Sorghum Beer, Carbonation, Decoction, Racism, and Other Delights: A Night with Gordon Biersch Brewer Jason Oliver

It turns out that Jason Oliver, regional brewery supervisor for Gordon Biersch, and I share an interest in South African sorghum beers. He’s visited there twice and fondly recalls these sour pink ales. I spent time there brewing and researching sorghum beers. So I joined him yesterday to talk about South Africa’s beer scene, the challenges of eradicating racism, and lots of the world’s other problems, and to taste our way through his offerings at the Washington D.C. Gordon Biersch.

Jason OliverFirst on deck was a side by side comparison of a bottled Paulaner Hefe Weissbier straight off the plane from Germany (that a friendly customer brought in to share) next to Jason’s own Hefeweizen, one of Gordon Biersch’s core beers. Can any of you tell which one is which in this picture of Jason holding the two beers?

The comparison lead to a lengthy discussion about carbonation. The Paulaner, being bottle conditioned, was highly carbonated and hence more effervescent than Jason’s, which was being dispensed through a temperature controlled tap system connected straight to a serving vessel. Jason described some of the art involved in maintaining carbonation levels in a system like this. Let’s suffice to say that there are a lot of variables involved and the end result, at least in this instance, was that his house Hefe was less carbonated than the Paulaner and it made for an interesting comparison.

We both noticed a slight difference in color, Paulaner’s tinge of orange made it a shade darker than the Gordon Biersch Hefe. There was also a discernable difference in the flavor profile, the Paulaner showing more complexity in the traditional banana fruitiness, while the emphasis in Jason’s was on the equally traditional clove-like phenols.

As is also traditional, Jason does a decoction mash to produce his Hefe. This lead to another lengthy discussion on the role of tradition in brewing and how brewpubs are better suited than industrial breweries are to maintain traditions that may be “inefficient” from a business viewpoint. Decoction mashing is a good example of a traditional process that today seems inefficient. Commercial breweries avoid it nowadays because, strictly speaking, modern malts reduce or eliminate the need for decoction. This mashing process evolved as a way of getting the most from “thin” German malts (thin, as compared to plumper English malts, for example). Modern agricultural techniques have eliminated this thinness but Jason maintains that decoction still does “something” to the beer that he can’t quite put his finger on. Since he’s the one who has to spend the extra hour in the brewhouse that it takes to do a decoction mash, he says he’s willing to take the extra time and stick with tradition. One must assume that larger breweries, with strict schedules, would forbid such foolish adherence to “inefficient” traditions. I love the idea that pub brewers have more “freedom to be inefficient,” especially since it seems so counter to the strictness of the German brewing approach in general.

We also tasted an experimental version of Jason’s seasonal Maibock. I’m not sure whether I’m at liberty to divulge this one or not so I’ll keep it under wraps. But if you’re interested in trying this delicious creation that breaks way out of the maibock style profile, you might want to attend Bob Tupper’s beer tasting next week at the Brickskeller where he’ll be celebrating his 15,000th beer tasting! No promises, but I suspect Jason may be planning to offer this experimental Maibock at Tupper’s tasting celebration.

Getting back to the original discussion about sorghum beers (it was one of those nights where digression was the rule), I told Jason I’d try to get my hands on some South African sorghum flour so he can whip up a batch of this sour pink beer. Jason also said he’d be interested in trying out some organic ingredients in a brew — let this be my open invitation to you Jason, I’d be glad to help you identify a source for what you need and would be thrilled to help out in any other way, especially when it comes time to taste the results! By the way, you can find the largest selection of organic hops right here available wholesale from Seven Bridges. Tell Amelia that Chris O’ sent you.

Jason and I also rambled on about zero-waste brewing techniques, living machines, the crime, racism, and beauty of South Africa, and much more that I’ll have to cover in another post sometime. Who knows, maybe he’ll invite me back for another tasting session . . . hint, hint. Possible topics for the next session: beer and chocolate pairings with Gordon Biersch beers? The historical architecture of Washington D.C.’s brewpubs?


8 Responses to Sorghum Beer, Carbonation, Decoction, Racism, and Other Delights: A Night with Gordon Biersch Brewer Jason Oliver

  1. Travis W. says:

    Hello Chris

    Great website! After spending several months in Zimbabwe I became a big fan of Chibuku and other traditional sorghum/millet beers. I’d like to try my hand at homebrewing some traditional African beer since I’ve yet to find any here in the States. Do you have recipes or web links I could try? Thanks.


  2. beeractivist says:

    Travis W. – I’m afraid I don’t have a recipe handy for chibuku, but here’s a recipe for Mfula, Mfula:

    I have toured a couple chibuku factories and can tell you that it is corn-based, fermented for a day, and drunk while still fermenting. Happy brewing!

    Chris O’

  3. Ross says:

    In South Africa we get malted sorghum in most super markets, it is manufactured by Tiger Brands and goes by the name King Korn – Mtombo-Mmela Home Brew.

    The recipe on the packet is:

    Add 10 litres of boiling water to 2 Kilograms of maize meal (white maize meal – yellow maize meal is not readily available in South Africa)and stir well. Add 1 Kilogram King Korn Mtombo-Mmela and mix well. Allow to stand overnight to sour. Cook the mixture approximately 1 hour. Allow to cool. Add a further 3 to 5 Litres of cold water and another 1kg of King Korn to the mixture and stir. Leave over night.

    Strain the mixture using a kitchen sieve by pressing the liquid out. Leave overnight and allow to ferment. Once the brew is ready – enjoy.

    I’m not sure how readily available raw malted sorghum is in the states. If you are having trouble, I’m sure I can send you a few packets of King Korn – send me a mail at
    I’m not sure about the import restrictions, by it shouldn’t be a problem, I think.


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