Berlin, a vibrant city, which gave itself the motto: "Arm, aber sexy!" (Poor, but sexy!) after the fall of The Wall, is home to one of the rather odd ale specialties of Germany - The Berliner Weisse.
Light, golden, zippy, and zingy, the Berliner Weisse beer style earned the nickname “Champagne of the North” from Napoleon’s troops. But what exactly is a Berliner Weisse? The Berliner Weisse was incredibly popular in the early 19th century, when more than 700 German breweries produced the style. Today, however, only two larger breweries in Germany regularly bottle Berliners (Berliner Kindl and Schultheiss) . However, with the renewed interest in historical styles spurred by the (German) craft beer movement, other breweries in Berlin and beyond have answered the call.
Although the style’s exact roots are a little hazy, a few different theories exist as to how the beer was born.
Some folks believe that the French immigrants who settled in Berlin developed the style, implementing brewing techniques they picked up from Belgium as they traveled through the region.
Others point to the simple fact that wheat beers were popular in Berlin during the 17th century. At the time, instead of adding hops into boiling wort, many brewers would boil hops with water and then blend it into the mash. Oftentimes, since the wort wasn’t boiled, local microflora and fauna wound up in the beer, giving their beers an unintentional dose of naturally-occurring acidity–a hallmark of the Berliner Weisse style.
Essentially, a Berliner Weisse is a tart wheat beer, and therefore an ale, that includes two key ingredients.
First, Weisse refers to wheat, think Weissbier (Hefeweizen). Typically, a brewer will use around fifty percent wheat in the grain bill of a Berliner Weisse. The tartness that comes from the style’s other main component: Lactobacillus (Tasty!) The naturally occurring bacteria known gives the Berliner Weisse its classic acidity. It's the same bacteria that gives yogurt its tang. A light, sour wheat beer, Berliner Weisses typically fall somewhere between 3% and 5% ABV. So far, so odd. But what makes the Berliner Weisse truly an original is the Schuss (shot).
To play off of the Berliner Weisse’s funky sournessa a shot of syrup is added, directly to the beer. In Berlin, when you order a Berliner Weisse, the waiter will often say “Rot oder grün?” Which simply means “red or green?”
And of course, there is a song for it...
The colors refer to the type of syrup you’d like to add to the beer. Red is usually a sweet raspberry syrup, or Himbeer. Green is a more traditional grassy herb known as woodruff, or Waldmeister.
This is the main difference to a lot of or Berliner Weisse interpretations of American microbreweries, who add the fruit in during the brewing process. German-brewed Berliner Weisse is hard to get in the US, and we currently do not carry it at the BSV. But it is a style worth exploring, with plenty of local breweries offering a Berliner Weisse style beer. With its fruity tartness and low ABV it is a great beer for any season!