The word came down in early October 2014 that the Nodding Head brewpub in Philadelphia would close by month’s end. This was back during a simpler time in beer when closures weren’t all that common, so news of the closure bounced far and wide.
Among the emails and social- media laments was a common refrain: Not only were we losing a beloved brewery but also its flagship beer, Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse, which was first served in 2000 and is largely credited with introducing the then-obscure style to curious American drinkers.
The following day I was on a train to the City of Brotherly Love for one last (okay, three last) taste of the slightly acidic, tart wheat ale. Each time, I asked for a drop or two of woodruff syrup.
Woodruff is an herb, also known as master of the woods (Waldmeister in German) or sweet woodruff. It has a sweet, hay-like, earthy aroma and taste, and the littlest bit helps to cut the acidity associated with the Berliner-weisse style. I was first introduced to it at Nodding Head in 2001, and as more breweries around the country started offering Berliner weisse, most would offer the syrup as well (along with raspberry syrup).
By 2014 however, when the Berliner- weisse style had taken a sharp turn and breweries such as J. Wakefield Brewing (Miami, Florida) started making “Florida-weisse” or fruited Berliners, the syrups were left behind, a sticky memory of a beer era quickly disappearing in the rearview mirror.
Because brewers are adding fruit or flavorings to their Berliners before they are served to us drinkers, it’s less common to get an unadulterated version of the style, and therefore there’s no need for syrups.
Woodruff, as an ingredient, is also harder to come across than raspberry. It’s a German herb, harvested in the summer. While there are some online retailers that offer premade syrups, often these are too sweet and lack the true herbal nature. There are few breweries that go through the trouble of making it themselves.
The ones that do, however, deserve a standing ovation.
“People really don’t know about it. It’s fun to see how much people like it in a Berliner when they think they’ll like the raspberry better,” says Jeremy Lees, the founder and brewer of Flounder Brewing Co. (Hillsborough Township, New Jersey). He makes woodruff syrup each summer for the release of his Berliner weisse and puts it on offer in the brewery’s taproom (along with raspberry syrup and elderflower syrup). “I just do a simple water/sugar mix, with a pound of sugar and a quart of water. I bring it to a boil and add the woodruff. Then I turn down the heat and let it simmer for about 20 minutes, then strain the liquid, cool, and serve.”
Now a word about raspberry: there’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it’s such a common flavor that shows up in everything from iced tea to lollipops, breakfast cereal, and, oh yeah, so many other beers. It’s ubiquitous as a fruit and, in that sense, uninspired. I know there are people who prefer it when it’s the only other option to woodruff, but honestly, it’s the lesser of the two flavorings. Woodruff is uniquely suited for Berliner weisse, and everyone should have the opportunity to experience the flavor.
So it’s time to bring back the woodruff syrup, even if it means raspberry comes along for the ride. Generations of Berliner-loving beer drinkers were brought up on the stuff, and it’s a tradition that needs a revival.
This is an appeal to all the brewers out there—professional brewers and homebrewers alike: give us your unadorned, your simple, your traditional Berliner weisses, and in a simple shaker bottle, give us some woodruff syrup.
All we need is a drop, and you’re our only hope.
[Editor's note: Woodruff has a long history of being cited for its health benefits, but it also contains a mildly toxic compound called coumarin, which may cause liver damage if ingested in sufficient amounts or over prolonged periods. The US Food and Drug Administration allows its use for alcoholic beverages.]