History by the Glass by | Oct 2015 | Issue #105

Northern Germany was once home to dozens of top-fermenting beer styles. Most drowned under the tsunami of lager that flooded the region at the end of the 19th century. A few tenacious ones managed to cling on past WWII, fewer still until today.

Some just refuse to die and spring back to life after a short absence. Gose is a good example, as is Lichtenhainer. Despite its tiny heartland around Jena in the East of Germany, with the exception of a 14-year gap in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s been brewed continuously for a few hundred years.

Lichtenhainer has its roots in a handful of villages: Ammerbach, Ziegenhain, Winzerla, Wöllnitz, and, naturally, Lichtenhain. Though at the height of its popularity toward the end of the 19th century, it was brewed throughout Thuringia. They even made it in Eisenach (where I got married), over 100 kilometers away.

Wilhelm Rommel and Karl Fehrmann described the style in Die Bierbrauerei, published in 1915 (my translation):

“Lichtenhainer is also a pale beer brewed from lightly smoked malt, though only barley malt is used. The approximately 8º Plato wort is very lightly hopped and only boiled very briefly and exposed to either a spontaneously appearing or deliberately started lactic acid bacteria infection that gives the beer its weakly sour taste. The mostly young beer, which isn’t expected to be clear, is usually served from a barrel.”

Combining both smoke and sourness in one beer is unusual—but not unique. At least not in the past: In the first half of the 19th century, Berliner Weisse was also brewed with smoked malt.

Don’t get confused when I tell you Lichtenhainer is also considered a type of Weissbier. The term originally had nothing to do with wheat. It simply meant a beer brewed from air-dried rather than kiln-dried malt. Though Weissbier often contained wheat malt, it wasn’t essential. Which was the case with Lichtenhainer: sometimes it was brewed with a combination of wheat and barley, others entirely with barley.

In his 1927 book Moderne Braumethoden, Adalbert Johannes Olberg describes Lichtenhainer as a beer made from two-thirds barley malt and one-third wheat malt, using half a pound of hops (250 g) per Zentner (50 kg) of malt. That’s a very low level of hopping, as you would expect from a beer fermented with Lactobacillus. Much less than an English Mild of a similar gravity. When I throw the numbers into a homebrewing program, I get 8 IBU.

There seems to be some dispute about the method of souring. Dr. Max Delbrück’s Brauerei-Lexicon of 1910 claims it took place after primary fermentation, unlike Berliner Weisse. This doesn’t seem to tally with it being sold young. And Schönfeld— the leading early 20th century expert on German top-fermenting beer—didn’t lump it with the secondary-fermentation sours (Münster Alt and Adambier). I trust him.

BAIssue105_1015.inddThe analyses in the table confirm the light sourness Rommel described. Really sour beers, like Berliner Weisse or Lambic, have far more than 0.2 percent acidity. Usually it’s over 1 percent. A modest gravity in the 1030s and an alcohol content below 4 percent also agrees with text sources.

After WWII, Lichtenhainer limped along, brewed in tiny quantities until 1983, when Brauerei Ed Barfuss Söhne in Wöllnitz stopped production. Luckily, the interruption didn’t last too long. In 1997 Talschänke, a pub in Wöllnitz, added a brewery and started making the local style again, calling it Wöllnitzer Weißbier.

I’m always happy to see a beer style rise from the dead. Especially ones like Lichtenhainer with distinctive features. Let’s hope it sticks around.