Brewing a Bell’s Oberon-Style American Wheat Beer with Cultured Yeast from Bottles

To finish off the summer, I decided to brew an American wheat beer in the style of Bell’s Oberon. Oberon is one of my all-time favorite beers. It is cloudy, with a slight tartness, finished off by a respectable hop bitterness. Oberon, and American wheat beers in general, are beers associated with summer. They are more substantial than an American lager or a cream ale, but equally refreshing.

Image: Bell’s Brewery

Bell’s seasonal release of Oberon, in late March, is one of the very few seasonal beer events that I get excited about. As much as flowers starting the push through the soil, the release of Oberon changes my mindset from midwestern winter hibernation to “time to put on the shorts, it’s going to be in the upper forties today!”

I have wondered if my love of Oberon is biased because of the fact that I attended college in Michigan, home of Bell’s, and it was one of the very first craft beers that I ever drank. But I have had many other wheat beers since that time and still think that Oberon holds up well.

Oberon is a simple beer. As stated in Oberon’s marketing, Oberon is “[m]ade with only 4 ingredients, and without the use of any spices or fruit.” Like the other great Bell’s brew, Two-Hearted Ale, Oberon is all about achieving the best balance of sweetness from the grains and bitterness from the hops. And with Oberon, Bell’s nails the balance.

Frankly, it is tough to find wheat beers that do not go heavy on the either added fruit and spices (such as citrus fruit and coriander) or are in styles that are highly influenced by yeast phenols (banana, clove, etc.) such as hefeweizen and saison. These beers can be great in their own way, but it is satisfying with a minimalist beer such as Oberon to be able to fully appreciate the contribution of the wheat and the hops, which are relegated to a supporting role in other wheat styles.

I also love that Bell’s is so supportive of homebrewers. The brewery goes as far as to to give tips on cloning Oberon on its website. But what really got me sold on making an Oberon style ale is that Bell’s also encourages homebrewers to culture Bell’s house yeast from its bottles.

In theory, culturing Bell’s house yeast to use in brewing is a sound economic proposition. A six pack of Bell’s Oberon cost $9.99 at my local Walmart. Purchasing Bell’s house yeast costs $12.00, plus shipping. In addition, you can drink the six pack, minus the small amount of sediment that you use for your culture.

In practice, culturing yeast can be tricky the first time that you try it. I attempted to make this beer back in July, but the yeast culture failed. I suspected that the problem was that I did not aerate the culture enough, so I bought a 1L Erlenmeyer flask ($10.99 on Amazon) and a stir plate ($29.80 on Amazon) and tried again. I also had to buy another six pack. As is said:

Fortunately, my second attempt at culturing Bell’s house yeast from Oberon bottles was a success. While my wife repeatedly commented that I made out kitchen look like a scene from Breaking Bad, the stir plate made a huge improvement. Following Bell’s recommendation of using a stepped starter, I had flask full of healthy yeast in six days.

For those interested in trying to culture yeast from beer bottles, here is how I do it:

  • Leave two or three beer bottles that you are going to culture in the refrigerator for 24 hours to let the yeast sediment drop to the bottom.
  • Spray the outside of the bottle with Starsan or your favorite sanitizer.
  • Open the bottles and use a lighter to run a flame over the mouth of your opened bottles to kill any remaining contaminants.
  • Gently pour out the contents until only about an inch of beer and sediment remains in the bottle.
  • Boil 75 ml of water and mix with 5 g of light malt extract (“LME”) to make wort. Allow the wort to cool.
  • Add the 75 ml of wort to a sanitized 1000 ml Erlenmeyer flask. Cover the flask with a piece of aluminum foil you sprayed with sanitizer.
  • Place the Erlenmeyer flask on a stir plate and turn it on. Wait. The amount of foam on top of the wort should start to increase over the course of the next few days. At some point the foam will noticeably drop, letting you know that the yeast are hungry for more wort. (This happened at day 3 for me.)
  • Boil 750 ml of water and add 50 g of LME. Allow the wort to cool, then add it to the flask.
  • Continue to run the stir plate until the foam drops again. (This happened at day six for me.)
  • Use immediately or refrigerate up to a week or two.

This method produced a large amount of Bell’s house yeast for me. I know that it worked well because my five-gallon batch was blowing out the lid of my fermenting bucket in less than 24 hours.

For the recipe, Bell’s actually has one for Oberon on its website. However, I wanted to tweak it in a couple ways. First, I wanted to bring the ABV down to below 5% as that is what I prefer for my “everyday beers” that I keep on tap. To do this I scaled down the grain bill.

Second, my brewing philosophy is start with less and then add more, so I wanted to simplify the number of grains and hops used. While this would not exactly be a single malt and single hop (“SMaSH”) brew as it contains wheat, it would be the wheat beer equivalent. Thus, I stuck to 2-row pale malt, white wheat malt, and Saaz hops. I left out the adjunct Munich and Carapils malts as well as the Perle and Hersbrucker hops.

My final recipe for 5 gallons was:

  • 5 lbs 2-row pale malt
  • 4 lbs white wheat malt
  • 2 oz Saaz hops at 60 minutes
  • .5 oz Saaz hops at 15 minutes

The measurements were:

  • ABV: 4.83%
  • OG: 1.049
  • FG: 1.012

I cold crashed for 24 hour and then force carbonated in a keg for a week.

Overall, I was quite happy with this beer. Despite the subtractions, it tasted similar to Oberon. The beer was well balanced, hazy, with a slight wheat sourness and noticeable hops. The greatest differences from Oberon was that the color was lighter and there was slightly less hop bitterness. This beer passes the test as a usable base recipe to do some experimenting in the future. For improvements, I would be interested to try using some Munich malt for color and flavor and adding an actual bittering hop early in the boil instead of just using Saaz for bittering and aroma.

While summer officially over and there is not an Oberon to be seen at my local store, it is great to have a decent American wheat on tap to ease into the midwestern fall.  

Cheers!

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