it had none of the fusel alcohols my other (uncontrolled temperature) meads had this early on. It might even be ready in less than 6 months, but I have reasons for waiting until April to bottle it. Until then, I'll rack it every 6-8 weeks, add a few Campden tablets occasionally to prevent oxidation, and maybe hit it with some Sparkolloid closer to bottling time. And definitely some more ginger before bottling.

I also took the first gravity sample from the Colonial Progress Ale I brewed 11 days ago. The wort turned out a bit more fermentable than I expected and is currently at 1.009, with an ABV of 4.8% (and the WLP008 yeast, a notoriously slow flocculator, might still be working). It's got a fruity tang I expected from this yeast, and very minimal cidery character from the simple sugar of the molasses. It's really a nice easy-drinking session beer that should be very enjoyable when the yeast settles out. The juniper and sweet gale have largely faded, though. I'll add more spices to the fermenter before kegging. Who knows, I might even rack the beer for the occasion.

The next project on the horizon is an inventory cleaning extravaganza! I've got lots of open hop packets from over the course of the past year that I'll use in a beer to be brewed the day after Thanksgiving. I spent some time tonight rubbing hop pellets between my fingers (while watching Moonshiners on Discovery Channel … now those guys are pros) smelling them and even tasting some of them to make sure they were still hoppy and had none of the telltale cheesiness of bad hops. Fortunately, only a half ounce of Warrior left over from February had any distinctive cheesy notes, so back into the freezer it went to keep on aging until it magically changes from “cheesy” to “aged” and I can use it in a lambic. The other open hops made the cut and will be used next week. More on that recipe soon!


Vote for Progress … hops

Saturday was Learn to Homebrew Day in the USA, and today is Election Day. To honor both events, I did what any patriotic and pedantic zyme lord would. I made beer.

I called it Colonial Progress Ale, and it’s something between an English bitter and an English brown ale. “Colonial” comes from the fermentables, adapted from a recipe I envisioned for a colonial-style ale during a trip to Philadelphia earlier this year. I ended up with:

  • 6.5 lbs American 2-row
  • 1 lb Victory malt
  • 8 oz Flaked wheat
  • 8 oz Flaked oats
  • 1 lb Molasses

Each of these ingredients was chosen for a reason, starting with American 2-row malt as the base. Wheat is common in colonial ale recipes, including one attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Victory and oats I had no historic precedent for, but I added them for body in the finished beer, along with some bready/biscuity flavor (Victory) and silky smoothness (oats) to accentuate the English-inspired malt profile. I mashed at 153°F for medium fermentability, counting on the highly fermentable molasses to dry the beer out.


The mash begins.

Ohhh, molasses. A common ingredient in beer in early colonial Philadelphia (according to a quote from William Penn), I can eat the stuff right out of the jar. But I was nervous about using it after reading John Palmer’s tasting notes ranging from “rumlike” and “sweet” (woohoo!) to “harsh” and “bitter” (ergh). But further research online suggested that harsher flavors were associated with fermenting mineral-rich blackstrap molasses, not the regular unsulphured kind. I went with regular, and added them at the beginning of the boil with high hopes.

The “Progress” part came from the hops: one ounce of 6.6% AA Progress at the 60-minute mark for bittering, and another quarter ounce at 15 minutes for flavor. Progress is a UK varietal related to Fuggle hops, a good choice for English-style ales.

But that wasn’t all I added to the boil. Hops were available to some colonial brewers, but apparently not all that prevalent, so other bittering herbs were common. My original plan was to use horehound, but I realized the medicinal flavor might overpower a low-gravity ale. I thought of rosemary, but was talked out of it by the sages (ha, ha) at Austin Homebrew Supply. I landed on:

  • .25 oz Juniper berries (crushed in mortar)
  • .5 grams Sweet Gale (dried)

I added the herbs in the last minute of the boil and let them steep during cooling and whirlpool. I may add more later during conditioning.

The wort had an OG of 1.046, a true session ale for the upcoming winter (insert witty apropos Valley Forge reference; I can’t think of one). I pitched the slurry from a 2-liter starter of WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast – reportedly the Sam Adams house strain – in keeping with the colonial theme. I set the fermentation chamber to an ambient 65-68°F, a little warmer than typical to coax some vintage ester flavor from this low-flocculating yeast.


Fermentation underway after 24 hours.

By this time tomorrow, the future of the United States will be written for the next four years. But regardless of whether my guy wins or not, I’ll have something to look forward to: a beverage in the tradition of the first beers brewed on American soil. Beer has always been a part of American culture, even before there was a United States, and from #1 on down to #44 many presidents have been homebrew aficionados: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were homebrewers and Barack Obama bought a homebrew kit for the White House with his own money. And beer remains one of the few things people can agree on regardless of personal politics.

