Historical Brews

June 10, 2016

I’ll be posting some recipes and tutorials here I go over some of the processes involved in natural fermentation in the Broadcasts, but I wanted to share a bit of the research that’s gone in to the wild fermented beers being made as part of our exploration of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Washington D.C.

One of the Microobservatory’s primary missions is to harness the wild yeasts and bacteria from the local environment and use them to brew site-specific beer. I’ll be going over sodas and fermented vegetables too, but beer holds special significance to the neighborhood as it was the home to several major breweries started by German immigrants in the 19th century.  Both the Heurich and Abner Drury breweries brought German styles of brewing to Washington, including lagers, marzens, and altbiers. Hailing directly from Germany, brewmasters Christian Heurich and Edward Abner probably used German lager yeast, perhaps mixed with American yeast collected stateside.

The Heurich brewery established in 1873 brought German brewing to Foggy Bottom - along with German yeast populations. #artsinfoggybottom #dcbrews #heurichhouse

Heurich Brewery

The Microobservatory imagines that those yeast are still out there, floating through Foggy Bottom, their charateristics decendant or even identical to the yeast used in the 18th Century. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to isolate specific strains of microscopic yeast, and any beers made through wild fermentation will probably include some microorganisms that the historic German brewers would have deemed undesirable. Besides the traditional brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, our wild beer might also include Brettanomyces or bacteria like Lactobacillus or Pediococcus. The later three microbes, are typically found in traditional Belgian lambics, the one traditional style of beer to be fermented with naturally occurring yeast.

Lambics range from tart to very sour and include a large percentage of wheat in the mash bill (grains steeped in water to produce sugary wort). As our efforts continue to isolate a pure Saccharomyces strain, it seems likely that attempts at a wild Foggy Bottom beer will trend toward to sour lambic style —very different from the traditional German lagers of Heurich and Drury.

Heurich Lager can by DC Brau

Mike Stein and Pete Jones recently developed a recreation of the Heurich lager with DC Brau, and their recipe notes were helpful in developing some of the wild brews concocted at the Microobservatory. Their “lost lager” emphasized German traditions and used a Bavarian yeast strain, our wild Foggy Bottom brew will never be as predictable and clean as a traditional lager — so the question remained: what style to use as a template?

While researching the beers produced in historical Foggy Bottom, other styles came up such as a marzen and bock from Heurich and a cream ale from Abner Drury. The later of which exemplified the clash of German and American brewing that centered around breweries like the ones in Foggy Bottom. And what is a cream ale anyway?

At around the beginning of this century, the adjunct lagers being sold by the area’s new German brewers began to make inroads into ale sales. The public was beginning to prefer American lager’s light, clear, and effervescent appearance. Ale brewers responded to this demand by creating a top-fermented product similar to an American lager. Using ale yeast (or possibly even a combination of lager and ale yeasts, though no concrete evidence exists for the use of lager yeast in the early cream ales), they could produce beer more quickly than the lager brewers could, thereby potentially increasing sales and market share[…] These new beers were termed “brilliant,” “sparkling,” or “present use” ales, with the nickname “cream ale” sticking as the common name.


friarThese hybrid ales, in the style of German lagers (but fermented with ale yeast) seemed like a good way to pay tribute to the German legacy of Foggy Bottom while allowing a more flexible fermentation to cater to the wild microbes harnessed from the neighborhood.

I had already pitched a batch of lambic style beer with a lively mixture of local microbes, and wanted to try a beer fermented with a mix of wild and commercial yeast. White Labs makes a Cream Ale yeast but I ended up using their Kölsch strain (which is another light-bodied ale yeast that seems to mimic the results of lagering) to emphasize traditonal German flavors, along with a fairly isolated starter of Saccharomyces collected from the wild. These yeasts were pitched into a wort modeled after early Cream Ales — containing a fair amount of wheat and corn, adjuncts used to lighten the body.






Wild Cream Ale (2.5 gal. batch)

Mash Bill:

  • 3 lbs Pilsner malt
  • 1 lb Malted German wheat
  • 1 lb Flaked Maize

60 minute mash at 155°F

60 minute boil with 0.5 oz Czech Saaz hops added at start of boil

Whirlfloc tablet and pinch of yeast nutrient added at last five minutes.

Pitched White Labs Kölsch and 1 quart of wild yeast starter

Fermented in basement around 68°F. Good airlock activity the next day.