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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

American Weissbier - A Lost Style Ripe for Reclamation

Okay beer fans, riddle me this: what was the key ingredient in 19th century American weissbier?  You'll have to dig out your old copy of Wahl and Henius's American Handy-Book of American Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades* (1902) to learn the answer.  Give up?  Here it is:
The material employed and method of mashing is usually quite different [from German methods].  Wheat malt is sometimes, but not generally, used.  Instead [corn] grits are employed, usually to the amount of about 30%."

Wahl and Henius, however, were not impressed.  The beer was supposed to be like a Berliner weisse, but "undoubtedly the American article could be much improved by employing the materials as well as the mashing method in vogue in German Weiss beer breweries, as grits will under no circumstances yield those albuminoids that give Weiss beer its character, as wheat malt does.  Certainly there seems no reason why American Weiss beer brewers should not be able to procure a good wheat malt."

They continue, noting that it's brewed to resemble lager, but "a brilliant Weiss beer does not seem to catch the fancy of the consumers, who are accustomed to the cloudy, lively article of Berlin fame."
I think this overlooked style was unnecessarily consigned to a hasty grave.  Who out there is willing to reclaim this important part of American brewing history? 

*Aside from the joy I get at reading "American handy-book," it should be noted that, at over 1200 pages, it might have been handy, but I can't imagine it was light


  1. Wouldn't that be 'untraditional' and therefore not worthy of consideration for craft brewers? (Yes, I am being a sarky sod).

    Seriously though, it sounds interesting, might be fun to homebrew something like this and enter it as a Cat 23 beer.

    I imagine the grits were being used to balance out the protein from 6 row malt? I will have a bit of Cluster left over from the International Homebrew Project Burton Ale this week, so it might have just found a use!

  2. Is this related in any way to Kentucky Common? I'm pretty sure there's mention of KC in Wahl and Henius (though I don't have a copy, just taking that from some web searches).

  3. Since I don't actually own a copy of Wahl and Henius's American Handy-Book of American Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades (I know, I know), is there anything else included about the recipe included besides the 30% corn, or is it otherwise pretty much a standard weissbier recipe?

  4. Google to the rescue: downloadable Handy-Book.

    Al, I agree that, kidding aside, it's worth brewing. Strikes me as kristallweizeny. Wahl and Henius are besotted with Berliner Weisse and regret that Americans don't make it that way. But it seems like the Americans were trying to make a different beer--more like a Bavarian weissbier. My suspicion about the corn is that it was used to make the beer lighter and more translucent, as was the rage at the time.

    If I were trying to recreate it, I'd use some wheat as head grains, but that's just me. (I use wheat in everything.)

  5. Re: Kentucky Common. Nope, different beer. As an additional lure, I'll dangle Pennsylvania Swankey and present use ale as treasures to be found in W&H.

  6. would 'present use ale' basically be an American name for 'mild', if we use the older definition of mild rather then the modern?

  7. Al, I think that's the intended sense, but weirdly, it was a synonym for cream ale.

    Cream ale, incidentally, was described by W&H as a pretty badass beer. Fourteen plato, with a decent wallop of hops. (I can't look at a formulation like Ron and understand how it might have related to IBUs, but it had a pound and a half of hops per barrel. That was about half what went into American stock ales, but more than they used in 13P porters.)

    When you think about it, cream ales are actually more American than steam beer. The use of corn--a new-world grain--and Clusters (which are arguably a landrace variety) make them pretty native. Imagine making them now at 6% with a decent dollop of corn and a heavy carpet of Cascades. That might make them the all-American beer.

    I think I may have to brew that this summer, come to think of it.

  8. Oooh, and just for fun, maybe a farmhouse ale strain.

    Okay, now I've gone too far...

  9. Thanks for the link to the book. Had to add it to my reading list.

  10. Alright, I'm hooked. Giving this a shot sounds like fun. Two questions: do Wahl and Henius say anything else regarding the hops or yeasts for this beer? I looked up and found the specifics for the American Weissbeer, but I didn't know if other information came up elsewhere in the text. Would Cluster be the appropriate hop, ala Velky Al's comments? Oh, and the Pennsylvania Swankey sounds awesome as well! Thanks!

  11. what we're drinking,

    I am basing my planned use of Cluster on the fact that it was the hop of choice for the pre-Prohibition American Pilsner, and the assumption that it was thus a commonly used hop.

  12. Re:Pennsylvania Swankey, any thoughts/ideas on what other flavoring condiments might have been used beyond anise seen?