Don’t forget to vote today, no matter who you’re supporting. Red and blue be damned. We can all party together in the colors of the SRM scale.

The boldness of new beginnings

Foaming with abandon in the Harry Potter closet is a 2-liter Erlenmeyer flask on a stir plate, filled with a starter of White Labs WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast.


She ain’t pretty, but she’s mah baby.

Anyone reading this who has been using liquid yeast without a starter should jump on the starter train. Seriously. It’s as easy as making a tiny unhopped extract brew, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. Just bring 1-2 liters of water to a boil – higher gravity worts will need bigger starters; see YeastCalc for the volume recommended for your batch – add dry malt extract at a rate of 100 grams per liter and some yeast nutrient if you’ve got it. This will make a wort of 1.035-1.040, which is perfect for a starter regardless of the OG of the batch it’s going in. Boil, cool and pitch the yeast. Ferment for 2 days, then cool in the fridge for at least 24 hours before making the “real” wort. Most of the yeast will drop out when chilled, leaving clear (but vile – don’t drink it) “beer” which should be decanted, leaving behind the yeast cake and just enough liquid to swirl up into a slurry. Pitch and watch the magic happen. If you’ve got good sanitation techniques, making a starter carries minimal risk. The rewards are higher pitching rates and better beer. And it’s so easy, there’s no reason not to.

This starter was pitched with yeast that expired in July. I’ve worked with expired yeast before. The yeast/bacteria blend in my Bacillusferatu Berliner Weisse was expired for ten months before I pitched it, though that was into a 1-gallon test batch of a low-gravity wort intended for souring. This starter is going into five gallons of wort for a very different beer: my long-overdue Colonial Progress Ale, from a recipe slightly modified from one I posted in April. Details forthcoming after I brew it this weekend.

As the photo above shows, the expired yeast is spewing so much krauesen I had to wrap it in a paper towel. The expired yeast are healthy as can be, and that’s no surprise. Sure, the expired vial had no more than about 10% of its original population of viable yeast cells, but so what? Yeast cells are dying every day in every carboy, keg and cask in the world, but fermentation continues. Many homebrewers culture yeast from commercial bottle dregs and make great beer with it. Given enough time, even a few sad, dying yeast cells will get their freak on, reproduce and ferment wort. It’s just that the first generations will be weak and languid, and make lots of foul-tasting byproducts doing it.

The purpose of the starter is to make sure those nasty byproducts end up in a beer that’s destined for the drain, not your gullet … while the real wort gets inoculated with a healthy colony of the naturally selected descendants of those few Saccharomycean pioneers who survived the long winter.

So don’t ever be afraid to use expired yeast. Don’t throw it away. You should be making a starter anyway. For fresh yeast, a starter is a leg up. For expired yeast, it’s a new beginning.

Speaking of new beginnings, best of luck to my friends and fellow writers undertaking National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo”) this November. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days: fast, raw, unedited. I’ve done it four of the last five years and made it across the 50k mark each time. But I won’t be doing it officially this year. I’ve got too many short stories I want to work on, and a novel already in progress, and I don’t want to distract myself with something new. But I am using November as an excuse to write every day: a blog post, story, novel chapter, anything. I did catch wind of a blog-centric version (“NaBloPoMo”), but I love my readers far too much to subject you all to a bunch of hurried blog posts on whatever random bullshit I can think of to write about.

What do you mean, too late?

Weizen Up

Sorry, Internet, I've been holding out on you. Weiss Blau Weiss Bavarian Hefeweizen, my experiment in simplicity that I brewed in June, has been pouring for over a week now, and I've had several pints of it already; but I haven't yet written about it. It's high time I did, so you can enjoy it vicariously as much as I've been enjoying it … well … the regular way.

Shinin' like Rhine-gold.

It pours beautifully: a creamy golden color with a gleaming white head. It's cloudy, as a hefeweizen should be, and except for a little bit of floating sediment, it looks as good as any commercially brewed hefeweizen I've ever had. The sediment should clear up once I pour a few more pints off the keg. I did use Irish moss for this brew – as I do for most of my brews – but there are many who choose not to use kettle finings for hefeweizens, and it's possible this worked against me in that it precipitated more particles out to the bottom of the keg. But I'm sure it'll be fine in a few more pours.

The aroma is spectacular. Exactly what I wanted: lots of banana esters, a touch of the sweet, grainy aroma of crisp continental Pilsner malt, and the faintest whiff of clove spiciness. That's about it. No hops on the nose at all. Nothing confusing or muddling. You can tell instantly what ingredient created every single component of the olfactory signature of this beer.

