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Real Berliner Weisse, please?

by Dirk Hoplitschek

No, I’m not going to start with Napoleon! Everyone does that. As if a host of drunken soldiers on its way through Prussia is any indication of how good a drink is. Soldiers will drink anything that gives them a buzz. To this day, the word “Fisimatenten” stands for shady and untoward activities in the local Berlin dialect. It comes from “Visite ma tente!”, an invitation those same French soldiers would extend towards the young ladies of Berlin, to come and visit their tents.

Confused? Okay, I’ll say it then: Berliner Weisse has been dubbed “Champagne du Nord” by Napoleon’s troops, the Champagne of the North. It is light in colour, served in a large glass chalice, slightly sour, complex and yet refreshingly easygoing. It’s not hard to see whence the comparison comes. Now let’s call champagne the Berliner Weisse of the Marne, shall we? The Prussians did beat Napoleon in the end, after all.

Profile of a Berlin Original

Localist patriotism aside, what makes Berliner Weisse so unique? At the core of the drink is a light wheat beer. Think Weihenstephan, Schneider Weisse, Paulaner, Franziskaner and the like, but brewed to a low ABV somewhere between 2 and 4%. As is the case with these beers, Berliner Weisse is produced using a lot of wheat malt next to the usual barley malt, a relatively small amount of hops, and a top-fermenting yeast. This gives the drink a smooth, rich texture, biscuit-like sweetness, low level of bitterness and fruity flavours from the yeast.

A Life of Its Own

What separates Berliner Weisse from a light wheat beer is what happens next: Similar to Belgian Lambics, the beer undergoes a spontaneous fermentation using a wild yeast strain, usually of the Brettanomyces variant (lovingly called “Brett”). Now, “using a wild strain” sounds like an oxymoron, but thanks to modern labs, it’s not. Traditionally, the beer would be left in open fermentation vessels, and the microorganisms responsible for turning liquid into liquid gold (or sugars into buzz and bubbles) would be in the air. Cultivated through the near-constant presence of nurturing beer, these little spores would survive for generations upon generations. Depending on the climate and the beer brewed, different cultures would thrive, so every region (Belgian Lambics come from the region of Lembeek) and even every brewery had its very own microclimate that would add a unique flavour to the beer.

Sauerkraut Beer

Nowadays, even wild yeast can be isolated and added to the beer at the desired point in time, although many breweries still use the traditional method. Usually, “the yeast” is a mixture of various microorganisms. Flemish Brown Ales features a larger percentage of acetic bacteria, hence the balsamic vinegar flavour. Berliner Weisse, on the other hand, goes for lactic acid bacteria, similar to what we taste in yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles. It also makes the beer insanely durable, like sauerkraut.“Going sour” is basically the worst that can happen to a regular beer. So in this case, the worst has already happened, and we still drink it. I’ve tried Berliner Weisse from the 70s. Big surprise, it’s still sour, although the beer changes character in other aspects.

To recap: Berliner Weisse is light wheat beer fermented using a combination of regular top-fermenting yeast, Brett and Lactobacillus. Some breweries ferment them independent of one another and blend the batches later, and bottle refermentation is also common to ensure the beer develops over time.

When Berliner Weisse Ruled The World (of Berlin)

Berliner Weisse used to be the predominant beer style of the Prussian capital, with Hundreds of breweries during the 18th and 19th century. While cooling was dependent on blocks of ice being brought in from the mountains, the flatlands of Northern Germany relied on top-fermenting beers, as the yeasts are fine with temperatures of 14-20°Celsius. For the same reason, Belgian and English beer culture historically boast top-fermenting beer styles, while bottom-fermenting ones (also called lagers) come from the mountainous regions of Southern Germany and Bohemia.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the industrial revolution was well underway, refrigeration and filtration became common, and the triumph of crisp, clean, golden lagers of the Pilsener variety was keenly felt by Berlin brewers. Slowly, the traditional Berlin beer styles fell out of favour. The first to go was the Lichtenhainer, produced in a similar fashion to Berliner Weisse, but using smoked malts and the classic salt & coriander combination otherwise known from Gose beers. Too weird a flavour profile compared to modern lagers.

