By Horst Dornbusch
On a hot and muggy July 8, 2011, three intrepid conspirators convened at 79 North 11th Street, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. One of them had flown from Germany, one had driven from Massachusetts, and the third had commuted across town. Their mission: To brew a high-gravity beer—a revolutionary, bottle-conditioned wheat wine.
The brew was unusual for several reasons: The entire grain bill, consisting of one wheat and two barley malts, was floor-malted. In fact, in the summer of 2011, the wheat malt and one of the barley malts had not yet been introduced to the market, so they had to be custom-shipped from the malting company to the brewery. The beer was also to be a commemoration of a unique occasion, the then-impending release of The Oxford Companion to Beer. The brew crew fittingly christened their beer creation “The Companion.”
The three brewers were Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver, Thomas Kraus-Weyermann of the Weyermann® Malting Company in Bamberg, Germany, and the author. Also on hand was Brooklyn Brewery assistant brewmaster Andrew Ety. As fate would have it, the team had unwittingly picked a brutally sizzling New York day for their unique, three-step infusion mash and, by noon, the outside temperature had climbed to 94° F (34° C). Working in front of the hot mash tun, loaded almost beyond its capacity, became a taxing job for the brave.
The three brewers have a special relationship to The Oxford Companion to Beer, because Oliver was the book’s editor-in-chief, Kraus-Weyermann had contributed some 30 entries, and I was the associate editor. To celebrate the book’s completion, we had jointly designed the recipe. The Brooklyn Brewery supplied the brew venue and had agreed to package our batch of 25 barrels into 0.75-liter cork-finished champagne bottles with a special label for limited distribution in a gift package together with the book. A few weeks later, our recipe also became the foundation for the brewery’s 2011 fall edition of its Brewmaster’s Reserve series, distributed in kegs.
The brew was composed entirely of three floor malts that were hand-made the old-fashioned way by the Ferdinand floor maltings in the small town of Benešov in the Czech Republic, halfway between Prague and Pilsen. Ferdinand floor malts are distributed exclusively by Weyermann®. Floor malting is a highly labor-intensive operation because the moist malt, while it is germinating on a limestone-tiled floor, must be turned constantly by hand, night and day, for several days before it is slowly and gently kilned. This craft process brings out the grain’s deep, rich malt aromas and rustic, earthy flavors. Mostly because of the very slow drying process in the kiln, floor malt is invariably less well modified than modern industrial malt, thus giving the beers made with it a substantial mouthfeel. The Hartong value of floor-malted barley, for instance, indicating the degree of modification in the form of dissolved protein, ranges between 32 and 34; it is around 38 for modern barley malt.
We had selected floor malts for our wheat wine because of the smooth body they impart to the beer. This is especially true of wheat floor malt. A beer composed of floor malts, of course, reveals its unique character only if the bittering value is kept fairly low, somewhere between 10 and 15 IBU, and remains well in the background. Hop aromas, too, must be complementary and supportive, not flashy and conspicuous.
For the main malt of our wheat wine, therefore, we were fortunate to be the first brewers anywhere outside the Weyermann® pilot brewery in Bamberg to get our hands on the newly introduced Bohemian floor-malted wheat from Benešov. Borrowing from the practice of German hefeweizen-makers, we allocated more than half the mash—52.6 percent of the grist, by weight, to be precise—to this new malt. Its color value is about 2 °L. It has a maximum moisture content of about 5.5 percent and a dry-substance protein value of roughly 12 percent. Because of the floor-malting process, its diastatic power (that is, its enzymatic ability to break down starches into sugars during mashing) is a characteristically “undermodified” 200 °WK (degrees Windish-Kolbach). For comparison, the diastatically strongest barley malts may have a Windish-Kolbach value approaching 500 °WK, while powerful hefeweizen malts may have a value of up to 300 °WK.
The remaining grist was almost equally divided between Bohemian Pilsner floor malt (26.3 percent of the mash) and the new Bohemian dark barley floor malt (21.1 percent of the mash). The Pilsner floor malt has a color rating and maximum moisture content similar to that of the wheat floor malt, while the dark barley floor malt has a color value of roughly 6.5 °L and a moisture content of 4.5 percent. Both have a dry-substance protein value of roughly 11 percent. All three floor malts require the same minimum saccharification time of about 20 minutes. To the best of our knowledge, the wheat floor malt and the dark barley floor malt may be the only floor malts of their styles in the world; and we were probably the first brewers in decades, if not since the 19th century, to use such malts in a commercial brew.
