Berliner Weisse is an enigmatic style of beer that originated in the early 1700s. It still takes many different forms, flavors, and appearances today. In 1809, Napoleon dubbed this style the “Champagne of the North.” As the name suggests, Berliner Weisse hails from Berlin, a city that began its brewing tradition in 1572, and its wheat beer brewing tradition in 1642.
Initially, these beers were brewed with up to 100% wheat malt, however, something between 50% and 70% was more typical. The grains used were under-modified, which would leave less starch to be converted to sugar for the yeast to consume and more proteins in the beer, which act as foam stabilizers, giving the beer good head retention.
Typically, Berliner Weisse would be low alcohol, 3% abv. This allowed them to be consumed in place of water, which was typical in many areas of Europe at the time. The beer was also brewed using wooden barrels. Brewers would take fresh hay and lay it inside the barrel in order to act as a filter when extracting the sweet wort from the mash. The hay worked well, leaving the wheat behind. Now, you typically don’t see a grist profile above 50% wheat malt. That is because with the advent of new brewing technology, the typical mash tun is unable to filter the wheat as well as fresh hay can.
From the mash, brewers would typically skip the boil, and thus skip the addition of hops, which as you may know act as a preservative and inhibit certain types of bacteria. Because Berlin in the 1700’s was a relatively new brewing town, they would have yeast brought in from other brewing towns. Although, it wouldn’t be until 1857 when Louis Pasteur outlined the role of yeast in brewing.
Brewers at this time knew that adding the “left over” slurry from a previous batch would help make a new batch. The yeast was typically transported in baskets and would be checked, via smell method, to see if it had soured or developed unpleasant odors.
After mashing out, brewers would run the sweet wort down copper pipes filled with cool water in order to cool the beer. Some of these cooling mechanisms are still in use or are still part of traditional breweries today. Brewers would also employ something called a coolship, essentially a large, shallow, copper pan. Because of the increased surface area of coolships, brewers were able to cool large batches overnight. From here, it was typically transferred to fermenters and yeast was pitched.
Traditional Berliner Weisse is unique. It is a wheat beer, like many styles of German beer, however, it has a reserved lactic sourness. This is likely due to the lack of hops, which often work as an inhibitor for lactobacillus, the main souring agent in beer.
Along with the lack of hops and multiple opportunities of long-term exposure to air, this beer was known as being tart, bone dry, highly effervescent, with a long lasting white head. It often had the essence of peach or apricot from the alternative yeast Brettanomyces that was found in the beer.
The fermentation of this beer was usually pretty quick. From there, it was bottled in champagne bottles to high levels of carbonation and served. During the 1800’s, this style became high-class in Berlin. It was common to have 9-year-old bottles that had been buried and aged in clay available. Typically, higher-end locations would offer fruit liqueur along with the beer. Because of the co-fermentation with Brettanomyces and souring bacteria, some have suggested it is similar to a young Lambic style beer.
With the advent of Lagers in the early 1900s, this style almost became extinct. By the 1980s, all but one Berliner Weisse brewery had closed. Kindl Weisse is the only surviving historic example, however, it does not represent the majority of historical Berliner Weisse. It is back sweetened and not fermented with a mixed culture.
With the brewing renaissance, many American breweries began to research and revive this style of beer. Unfortunately, even now it is difficult to find a true historic example of a Berliner Weisse beer. Many of the breweries that make this style utilize a souring method patented by Otto Francke in 1906. This “kettle sour” method employs souring for 24-48 hours in a boil kettle, then boiling to kill off the bacteria, and finally pitching typical brewers yeast. This method gives the beer a clean lactic sourness but typically misses the head retention and peach and apricot essence of co-fermented Berliner Weisse.
Berliner Weisse should have a thick, long lasting white head. Typically it is clear due to the acidity level. Peach and apricot should be present, along with lactic acid, sometimes a lemon quality.
The beer should be subtly tart with no bitterness and finish bone dry. It should be well carbonated, up to 4 bars of pressure, low abv, and very drinkable.
It pairs well with fruit such as cherries, strawberries, or melon. Havarti and aged ham or pretzel work as well.