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Style School: Berliner Weisse Is Legion

The traditional white beer from Berlin has had many guises over the centuries, from simpler Lacto sours to fruit-packed smoothies, via enigmatic, mixed-fermentation constructions more closely aligned with its history.

Jeff Alworth Jul 26, 2021 - 14 min read

Style School: Berliner Weisse Is Legion Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

It’s usually easy work to tell the story of a style. Berliner weisse, however, presents a philosophical challenge unlike any in beer: What is it, exactly? Is it a complex beer made with mixed fermentation, aged with Brettanomyces, and bottle-conditioned? Is it a simple wheat beer with lactic acid and sugar syrups? Is it a kettle-soured ale sweetened with fresh fruit? Does it contain smoked malt? Does it contain hops? Is the wort boiled?

To all of these questions, in variations dating back centuries, the answer, sometimes, has been “yes.”

The style has been so confusing that until 2016, the Great American Beer Festival style guidelines strictly forbade the use of Brettanomyces, despite it being a key component of Berlin’s more complex versions for most of the 20th century. It’s understandable. The name dates to as far back as 1600, but since then it has changed so much that an example from one era is hardly recognizable in another. That pattern is playing out again: The classic style is enjoying a revival, even while American brewers repurpose it yet again.

Kühle Blonde

How different were these different versions? Before the mid-19th century, Berlin brewers often made their weisse with smoked malt, akin to grodziskie. We call it a wheat beer, but even that wasn’t always true—as recently as the postwar period of the 20th century, some breweries made all-barley examples (a good reminder that “white” beer doesn’t always mean wheat beer). More typically, Berliner weisse was a beer of two-thirds wheat and one-third barley, but that ratio varied over time and by brewery. Older versions may have used oats. The strengths, too, varied substantially; many were brewed to 11° or 12° Plato (OG 1.044–1.048), and some were as strong as bocks. They seemed to have high carbonation and a tart zing in common—but almost everything else seemed up for grabs.

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Its mass popularity grew as Berliners entered what we might consider their “classical” period in the mid-19th century. The number of breweries making them ticked up from a dozen at midcentury to four dozen by 1900. Mash schedules and approaches varied; sometimes breweries boiled their wort, other times not. In some cases, they even boiled hops in water separately to add after mashing. One rationale for not boiling the wort was apparently color—for weisse, the paler the better.

Critically, by that point, they were using a mixed fermentation that included lactic and alcohol fermentations (together or separate) along with Brettanomyces—the use of which elevated a simple, rustic beer into a complex, highly accomplished one with a growing reputation.

To use one example, the British writer Henry Vizetelly, Berlin correspondent for the Illustrated London News, rhapsodized about the local specialty in 1879: “Berlin is the city of all others where the kühle blonde is obtained in the greatest perfection.” He went on to describe the “cool blonde’s” effervescence and “sharp, dry” flavor—all hallmarks of the celebrated brew. Many cities had their own beer style, but few were as famous as Berlin’s.

Lagers—riding pilsner’s success into the North—began to erode the style’s popularity, however. The World Wars did further damage. By 1920 there were just nine Berliner weisse brewers, a number that never again exceeded 14. Another trend permanently changed the character of the beer: the addition of a shot of sweet syrup to cut the acidity. Historian Ron Pattinson traced that practice back to at least 1900, but toward the end of the century, it became ubiquitous.

By 1977, when Michael Jackson was first writing about Berliner weisse, he observed that “Germans are equally surprised at the thought of drinking a Berliner Weisse without a schuss (a dash of raspberry juice) or Waldmeister (essence of woodruff).” By this point, weisse was no longer the toast of Berlin—it was a kind of nostalgic specialty drink people enjoyed from time to time. If the syrups helped appeal to increasingly sweet palates, they did nothing to keep serious beer drinkers engaged. Now stained red or green, Berlin’s “kühle blonde” was headed toward obscurity.

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The Importance of Brett

At that point there were only four breweries in East and West Berlin making the beer. By the new millennium, the number had dropped to two. In 2006, they merged. One of the two, Schultheiss, still made the beer the old way, with mixed-culture primary fermentation and a lengthy maturation with Brett. The other, Berliner Kindl, scrapped the Brett, using only sharp lactic acidity to balance the sweetness of the syrups. Even before the demise of Schultheiss, though, the old way of making Berliner weisse was falling down a memory hole. Afterward, the use of Brett seems to have been forgotten entirely.

Why is it important? Because Lactobacillus creates a layer of acidity that is bright and refreshing but monochromatic. It lacks depth and complexity. Berliner weisse made with Lacto alone can quench like a glass of lemonade, but it won’t win plaudits for accomplishment. Add Brett, however, and a series of biochemical changes transform the beer.