For our 25-bbl batch, we required a total of 38 bags of 25 kg each. This translated into a whopping 84 pounds of malt per barrel of beer, which almost caused the mash tun to overflow! To fluff up the mash for proper lautering and improved extract efficiency, we added 150 pounds of inert, flavorless rice hulls (about 6 lbs/bbl). We mashed in with about 75 percent of the target net kettle volume of hot liquor (in our case, with 18.5 bbl) at roughly 100° F (38° C), while keeping the mash agitator engaged at full power. Once the mash was properly mixed, we raised the temperature to 117° F (47° C) for a 10-minute hydration rest. The next rest was for 20 minutes at 122° F (50° C) to enhance both proteolysis and cytolysis. The final rest lasted a relatively long 70 minutes, at 155° F (68° C), for additional grist hydration and some body-enhancing alpha amylase conversion. The mash-out was at 168° F (76° C). In spite of the heavy grain load in the mash tun, the lauter process proceeded very well. It lasted for about 113 minutes exactly; and we got a respectable (and better-than-expected) extract efficiency of roughly 70 percent.
We lautered the mash to a kettle gravity of 20.4 °P (1.082), which gave us a starting kettle volume of 26.2 bbl. The boil was vigorous and the beer remained bright throughout. Shut-down was after 90 minutes; and we ended up with a net kettle volume of 25.5 bbl at a gravity of about 21 °P (1.084), not too far off our nominal batch target of 25 bbl.
For hops, we chose a “bi-continental” cross-over profile of two doses of Willamette from the Pacific Northwest for bittering and flavor, as well as some Perle from Germany and plenty of Styrian Golding from Slovenia for aroma. The 5.5-percent alpha acid Willamette (first addition of 1.5 lbs = 0.96 oz/bbl at start of boil; second addition also of 1.5 lbs halfway through the boil) gave the brew a mild, pleasant, and slightly spicy bitterness, as well as a gentle touch of elderberry aroma that played well with the earthiness of the floor malts. The 7.5 percent Perle (2 lbs. or 1.28 oz/bbl at five minutes before shutdown) generated almost no bitterness, but added notes of celeriac and marjoram—also earthy in nature. The same applies to the main aroma dose of 8 lbs (or 5.12 oz/bbl) of 5.5 percent Styrian Golding, a Fuggle-like hops with slightly grassy, green-tea notes. The combined bitterness of these hop additions in the finished beer came to about 13 IBU.
We heat-exchanged the brew to 63.5° F (17.5° C) into a tank pitched with the Brooklyn house yeast, a London-style ale strain, which imparted a soft, orange-like fruitiness. We allowed the temperature for primary fermentation to rise to 68° F (20° C). After three days of robust yeast activity, the gravity had dropped to about 5.4 °P (1.022); after six days, it had dropped to 4.75 °P (1.019), almost the final gravity. At this point, the tank temperature was reduced to 59° F (15° C) in preparation for filtering the brew into a bright tank. For re-fermentation in the bottle, the brew was now primed with 9 grams per liter of dextrose (which added up to some 2.325 lbs of dextrose per bbl, or 10.2 kg/hl). Mathematically, the dextrose addition raised the brew’s gravity by a nominal 3.5 points (almost 1 °P; or 0.0035 on the OG-scale). Next, the brew was freshly inoculated with an alcohol-tolerant Pris de Mousse champagne yeast (EC 1118). For bottling, the tank pressure was held at a minimum with just enough pressure to keep the beer flowing into an unpressurized filler bowl. Refermentation in the bottle took 16 days at a warm 77° F (25° C), followed by several weeks of cold-conditioning at about 40° C (roughly 4.5° F). Because the dextrose primer is fully fermentable, the champagne yeast raised our wheat wine’s ABV from about 8.6 percent at bottling to a calculated 9.1 percent after bottle-conditioning.
After a few months in storage, the brew had mellowed into a dark golden, silky-smooth beer with a soft, earthy bitterness and a touch of lemony citrus fruitiness in the background. When poured, the large amount of wheat protein gave the brew a predictably firm head. Above all, the brew impressed with its rich, refined wheat aroma in the bouquet. On the palate, the beer sported a fine balance between faint, pleasant notes of residual malt sweetness and some noticeable, chest-warming, but not assertive, alcohol. The wheat floor malt, in particular, gave this heavy brew its solid structure, yet the mouthfeel was surprisingly velvety and delicate, with a rounded depth and a deceptively easy drinkability that is not usually found in this style. Overall, however, there was no mistaking this beer for anything but a wheat wine. The finished beer should have a shelf life of at least a year, possibly longer, if stored in a cool and dark place.
The Oxford Companion to Beer had been some four years in the making. It was a far-reaching collaboration with more than 160 beer experts from two dozen countries contributing entries on more than 1,100 subjects. A book this weighty clearly deserved an equally weighty, but just as accessible, commemorative brew named after it. Therefore, we consider the unique floor-malted wheat wine we created on that hot July day in New York City a fitting tribute to the many people around the world who had given their best to enrich the brew community at large with their knowledge.
By sharing “The Companion’s” recipe, we believe we have spread the rewards of that collective labor of love even further to every brewer who feels motivated to participate. As the Brooklyn Brewery’s promotional tagline for the book-and-beer combo-pack exclaimed: “The Oxford Companion to Beer imparts knowledge, while The Companion imparts conviviality. Maybe you really can have it all?”
Horst Dornbusch is a Massachusetts-based consultant in the international brew industry, the author of several books on beer, the associate editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer, and a regular contributor to The New Brewer.