Berliner weisses stand at the crossroads of sours and session beers.
By Christopher Staten
If there were an endangered beer species list, Berliner weisses would be on it. Once declared the “Champagne of the north” by Napoleon’s troops during their rather un-neighborly invasion of Prussia, this puckering, effervescent pale wheat ale, marked by a clean sourness (think plain Greek yogurt) from its top-fermenting yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria, now teeters on the edge of obscurity.
Born around the 16th century along with the rest of Germany’s weissbiers in Berlin, the formerly ubiquitous brew not only predates the popular German pilsner, but it’s been described as the most refreshing style in the world; its sourness falls somewhere between a weizen and a lambic while its ABV is a tame 2.8% to 3.8%. Today, you can count the number of Berliner weisses from Germany on one hand. Like other forgotten styles (heard of Broyhan alt or Licktenhainer?), it’s almost impossible to pinpoint why Berliner weisses’ popularity waned; certainly, though, the extensive floor space and fermenting time required to create the beer have kept brewers away. But now that demand for Belgian sours and session beers has exploded, the tart style is poised for a comeback.
Philadelphia’s Nodding Head Brewery introduced Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse 11 years ago. “It was almost a dead style, and we wanted to save it,” says head brewer Gordon Grubb. Not only did the beer help revive the category at the Great American Beer Festival, but it went on to medal three times. As Grubb tells it, peddling a sour ale wasn’t easy in the beginning. He adopted the tradition born in the 19th century, when barmen added a shot of sweet syrup (like woodruff or raspberry) to counter the beer’s sourness and puckering lemonade sensation. Nodding Head eased customers into the style by providing woodruff syrup with the beer. But today, the beer’s such a hit straight, Nodding Head only serves syrup upon request.
Just outside Austin, Texas, Ron Extract of Jester King Craft Brewery was drawn to the style’s rarity and quaffability, so he started researching the beer. That led him to Kristen England, of Minnesota’s Pour Decisions Brewing (see p. 32), who helped him hone the profile. “You’ll get a raw wheat flavor, almost like chewing on raw wheat, and it should have a very clean acidity,” Extract notes. If the beer’s a hit, he plans to push the style further, by barrel-aging or dry-“hopping” a batch with woodruff or hibiscus.
While brewers are more willing to experiment with sours these days, the labor-intensive, high-cost style’s success ultimately relies on consumers.
“The style is just 3% ABV, and you could drink a 750mL bottle on your own,” notes Extract. “Will they embrace it and pay a little extra, or will they just decide to go buy another imperial?”
3 TO TRY
The Bruery Hottenroth: This SoCal version matches the style’s traditional puckering profile, evocative of tart lemonade.
Fritz Briem 1809: Hints of grain temper the sourness and light barnyard notes of this German brew.
Dogfish Head Festina Pêche: Brewer Sam Calagione puts his spin on the beer-and-syrup tradition by fermenting a Berliner weisse on a bed of peaches.