The taste is good, too. It's light, of course, and perfect patio refreshment for my next summer brew session. The yeasty character doesn't lead in the flavor department the way I was hoping it would, not like it leads the aroma. I don't usually bother with that little slice of citrus that most brewheads outside of Bavaria are so fond of in their weizens, but I could see a lemon wedge adding something to this beer, just because it could use a bit more zing (sadly, I don't have any in the house). I don't blame the recipe for this little flaw, rather my fermentation temperature. Next time I make it, I'll ferment a couple of degrees higher for the first couple of days.

The mouthfeel is just right for a summer afternoon: refreshing, not too astringent. It goes down smooth and easy, and at 5.2% ABV is pretty session friendly.

So there you have it. Weiss Blau Weiss Bavarian Hefeweizen was an overall success, not despite its simple recipe but because of it. In fact, it seems to me that my efforts to introduce unnecessary complexity to the process – namely, using kettle finings and overchilling during fermentation – was the main thing that kept it from being (to me) a perfect beer. But that's okay; it's still plenty drinkable, and I'm sure I'll be emptying this keg pretty quickly … no complaints here, because I'd love to make it again. Can I make it even simpler next time? Probably not much so, but the lesson has been hammered home: one doesn't need a mile-long list of ingredients to make a damn good beer.

Of course, the Bavarians have been trying to tell us that for centuries.


Rogue Ales: Losing their relevance?

I’ve got nothing against Rogue Ales. I actually owe them a lot. Living on the West Coast in the early aughts, their beers inspired me long before I was a homebrewer. That smirking libertine on the bomber label, enticing me with interesting names like “Dead Guy Ale” and unique ingredients like hazelnut and soba … these things helped awaken me to the possibilities of what beer could be. I don’t drink Rogue often anymore, but that’s mainly because I drink so much Texas beer. (Coincidentally, I bought a bomber of their Chatoe Rogue Single Malt Ale this week. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I think it was mishandled in shipping. Two bottles in a row were gushers.)

But when I saw this story about a new beer in the works called New Crustacean, fermented with yeast harvested from the beard of Rogue Brewmaster John Maier, I had a pretty strong reaction. There isn’t one part of me that sees this as a good idea. (Hat tip to Heather Null for sending me the story.)

I’m all for experimentation, as long as good flavor is the ultimate goal. Brewing is not an abstract art; the point is to make beer that people will drink. Not that Rogue can’t make a perfectly drinkable beer with beard yeast, but just because something is drinkable doesn’t mean anyone will drink it. So I feel like this beer, at this time, is the wrong idea.

The ick factor doesn’t bother me. I realize they’re not throwing a sprig of John Maier’s hair into every batch. This is yeast propagation we’re talking about here. With the help of White Labs – a name in the brewing community that I trust implicitly – they’re isolating the yeast using science that I can’t begin to understand, and reproducing the strain under sterile conditions. So I’m not worried about the fact that “OMG beard yeast beer sounds gross!” and if anyone reading this is worrying about that, please don’t.

And I’m not worried about some mysterious X-factor in those microbes, either. We’re talking about a guy who’s worked in a brewery every day since 1989; there’s probably more beer yeast in that beard than there is in the air ducts at Rogue. He may even have hop bines in there for all I know. In fact, I’d be willing to put money on that beard yeast being at least 90% genetically equivalent to Rogue’s proprietary house beer strain, Pacman. Besides, we’re always told that nothing can live in beer that’s harmful to humans, and I’m pretty sure the biologists at White Labs know the difference between a viable strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the Ebola virus. So whatever it is, it ain’t gonna kill us.

What bothers me is the message this sends to the non-craft-beer-drinking world. This is obviously a niche product. Few people are going to want to drink beer made with yeast from some dude’s beard, no matter how safe or sanitary it really is. I’m not just talking about the masses out there with their cans of industrial lager. Even craft beer lovers are going to be split on this idea. What Rogue is really telling the world with this gesture is that they’re catering to the extremists: the hardcore beer geeks with their T-shirts from nanobreweries you’ve never heard of, who brag about driving all the way to Russian River to get this year’s Pliny the Elder before it hits stores, all the while laughing over the rims of their pints at the craft beer neophyte at the end of the bar sipping on a 60-Minute IPA. The ones who always have to be more cutting edge than you about their beer habit and would slurp tripel from every goatee, vandyke and ZZ Top in Oregon to prove it. At best, Rogue’s beard beer is a stunt; at worst, it’s an exclusionary tactic executed with pomposity and self-aware irony.

