During an extended stay in Germany many years ago, I enjoyed spending spring afternoons sitting at an outdoor cafe, sipping a Berliner weisse. It was light, tart, spritzy and oh-so-refreshing on a lazy, sunny day. A dash of raspberry syrup in the beer brought a fruity sweetness that capped the perfection of the moment.
What, exactly, was this marvelous elixir?
Berliner weisse is one of the few survivors of the many “white” beer styles that once existed throughout Europe. Different towns and villages developed different versions, based on local resources, customs and laws.
Historical evidence of a white beer particular to Berlin reaches into the dim past. How far back?
“I don’t know. A long, long, long time,” says Kristen England, head brewer at Bent Brewstillery in Roseville and education liaison for the Beer Judge Certification Program, an international nonprofit that publishes a widely used set of beer-style guidelines.
“I think how it’s changed is a way cooler story than where it came from,” adds England. Early in its history there were many kinds of Berliner weisse.
“They had doppel weisse. They had märzen weisse. Anything you can look at in German beer, you can translate that directly over to Berliner weisse. Bock. Doppelbock. Altbier. Sticke alt. There were versions all over the map.”
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Berliner weisse had coalesced into the beer that we now think of as traditional. Today Berliner weisse is a light, effervescent, wheat-based beer with alcohol levels of around 3.5 percent. The dominant characteristic is a lemony tartness derived from lactic fermentation. Some examples may have a faint earthy or barnyard character indicating the presence of Brettanomyces yeast.
In Germany, Berliner weisse is most often served with a shot of sweet raspberry or woodruff syrup. The addition of fruits, syrups and even spirits is another practice that goes back a very long time.
Like many of the old white-beer styles, Berliner weisse nearly went extinct. During its heyday through the 1970s, there were more than 100 breweries making the beer in Berlin. By the 1990s, there was only one. The rise of craft brewing both here and in Europe has brought about a revival of the style. There are several examples available in the Twin Cities.
At Starkeller Brewing (2215 N. Garden St., New Ulm, Minn., 1-507-359-7827, schellsbrewery.com/brewery/starkeller), a combination taproom and fermentation cellar, Schell’s brewmaster Jace Marti works among rows of massive cypress-wood tanks. The tanks were purchased by the Schell’s brewery in 1936 to ferment their signature lagers. These days, what’s aging in these tanks are the Berlin-style wheat ales of Schell’s Noble Star Collection.
While pursuing his brewer training in Berlin, Marti undertook a side project researching the history, flavors and brewing processes of Berliner weisse. Studies complete, he returned to Minnesota with yeast and bacteria cultures purloined from long-defunct weisse breweries in Berlin. He spent months restoring the wooden tanks, which had been languishing in storage since their decommissioning in the 1990s.
Marti brews the Noble Star beers using traditional methods of the old Berliner weisse breweries. A blend of wheat and barley malt undergoes a complex decoction mash procedure that involves separating and boiling portions of the porridge-like mash. The resulting wort is sent unboiled to fermentation tanks, where it is fermented with both brewer’s yeast and lactic acid bacteria strains.
From there it is transferred to the Starkeller to undergo lengthy aging — sometimes years — in the cypress-wood vessels. Then the funk-inducing strain of Brettanomyces yeast finishes the job.
Marti is also bringing back many kinds of Berliner weisse that once existed. He has made a straightforward, no-frills version. But he has also made a märzen weisse, a strong version and a version made with all barley malt. He has aged his beer on many different kinds of fruits. Several Noble Star beers are currently available in bottles.
Galactic Collision is the basic Berliner weisse. Though somewhat higher in alcohol content, its flavor profile typifies the style. It’s tart, but not overwhelmingly so, with bright lemon and lemon-peel flavors. A bit of bready wheat brings a faintly sweet counterpoint. Underneath are hints of earth and spice from the Brettanomyces yeast. Low alcohol and high carbonation make this a highly refreshing beer.
A dry-hopped version called Basin of Attraction is also available. A heavy dose of Citra and Denali hops added to the fermenter produce layers of aromatic and flavorful pineapple and tropical fruit. Both Basin of Attraction and Galactic Collision are great partners for sushi.
Electrik Empress is a stronger version that is aged for five months on 3-plus tons of fresh plums. This hazy, pink beer absolutely explodes with the flavor of plum flesh and skins. The stone-fruit sweetness tempers the characteristic lemon-tart acidity. Hints of pear and some smoky aromas round things out.
With Lunar Interference, Marti steps away from tradition by applying his Berliner weisse brewing process to a strong porter recipe. The 7.5% alcohol sets it apart from the traditional Berliner weisse, as does its black color and notes of roasted coffee and chocolate. The sour is still there, but calmed a bit by the black malts.
Black Prism — a version aged on black currants — has the same coffee and chocolate notes joined by sweet/tart dark berry flavors.
Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse is one of a few nonlocal versions often available in the Twin Cities. It is an interpretation of an older version of the style. At around 5% alcohol, it’s stronger than most modern incarnations. Saltine cracker wheat malt flavors blend with white wine and pear fruitiness. Bright lactic acid tartness is present, but doesn’t overwhelm. As the beer warms, the sourness subsides and the wheat comes forward. It’s pleasant and refreshing all the way through.
Berliner Style Weisse from the Bayerischer Bahnhof brewery in Leipzig, Germany, is a simpler version of the style, lacking some of the depth and complexity of 1809. At 3% alcohol, it is a more modern interpretation of the style. Lactic acidity dominates with notes of lemon juice and peel. There is only the slightest hint of white-bread wheat to offer support. This one would be great with a shot of raspberry syrup.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and conducts private and corporate beer tasting events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.