Bell's Oarsman Ale
Beer: Oarsman Ale
Brewery: Bell's Brewery Inc.
Style: Berliner Weisse
ABV: 4 percent
To everything there is a season, and this applies to beer, as well. Whereas frosty winter nights can be thawed by a powerful stout or winter warmer, the furnace that we like to call the Arizona summer calls for lighter fare. Pale ale, wit, kölsch, and hefeweizen are quality heat-beating brews, but there is perhaps no style better suited for fighting triple-digit fire than the Berliner Weisse.
Whereas most sour styles originated in Belgium, the Berliner Weisse is a German creation. Beer historians are divided on the beer's exact origins, but it's known that by the 1800s, it had become the most popular drink in Berlin. In fact, the style is now an appellation similar to kölsch in Cologne, meaning brewers outside of Berlin must call their sour wheat ales by another name. Though today a decidedly niche style, Berliner Weisse was popular in its time with Germans and foreigners alike -- Napoleon dubbed the style the "Champagne of the North" while occupying Berlin in 1809.
So what makes Berliner Weisse the best summer beer in all the land? First, its generally low alcohol content (most traditional versions are between 2 percent to 4 percent AVB) enables long-term day-drinking without putting you into a beer coma at 4 p.m. Second, it's got a gentle tartness that perks up the taste buds, and no residual sweetness, making each sip quenching and refreshing. You can add sweetness, however -- the style is great with flavored syrups, which the Germans call "Schuss," and you'll often find glasses of Berliner Weisse in Berlin stained red or green with raspberry- or woodruff-flavored syrups.
Though it could be a popular brew in Arizona (hint, local brewers), surprisingly few examples of Berliner Weisse are available here. Dogfish Head Festina Peche, a variant of the style made with peaches, is available only in summer months; Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse (a very good, very traditional example of the style) can be found year-round, but in very small quantities. But there's a new player to arrive: Bell's Oarsman Ale, which only just finished rowing its way to Arizona shelves.
Pour Oarsman into the traditional Berliner Weisse glass -- a large chalice, which allows room for the expansive, champagne-like cap of pure white froth. The brew below is the color of pale wheat, with just a touch of haze.
Designed as a flavorful session beer, Oarsman Ale is made using a traditional German brewing technique called a sour mash. In brewing, a mash is a mixture of hot water and grain; a sour mash is simply a mash that has acid-producing bacteria mixed in. For Berliner Weisse, brewers use Lactobacillus delbruckii, which eats malt sugars and spits out lactic acid. Many brewers use a small sour mash to lower the pH balance of the mash without affecting the flavor of the finished beer -- Guinness has been utilizing the technique for centuries, and I bet you never even noticed. Using a large sour mash, however, will add a definite tartness to the beer, which is what Bell's achieved.
A subtle aroma -- with just a little fruity wheat and some funky, musty notes -- is quickly followed by a light, refreshing flavor. Apple and sweet wheat blend in the front, while the swallow delivers a quick, bright flash of tartness. Rather than being the dominant flavor note, the lactic acid in Oarsman seems to take on more of a palate-cleansing role, combining with the soft, medium-light body and moderate carbonation for maximum refreshment.
For those who aren't sure about sour ales, the Oarsman is a good starting point -- I'd place the beer somewhere between an American pale wheat ale and a true Berliner Weiss. Light, flavorful, and invigorating, it's just the beer our climate calls for.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer.