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Berliner Weisse: The Style Which Craft Brewers Forgot



Berliner Weisse

Berlin is famous for more than just BDSM clubs

The German capital is known by foreigners for lots of things. The Reichstag, the Bauhaus art movement, the wall which separated two ideologies during the Cold War, and bondage and S & M clubs. Likely something no outsider knows about is Berliner Weisse.

My brother was in Berlin quite recently, and I gave him the number of a Berlin friend I met in Laos and traveled in Tasmania with way back in 2005-06. This friend sent me a pic of the two of them drinking a green beer in wide-rimmed bowl-shaped chalice glasses for which they were billed €5 apiece. 

Green beer? For €5?  Would you pay €2 for a green beer?

Berliner Weisse isn't actually green.  The beer is infused with a flavored syrup to cut the intense acidity.  Artificial woodruff flavoring, known as waldmeistersirup in the German lingo, is what gives the beer its green color. You can also order your Berliner Weisse red, by having raspberry syrup (himbeersirup) used instead. Ordering is simple: "A green one or a red one, please." With Germans, you probably don't even need to add "please."

The beer is fruity and refreshing, akin to the normal German wheat beer, but also sour and tart. For a beer, it's very low in alcohol, 2.5-3% ABV. Although a subcategory of the German wheat style, there are notable differences. Gone is the bitterness with virtually no hops. The wheat to barley ratio is much lower. A typical Munich-style hefeweizen has a wheat to barley ratio of 70:30.  Berliner Weisse falls somewhere between 25:75 and 50:50, creating a very noticeable taste differentiation. Pale malted wheat is used.   It's fermented with both yeast and lactic-acid bacteria like many Belgian ales. 

Berliner Weisse has an illustrious and long history, dating back to at least the Middle Ages. No one knows exactly when. Some experts consider the first reference to the style as 1552, when a beer was described that could well have been the Berliner Weisse as known today. Or 1572 as the time a beer similar to Berliner Weisse first showed up in Berlin. The more agreed upon date is 1642.  A document from that year confirms the style being brewed in Berlin.  But other theorists espouse that the style came to Berlin via Protestant French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in the late 1600's.  

Hamburg is the location most beer authorities accept as the origin of the modern style, though no documents exist to testify to the brewer or the name it went by.  Sixteenth century brewer Cord Broihan copied the style to great acclaim, and by the 1640's, a local doctor was brewing the precursor to Berliner Weisse in Berlin.   Its popularity increased from then on. The first 'celebrity endorsement' for the style came from Frederick William I. Otherwise known as the the Soldier King and the King of Prussia from 1713-40, Frederick adored Berliner Weisse and taught his son Frederick the Great how to brew it. Allegedly, Napoleon or his troops when occupying Berlin in 1809 sampled Berliner Weisse and called it the champagne of the north. 

The common man loved it, too, and referred to it as "the workers' sparkling wine." By the early 1800's, Berliner Weisse was the drink of choice among Berliners, and  700 breweries manufactured it. By 1995, there were only two Berlin breweries left making it, Berliner Kindl and Schultheiss, both owned by the same conglomerate. Outside Berlin, only a handful of other breweries throughout Germany make it. 

What happened? How could a beer championed by Kings and military gurus fade so far into oblivion? There is no simple, one sentence answer. Peoples' tastes change over time. A style of clothing popular in 1800 ceases to be popular in 1900.  A dish enjoyed by a family for supper around the table in 1850 is unknown in 1950. 

This answer is not so satisfactory when it comes to beers though. Bitters, stouts, pale ales - these are all beer types enjoyed three hundred years ago which are still enjoyed today. Often times, centuries old tradition makes a product more desirable.

A more palatable explanation for Berliner Weisse's decline, among other beer types, can be traced to the modern day Czech Republic.  It was there, in the town of Plzen, that the first pale lager, now known as the pilsner, was produced in 1842, a mere three decades after Napoleon and his troops were supposedly toasting their victories over glasses of Berliner Weisse.  The pilsner was revolutionary for its time. Most beers back then were top-fermented ales which varied widely in quality.  The pilsner was bottom-fermented, clear and golden, light, crisp.  Ten years after pilsner's invention, 35 Prague pubs were selling it.  Within another decade, pilsners were available throughout Europe. 

At the time of the pilsner's inception, cool caves were used for lagering, but by the end of the nineteenth century, with the advent of modern refrigeration, previously rare lagers could be brewed at many more locations. Pale lagers thereafter became the most preferred beer type worldwide.  Other beer types fell out of favor. India Pale Ales, lambics, Berliner Weisses, and their ilk?  Sayonara. 

Berliner Weisse's fate isn't helped by the laws.  Legally, Berliner Weisse has to be brewed in the German capital because it enjoys a protected appellation status, along the lines of Parma ham or French champagne, meaning the product must be produced in the region/city specified in its name.  Ham and sparkling wine, however, are already popular products. It was felt there was a need to stamp a particular region's hams or sparkling wines with region indicators to differentiate them from the broader competition. Berliner Weisse isn't yet a style every new craft brewery is putting on the top of its must-brew list in order to deserve such protection.

Still, there are some breweries outside Berlin, albeit a few, attempting the style.    White Birch Brewing (New Hampshire), Saint Arnold Brewing (Texas),and  Firestone Walker Barrelworks (California) are among those with Berliner Weisse offerings.  White Birch even calls their brew Berliner Weisse, and the German politicians in Berlin aren't suing to put a stop to it.   Berliner Weisse's fortunes have been aided by a change in the public's perception of sour beers. In 2000, only 15 sour beers were entered in the Great American Beer Festival. By 2010, there were 149.   RateBeer.com pulls up 50 beers with this style. 

Enjoying a Berliner Weisse or something similar doesn't now mean a flight to Berlin or purchasing an expensive import. So -- will it be a red or a green?

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27 July 2015
 
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