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What Was Mid Atlantic Weiss?

As promised, I’m back with more information into the pre-Prohibition beers of Washington. This post deals specifically with Weiss beer, both as a style and as a presence in Washington and Baltimore before Prohibition. I will also delve into what its future looks like and how some area brewers are bringing it back.

Trying to understand what pre-prohibition weiss tasted like, I scoured 19th, 20th, and 21st century beer books and reached out to writers, brewers, and historians to try to piece the puzzle together. Be it Baltimore Weiss or Washington Weiss, not a lot is known about this pre-Prohibition style, partly because Washington weiss and Baltimore weiss beer breweries were so small, and partly because very few records on recipes and processes exist.

You've likely heard of Christian Heurich, but if not, he was DC’s biggest brewer. That superlative will remain indefinitely, or at least until another DC brewery has an annual capacity of over 500,000 barrels (this amount was likely never brewed but the capacity is confirmed in 100 Years of Brewing). However, before Heurich built a new brewery, he took over George Schnell’s brewery in 1872. In 1864 George Schnell produced about 500 barrels of weiss beer (ibid). And there were other weiss beer brewers as well, namely John Kozel, who owned a brewery and a beer garden.

The headline for John Kozel’s obituary, published in the Washington Post on January, 31, 1881, recounted the “Funeral of Washington’s First Brewer”, an inaccurate title. The article goes on to say “Mr. Kozel was a native of Germany and came to this city in 1854. In the same year he established the first beer brewery in this city…he erected an extensive brewery and commenced the manufacture of Weiss beer, in which he was engaged at the time of his death.” As the ad pictured above reveals, Kozel sold lager, ale, and weiss beer.  For more, see Paul Williams's excellent article.

So what was Washington weiss? Certainly Schnell and Kozel brewed Washington weiss, and in the case of these breweries, William J. Kelley’s tome, Brewing in Maryland sheds a bit of light. “These were small breweries, some of them so small that their only outlet for the product was their own tavern adjoining the brewery.” Both Schnell and Kozel had such taverns, but thanks to the great great grandson of John Kozel, Chris Kozel, and the existence of one of his bottles, we know Kozel’s beer left the brewery, if only to be consumed in the tavern.

So what was Washington weiss? First we should shore up our terminology. To differentiate between weiss and weizen, let's consider Berlinerweiss and Hefeweizen, two beers that taste quite different from one another. Berlinerweiss tends to be tart, even sharp, depending on your palate and puckering preference. Dr. Fritz Briem’s 1809 Berliner Style Weisse is a great example of Berlinerweiss typically available in our market. Hefeweizen tends to be fruity, foamy, and often full of esters or phenolic smells. There are great examples of this old-world style and new-world interpretations available to DC drinkers: the German Weihenstephaner’s Hefeweissbier and the local DC Brau’s El Hefe Speaks.

There is a major difference between weiss (German for "white") and weizen ("wheat"). Weizen cannot be brewed without wheat. And while the majority of weiss beers in the world are made with wheat, a brewer doesn’t need wheat to make weiss. I reached out to Dr. Fritz Briem for confirmation, “Weissbier indicates that the surface of the fermenter turned white during fermentation…Weissbier does not necessary mean that Weizen (wheat) has been used as a cereal for brewing.”

Further proof that a brewer needn’t use wheat to make weiss was the brewery of Frank Sandkuhler. Sandkuhler was a pre-prohibition Baltimore weiss brewer who produced a wheatless weiss. There is a great reference in Brewing in Maryland to the one time Sandkuhler did brew with wheat. “Pure barley malt and hops were used by Sandkuhler, in spite of the traditional published formulae which stated that the malt was one of wheat, rather than barley. The brewery, on one occasion, when barley malt was scarce, borrowed some wheat malt from the Globe brewery, but had to discard it.”  The book thus differentiates Sandkuhler from other Maryland weiss brewers who used wheat.

I first became aware of Baltimore Weiss reading Maureen O’Prey’s Brewing in Baltimore, which says, “Weissbier is a pale beer native to Berlin that is fermented after bottling. This beer is only packaged in baked clay bottles with corks, never kegs. The product was limited in demand to the German community but still a successful endeavor.” The definition was fascinating but I couldn’t help be a bit skeptical.

