There was a time in German history when its Northern states were producing styles stranger than anything you’d find at the most unconventional of craft breweries today. This was a magical time of experimentation, well before the nationwide adoption of the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law.
Like any other cuisine, local specialties arose in every town. Dortmund had their heavily-hopped Adambier, Jena their smoked Lichtenhainer and of course Berlin, their light and fruity Weisse. These beers shared similarities in that they were often malted with some percentage of wheat, as well as being fermented partially by bacteria. Strains such as Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces, although they weren’t known by name back then, were introduced into the beer, resulting in sour and tart characteristics after fermentation.
Unfortunately, many of these styles have become extinct, losing out in popularity to bottom-fermenting Pilsner-style beers. Of those that remain, Berliner Weisse is likely the most well-known, adopted by many a craft brewery today in the search for refreshing tastes and new flavours.
The origins of Berliner Weisse are difficult to trace, but one theory suggests it was a copy of an unknown beer from Hamburg, named Halberstädter Broihan, popular in the 1640’s. Another theory points to the Huguenots, French Protestants that were relocating to avoid persecution under the Catholic Louis XIV. Some eventually settled in Berlin after travels through Belgium, where they had learned the souring technique used in Flanders red and brown ales.
The method of souring Flanders ales and Berliner Weisses was not via true spontaneous fermentation. Rather, the wort was typically unboiled, such that any bacteria on the grains was not sterilised. Then, yeast was pitched (which is not performed when making spontaneously fermented beers) resulting in maturation with a mix of both yeast and bacteria. Acidification occurred at multiple stages throughout this process, meaning that it was difficult to control and the beer’s sourness often varied wildly. It wasn’t until the 19th century that brewers could better control the ratios of the yeast and lactic parts, resulting in a more consistent flavour.
At the height of its popularity in the 19th century, almost 700 breweries in Berlin were producing the style. However, like many native North German beers, its existence became threatened by Pilsner-style beers migrating from the south, first from the Czech Republic and then Bavaria. After the Cold War, while many styles disappeared around it, Berliner Weisse held strong and became an East German speciality. However, it had become too tart for modern tastes and was often flavoured “mit Schuss,” with a sweet syrup. Even today, a common way to drink Weisse in Berlin is either “rot” (red) or “grün” (green), containing Himbeere (raspberry) or Waldmeister (woodruff) syrups, respectively.
In modern times, Berliner Weisse’s popularity in its hometown has dwindled significantly. Only two breweries produce it, Berliner Kindle and Schultheiss. It has a sort of geographic protection throughout the European Union, only when produced in Berlin can it legally be called “Berliner Weisse.” Unlike a style such as Champagne, which has worldwide protection, this restriction only applies in Europe. Therefore, many other international brewers are still legally allowed to name the style as such.
Some examples of the style...
Brossard, Quebec, Canada
This true-to-style Berliner Weisse is part of this Quebec brewery’s Hors Série, meaning “occasional.” Brewed with Canadian malts and German Mittelfrüh hops, it’s a perfect example of how this old style has translated into the modern tastes. Retaining the mouth-puckering sourness of a traditional Berliner Weisse, it ends clean and dry, not unlike a tart Champagne. It also boasts a low alcohol content at 3%, typical of beer styles in the 18th and 19th century, resulting in a very pleasant and refreshing drink.
Berliner Kindl Weiss mit Schuss Waldmeister | Berliner Kindle Brauerei *Not For Sale In Australia
Produced by one of the two remaining brands in Berlin, this beer gets its brilliant green colour from the addition of Waldmeister. The herbal syrup is intended to cut through the tart flavours, resulting in a very sweet beer. In Berlin, the Weisse is often served this way in warmer weather, typically drunk through a straw. Berliner Kindl also produces Raspberry and Elderflower versions of this beer, coloured bright red and yellow respectively.
As they’re based in the European Union, Buxton has avoided the “Berliner” nomenclature, opting to use the French word with the same meaning. This take on a Berliner Weisse uses roasted malts alongside the wheat, resulting in competing flavours of smoke and sour. It was first produced as the sixth and last in a series of Belgian-inspired beers, using a strain of yeast leftover from an original Patersbier, thus the label is adorned with the Roman numeral “VI.” Other beers in the series included a Blonde, a Quadrupel and a Belgian IPA, indicating this leans more towards a Belgian interpretation than a German one.
Orbost, VIC, Australia
Husband and wife team Chris and Gabbie Moore opened their brewery just last year, housed in an old butter factory in rural Victoria. They focus on more eclectic styles, but retain an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. Altocumulus is intended to be a Weisse brewed with various fruits depending on the season, the first being brewed with Mandarins for summer. This autumn version is made with Blueberries, which allow the tartness of the style to be preserved, while offering a competing sweetness and brilliant off-red colour.