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Style Studies: Berliner Weisse

We examine a rather obscure beer style that originated in the German city of Berlin and is named accordingly – Berliner Weisse.
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This unusual beer, particularly by German standards, is a decidedly tart, low alcohol wheat style enjoyed year-round but particularly popular in the summertime due to its effervescent and refreshing character. Lest you think that Berliner Weisse is a typically dull, ubiquitous wheat beer, however, know that this beer is something of a challenge to most when taken in its unadulterated form. In fact, most Berliners drink this beer only when it’s tamed down a bit with a shot of sugary syrup. For the beer purist, though, Berliner Weisse can provide a terrifically tart and surprisingly complex experience without the aid of additional flavorings to mask the true nature of the beer.

Should you visit Berlin and ask for a Berliner Weisse, you’ll very likely be asked whether you want the beer with “rot oder grün?” This reference to “red or green” refers to the common practice of adding either raspberry-flavored syrup (Himbeere) or woodruff-flavored syrup (waldmeister) to the beer to drastically cut the tartness inherent in the style. In fact, most of the time, Berliner Weisse beer is served as “Berliner Weisse mit schuss” by default and it may take some convincing on your part to be served the beer “ohne schuss” – without a shot. Oddly (at least to most of us), many Berliners also drink this beer through a straw. If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in possession of this unique beer style, however, I’d recommend forfeiting the straw as well. Traditionally, Berliner Weisse beers are served in a wide-mouth, stemmed goblet.

I mentioned that the Berliner Weisse style is both obscure and unusual previously. The beer is obscure because there are only a couple of traditional German breweries that still produce the style regularly. At one time, it is said that there were hundreds! Likely, this fact has more to do with the changing palates of the population and their affinity for the somewhat less demanding pilsener style lager beers, but many of the now extinct breweries that once produced the style succumbed to the divide between East and West Berlin and the imposition of the Stalinist regime after the Second World War. Many of these breweries closed, and those that didn’t – by and large – began focusing on the production of lagers.  The two most notable exceptions are the Schultheiss and Kindl breweries, although these also produce various lagers in addition to maintaining the Berliner Weisse tradition.

Berliner Weisse is unique in a couple of ways. For one, it is an exceptional style when considered in light of the long-standing German (Bavarian) beer purity law known as the Reinheitsgebot. The Reinheitsgebot, adopted in its original form in 1516, stated that beer could only contain these three ingredients – water, hops and barley malt. This narrow definition obviously precluded the use of wheat and even the addition of yeast, formally speaking. The latter stipulation was likely because beers were produced through the use of wild, ambient yeast strains rather than cultured strains that were later adopted and added to start the fermentation process (thanks to Louis Pasteur). Not until the early part of the 20th Century was yeast formally included as an allowable constituent ingredient in Bavarian beer brewing.  Wheat was also finally and formally recognized under the Provisional German Beer Law, which supersedes the original Reinheitsgebot.

In addition to being unique in terms of its formulation, Berliner Weisse is also distinctive in its flavor profile among German beers. Utilizing a strain of lactobacillus - a bacterium that imparts the acidic/tart character - in conjunction with top-fermenting yeast, Berliner Weisse stands out among German wheat beers and is arguably the most “Belgian-like” German beer style. Those who enjoy Belgian styles such as traditional lambic or gueuze will find a parallel in Berliner Weisse, though the acidic character in a Berliner Weisse leans more toward clean and tart than earthy or sour.

Berliner Weisse beers typically utilize wheat malt as 50% of the grist (with pilsener malt making up the other 50%), as is common for German wheat beers. Expect the beer to display a pale straw color and be cloudy in appearance, with a rather paltry head of white as a result of the high acidity and low protein levels. The beer’s pungent nature is obvious right up front in the nose, with some fruity or floral notes lingering in the background. Little or no hop aroma is apparent in this style, but typically Northern German varieties like Northern Brewer or Tettnang are used. The flavor profile is predominantly clean and aggressively tart. Behind the tartness, some bready wheat flavors are typically noticeable. Like the nose, hop bitterness is virtually non-existent and replaced by the sharp acidic “pucker” factor brought about by the lactobacillus. Berliner Weisse is characteristically very light in body, dry and strongly effervescent, making it one of the most refreshingly clean beers in the world. The traditionally low ABV makes the beer an imminently session-worthy (schankbier) style for the initiated palate.

The common historical reference to the Berliner Weisse style belongs to Napoleon and his troops who, in 1809, purportedly referenced the Berliner Weisse style as the “champagne of the North” during their occupation of Berlin. Obviously unaccustomed to the tartness of the beer, the troops requested it be served with sweet syrup to cut the acidity. This adulteration seems to have stuck, as this is the predominant manner in which the beer is consumed to this day. Berliner Weisse, technically, is the appellation reserved only for examples brewed in Berlin, much like the Kölsch style in Cologne. But, like Kölsch, Berliner Weisse-style beers are now being brewed all over the world, with several very fine examples coming from the American craft brewing world. If you’re interested in trying this unique beer style for yourself, I recommend starting with one of these domestic examples because it is much more likely to be fresh. Several of these versions are also moderately higher in alcohol strength than is traditional, and a few – unencumbered by the ghost of the Reinheitsgebot – are also brewed with fruit.

Pucker up and enjoy this old German beer that is likely new to most!