I put the quote to Dr. Fritz Briem, who poked holes in one of Kelley's assertions that “weiss beer…fermented after bottling", although perhaps this is unfair to put on Kelley who had taken his definition from a 1911 Brewer’s Journal. Briem argues that “any residual fermentable extract higher than 1–1.5 % would have destroyed the bottle because the pressure gets way too high.”  I asked O’Prey and she helped me trace the Brewing in Baltimore description of weiss beer back to Brewing in Maryland.

I then went to Evan Rail, author of Triplebock, In Praise of Hangovers, Why Beer Matters, and Beer Culture, as he is knowledgeable on the beers of Bavaria, Bohemia, and other European nations, past and present.  Rail wrote, “fascinating, though I have to say that a certain doubt arises as I read it. The author seems to be mixing up Weisse and Weizen.  My guess is that the beer he's talking about was what we would call a Bavarian-style Weizen (in German, it's common to call that a "Weiss"). Since the beer doesn't exist anymore, he has looked up the name, or the nearest such name, and found what we would call Berliner Weisse, and assumed that was what the brewers were making.  One note: all of the brewers whose German hometowns are noted seem to come from Bavaria (or Baden-Württemberg).  I've only just skimmed it, but is there anything in the contemporary references that says that the beer is sour? The low ABV isn't enough.”

There was surprisingly little in Kelley’s Brewing in Maryland as to what Baltimore weiss tasted like. There were fewer descriptions of weiss from contemporary references. Kelley’s 1965 book was published many years after repeal.

Still, the Brewers Journals 1911 definition of Berlinerweiss was closer to what was actually being made than Bavarian Hefeweiss. As Kelley quotes from the journal, weiss was distinguished, “by the method of preparing the wort and the brewers' yeast, and also by the lactic acid bacteria acting mutually advantageous or consorting together in partnership with dissimilar organisms in its fermentations. To these natural and benign bacteria the flavor is due, while a high carbon-dioxide content is developed by the action of yeast in the bottle, and because weissbier is fermented after being bottled it is not brilliant when it reaches the consumer, the deposit of yeast cells and bacteria keeping it turbid." This description of a beer, potentially tart due to lactic acid, sounds closer to weiss beer than hefeweizen.

So was Baltimore Weiss closer to Berlinerweisse? Was Washington Weiss closer to Hefeweizen? Another possibility is that the beer was aligned with neither weiss nor weizen as far as style goes.  Today, we tend to think of beer according to style, or how beautifully a beer breaks from style. So what would you call a Berlinerweiss brewed with corn? And what would you call a Hefeweizen brewed with rice?

Jeff Alworth came to a similar conclusion in February, in reference to style. As his article’s title suggests, and as I am proposing of Baltimore and Washington Weiss, it was “A Lost Style” of American beer.

We may never know what Washington Weiss was, but it will be an excellent exercise in a brewer’s creativity to taste a DC-brewed interpretation of this historic “style.”  For Baltimore Weiss, we can say that at least one pre-prohibition brewer intended for it to be closer to Berlinerweiss. How can I be so assertive in this claim? It is thanks to the name of a Baltimore brewery (listed in 100 Years of Brewing). The paragraph is tiny, but the company name is a dead giveaway: "Baltimore and Berliner Weiss Beer Brewing Company, Baltimore.—The business  conducted by this company was founded by Andrew Gebhardt in 1895. As the name implies, the product of the brewery is weiss beer."

This beer, as well as the all-barley weiss beer produced by Frank Sandkuhler, served as the influence for the Union Craft Brewing 1895 Barleyweiss. Originally a collaborative beer between Union, Meridian Pint, and DC Homebrewers, this beer has taken on a life of its own.

As Dr. Briem writes in the Oxford Companion to Beer, “Even though the United States is far from Berlin and its appellation controlee, it is the place where production and enjoyment of this compelling old beer style is likely to flourish in the future.” Certainly the Union Craft Brewery 1895 Barleyweiss is helping weiss and recreations of it flourish. It is also helping the recreation of pre prohibition beers come to the forefront of the American beer renaissance.

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