Is that their right? Sure, but all brewers, commercial or hobbyist, are ambassadors of our craft. Anything that brings new beer lovers into the fold helps our craft along. And anything that alienates potential newcomers, or that portrays beer fans as snobs and weirdos, is bad for breweries’ business, and makes it harder for homebrewers to get friends on board. Why risk all that, why do it to the industry and the community, just for a publicity stunt and some bragging rights that no one really wants?

At the end of the day, they can do what they choose, and I can choose not to support it. But it does make me wonder at Rogue’s relevance in the modern craft beer industry if they have to grasp at stunts like this to keep moving. Maybe years ago, they were an unstoppable innovative force, but they’re not the only rogues on the block anymore: now we have Dogfish Head, Jolly Pumpkin, Mikkeller, and others who wow us every season with their originality and marketability … and don’t have to be, as that fabled beer peddler Moe Szyslak once said on The Simpsons about post-modern art, “weird for the sake of weird”.

Back to Basics with Bavarian Hefeweizen

As homebrewers, we often have a tendency to throw a bunch of different ingredients into recipes just because we can. Sometimes economy’s the reason, like using 5 grams of 8 different bittering hops because they’re in the freezer and about to expire. Other times, it’s just plain stubbornness, like the tendency of American homebrewers (myself included) to put crystal malt in everything. But it’s good to be reminded that sometimes, simplicity is best. After all, humans have been brewing for thousands of years, and the ancient Sumerians certainly didn’t have eight different kinds of debittered black malts to choose from.

My lesson in simplicity this week is a Bavarian Hefeweizen I brewed Sunday. I called it Weiss Blau Weiss. The name means “white-blue” and is an homage to the flag of Bavaria, a pattern of white and blue diamonds (called “lozenges” or sometimes “fusils” – your heraldry lesson for the day) seen at German-themed beer events all over the world.

You remember this, don’t you? You puked on it last Oktoberfest.

I brew mostly wheat beers in the summer, because they ferment better in the warm temperatures we face in Texas in the hottest part of the year. But most of my wheat homebrews in the past have been American-style wheats, fermented with White Labs WLP320 American Hefeweizen Ale Yeast. It’s a great clean-fermenting yeast, and I recommend it for any wheat ale with fruit, herbs or spices. But I’m bored with that clean flavor lately, and I’ve been enjoying commercial wheats with the kind of clove/banana esters that come from German hefeweizen yeast strains. So after a lot of deliberation (and with input from my soulmate and recipe consultant Lisa, who talked me down off the ledge of including some exotic spice such as mahlab in the boil) I decided to keep it simple with a traditional Bavarian hefeweizen – simple grain bill and simple hops, allowing the ester character of a German yeast strain to come through.

The grain bill was a 50/50 split of base malts – no specialty grains, no aromatics, no crystal. Just:

  • 5.5 lbs German Pilsen malt
  • 5.5 lbs White Wheat malt

I mashed at 152°F for an hour.

Noble hops are standard for this style, so I used:

  • 0.5 oz Hallertauer (4.8% AA) for 60 min
  • 0.5 oz Hallertauer Saphir (4.2% AA) for 60 min
  • 0.1 oz Hallertauer (4.8% AA) for 15 min
  • 0.1 oz Hallertauer Saphir (4.2% AA) for 15 min

Using two different Hallertauer varieties may seem unnecessarily complex in this so-called “simple” beer. But I really dig Saphir, and I had 0.6 oz in my freezer, which wasn’t enough. So I supplemented the Saphir with ordinary Hallertauer to get an ounce for bittering and a little extra for flavor, while using up my Saphir backstock (see? economy). In the end, I liked the symmetry of splitting the hop additions 50/50, same as the grain, so I ran with it.

The OG of the wort was 1.052. I pitched a smack pack of Wyeast 3068 Weihenstephan Weizen with no starter, hoping the low pitching rate will promote ester production. I’m also keeping the fermentation temperature between 68-72°F for the same reason. The word hefe in hefeweizen is German for “yeast”, and I want the yeast esters to take center stage.

On Monday, the beer was fermenting so vigorously I had to replace my airlock with a blowoff hose – always a proud moment for any brewer. Today, it’s still bubbling several times a minute. Assuming it’s done fermenting by this time next week, I plan to keg it immediately. Hefeweizens are great consumed fresh, and while I don’t think a longer conditioning period would hurt it, I don’t see it helping much … plus, I have an empty tap on the kegerator ready for a new beer!

It was hard, but I think keeping it simple will serve this beer well. While I love creativity in brewing, and there’s a strong desire to be original by throwing the kitchen sink into every recipe, sometimes one needs to dial it back and focus on the basics, the minimum needed to make a good beer in a classic style. And as with so many other things, part of being a good brewer is knowing what not to do, as much as knowing what to do.