No Strings Attached

By the Roaring Twenties, Berliner Weisse brewers had become worried. One of the little rituals surrounding Berliner Weisse was a boilermaker with caraway seed liquor. The sweetness and spiciness of the liquor balanced the tartness of the beer, making for a true classic called “Berliner Weisse mit Strippe” (Berliner Weisse with string, from the end of a string attached to the liquor bottle’s lid) But the old people enjoying this time-honoured combo were dying out. Something needed to be done. The first attempt at modern rebranding replaced the caraway seed liquor with elderflower syrup. If you carefully apply homoeopathic quantities, it’s a worthwhile addition to the flavour profile, and it certainly lends itself to creative mixology.

The Great Decline

By the 1970s, the situation was desperate. The more successful breweries had long since started brewing lagers. This more profitable beer style didn’t mix at all with Berliner Weisse. Due to the highly infectious nature of the wild yeast spores, the two cannot even safely be brewed in the same brewery unless great care is taken. Losing entire batches of Pilsener to infection was out of the question, and so Berliner Weisse was marginalized. The last attempt was made to save it by adding woodruff or raspberry syrup, creating the infamous “green” and “red” versions. In a time of cheap tiki cocktails with tropical fruit salads as a garnish, this was not a bad call. Still poured into a large chalice, the intense colouring provided by the syrups made for one impressive serve and helped the Berliner Weisse retain some popularity.

Unfortunately, this was Berliner Weisse grasping for the last straw – literally, as the beer & syrup mixture was now served with one. Ever since Berliner Weisse has been as a niche summer drink everyone associates with often artificial colouring and sweetness.
Now, to be clear: Woodruff and raspberries each have unique flavours to contribute to the refreshing tartness of a Berliner Weisse. But it should at least be possible to enjoy the beer by itself. We enjoy a good Whisky Sour, praise white wines for their palatable acidity, but a beer can’t be sour? Grow up!

Back to our story: Large breweries took to brewing Berliner Weisse with pre-soured malts in order to avoid the volatile wild yeasts. The result is a flat sourness that has to rely on the syrup for flavour, as it has little of its own. With Berliner Schultheiss-Kindl, the largest Berlin brewery and part of Germany’s largest beer conglomerate, the Radeberger Group, buying Berliner Bürgerbräu in 2010, their Berliner Weisse was discontinued along with their seasonal and speciality beers. Poison Green and Cheap Lipstick Red ruled supreme, and real Berliner Weisse passed into legend.

Renaissance of a Berlin Original

Or did it? Already in 2005, Michael Schwab founded the Brewbaker brewery. He soon started brewing Berliner Weisse, using mixed yeast cultures. He stayed very much under the radar. So much, in fact, that when a young IT specialist succeeded in crowd-funding his Bogk Brauerei project to recreate real Berliner Weisse, he was completely unaware that there was a brewery already doing that. Bogk ultimately didn’t go through with turning his passion into a profession, but the spiritual successor of said project, the Schneeeule Brauerei, has been creating amazing beers in the past years. Founder and brewer Ulrike Genz now attempts to blend aged Berliner Weisse the same way Lambics are blended to create Geuze. Berliner Geuze, who would’ve thought?

Thanks to pioneers like her and Michael Schwab, Berliner Weisse as a beer style is now resurgent in the city it was born in. Breweries such as Lemke, BRLO and Stone Brewing Berlin have answered the call and added their own perspective to an emerging sour beer culture. Finally, beer lovers feel confident enough to answer “None!” when asked the inevitable question for green or red. “Oh, and can I have a real Berliner Weisse, please?”

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