The Making: A Bellwoods/Bar Hop Berliner Weisse

Cherry Berliner
Cherry Berliner

Back in March, in anticipation of our Motley Cru 2014 anniversary beer release, we wrote in detail about the process of barrel-aging and blending beers. With a beer like Motley, time is a key ingredient, perhaps the key ingredient, but there is also always that element intuition or finesse -- the deep understanding of your ingredients at specific times and temperatures -- that steers the success or failure of an experimental beer. With Berliner Weisses, despite being light and easy-drinking, a lot of this aforementioned 'finesse' is necessary in creating a beer that's perfectly balanced and tart. Our first batches always threw us unexpected curveballs, and only with lots of practice have we discovered a method that works (most of the time) for us. In short, we've found the simplicity of the style to be a little misleading. But because they're a favoured style here at Bellwoods, we've committed a great deal of our efforts each summer to brewing a beer that can sometimes make us feel more like babysitters than brewers.

So when Rob at Bar Hop approached us about doing a collaborative beer for a tap takeover in June (that just so happened to be during the OCB week) and asked us what we thought of a Berliner, we were all, you-don't-need-to-twist-our-arm about it. We did a bit of collaborative planning, decided on Ontario cherries as a complimentary fruit addition, and prepped a lacto starter a few days before bartender Matt Bod came to brew. Warning: What lies ahead is a bit technical but oh so important!

But what's the deal with that lacto starter? Let's talk a little bit about this first step. This starter involves pulling unhopped, boiling wort from the kettle just minutes (or seconds!) before we throw in our 60 minute/beginning-of-the-boil-addition hops. To this, inside a small 'brink' (tiny fermentor like vessel) we add a pure lactobacillus culture, and immerse that brink in water kept at a consistent 44 degrees celsius. This temperature is very important, because when lactobacillus is allowed to venture above or below (beyond a very small window) this, other bacterias that contribute to weird and/or 'off flavours' can start to grow. In essence, we keep our high-maintenance lacto starter in a veritable hot tub, and for all the lavish treatment it thanks us by making the pH of the wort plummet.

And pH, for those of you who need a refresher, is "is a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution" that ranges from 0 (SUPER ACIDIC) to 14 (SUPER ALKALINE). How do I know that "basicity" is a word? Wikipedia told me so. Potentially made-up words aside, lets just give you some relativity:

Tasty refreshing water has a neutral pH of 7ish

Coffee is slightly more acidic at a pH of 5ish

Battery acid is very acidic at a pH of 1ish

Baking soda is quite basic at 9ish

Bleach has a very alkaline pH of 13

Coca cola, believe it or not, weighs in at a pH of 2.8!

Something to keep in mind with this scale is that it's exponential, which means that something with a pH of 8 (like sea water) is 10 times more alkaline than tap water, where as baking soda (at a pH of 9) is 100 times more alkaline. The same goes in the other direction, so battery acid is about 10 000 000 times more acidic than water. Apparently there are sour candies sold in the US that have a pH of 1.6, just marginally less acidic than battery acid, but I digress...

So where does this leave beer, and more specifically, our Berliner Weisses? A good target that we try to hit is around 3 or just over. By the time it's in the kettle, our wort usually has a pH of about 5.2 - 5.5. We then pitch the carefully incubated lacto starter into it, blanket the whole thing with cozy CO2, and wait for about 48-72 hours for the pH to drop. When the pH is in the range we like (for this particular Berliner we stopped it at 3.5) it's time to boil it, kill the lacto bacteria, and send it to the fermentor. Lactobacillus is a hard-working bacteria capable of souring wort, but it does not possess the voodoo magic to actually ferment all those sugars into alcohol. So to the fermentor it goes, with some ale yeast and a high five.

The next part, as you may have guessed, involves waiting. But the best part, the part after that, well that's when you get to drink it! For the brewers it's pay off for all their hard work, and for you it's pay off for having endured a lengthy and vaguely pedagogic blog post about the riveting world of pH.

Enjoy this sucker on the 19th at Bar Hop during our tap takeover with Indie Alehouse, and thereafter in our brewpub! Amen.

(Check out more info later today on Bar Hop's facebook page HERE).