Alan Taylor, cofounder of Zoiglhaus Brewing in Portland, Oregon, learned about Berliner weisse at Berlin’s VLB brewing university, where the knowledge of Brett still resided. Wild yeast takes the acids produced during lactic fermentation and converts them to esters, he learned. “The ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate levels are significantly higher in the traditional product,” he says, referring to Brett-conditioned Berliner weisse. “Those esters are being created by the interplay of acid production from the bacteria and the Brett.”

He pointed out that a beer with Brett alone would also lack the complexity of a beer that started with higher acidity. “Brett on its own also doesn’t create the levels of the mixed pitch. Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces synergistically create a much more complex beer.” Beers made the traditional way have the bell-like acidity of lactic acid but also the woodiness and attenuation of Brett. But their hallmark, and the quality that elevates them, is a tropicality that is sometimes so vivid you’re certain fruit has been used. It’s delicate—sometimes more aroma than taste—but unmistakable.

Berliners actually experimented with a version of Lacto-only kettle souring. One brewer, Otto Franke, implemented it in the early 1900s. It had many advantages, including a safer, more reliable process for producing consistent beer. The one drawback, however, was a terminal one: It produced a pleasant-tasting beer, but one without the character of a true Berliner weisse. He abandoned the practice after a couple of years.

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The Revival

Public knowledge of traditional Berliner weisse may have dissipated while Lacto-only Kindl came to represent the style, but a few diehards remembered. Fortunately for Berliner weisse, Berlin had VLB. Not only did it contain materials related to historic production of the style, but one professor there, Kurt Marshall, was a champion of the traditional product. He inspired students to revive the unadulterated, mixed-fermentation originals. (Perhaps if more cities had brewing schools, more styles would have survived.)

A few Berlin brewers, including Lemke, revived traditional examples, but the most notable was Ulrike Genz. She founded Schneeeule (“snowy owl”), a brewery devoted exclusively to traditionally inspired versions of the style (see “Will the Real Berliner Weisse Please Stand Up?, beerandbrewing.com). She’d discovered Berliner weisse in the form of a homebrewed batch Marshall had served at a summer gathering, and it sparked her imagination. She wanted to brew a version herself. “It wasn’t that easy,” she said, “because no one knew how to grow Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus.”

To bone up, she read 100-year-old technical manuals, a 1987 Ph.D. dissertation, and old Brauwelt magazines, and she eventually tracked down the last Schultheiss brewmaster, 75-year-old Wolfram Lange. They hit it off, and Lange gave her a brewer’s most precious possession: his brewing logs—ten thick folders of them. He also conveyed the collected knowledge of his lifetime brewing to her—the stuff that didn’t appear in the logs.

Genz set out to make the traditional weissbier that once made the city famous. In her process, she co-pitches a Sacch strain and Lacto for primary fermentation, then she pitches the Brettanomyces. Over time, Genz has collected multiple cultures from different bottles of old beer and maintains a collection of Brettanomyces strains that she uses improvisationally across her line. Schneeeule’s flagship is the unadorned, classic Berliner weisse she calls Marlene, but she also makes versions that are dry hopped, jasmine-infused, and one that uses darker malts. (Note: A homebrew-scale recipe for Schneeeule Marlene is available at beerandbrewing.com.)

The VLB research inspired American brewers too, including Zoiglhaus’s Taylor and August Schell’s Jace Marti. After attending the Berlin school a decade ago, Marti was so enchanted by the style that he converted 10 large cypress tanks—purchased after Prohibition but in disuse—into aging vessels for an entire Berliner weisse program at the family’s New Ulm, Minnesota, brewery. “I made it a pet project of mine to learn everything I could about Berliner weisse while I was in Berlin,” he says.

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Marti first split his batches in 2012 when he started the program, pitching the Lacto and Sacch separately before later blending them back together. The half with Lacto kept picking up ambient Saccharomyces, however, and after a couple years he reasoned that he could pitch a blend of the two, which is the current process.

He also reached out to Lange, getting a crash course similar to Genz’s, and adopted a practice Schultheiss used. Besides the yeast and bacteria, they added aged beer during primary fermentation. “It’s like a sourdough process,” Marti said. “It would help lower the pH, but it would also help bring some of that residual character into the new batch.” Now that’s what Schell’s does routinely, adding a 10- to 15-percent portion of aged beer to the wort. Much like Schneeeule, Schell’s also offers variations on the theme, making stronger versions, one-offs with different ingredients, even dark “weisses”—but always with the same traditional approach.

Sweetness Returns

The final—or current—direction of Berliner weisse also recalls an earlier, but different, era. Beginning a decade ago, American brewers started making fruited sours they called Berliner weisse. Like Kindl, they were soured with only Lactobacillus, while brewers added their own sweet schuss of fruit flavors during fermentation. And why not? Sweet-and-sour is a classic combination, and they made fun, Day-Glo summer quenchers that became especially popular down south. In fact, the Sunshine State made such a specialty of them, the phrase “Florida weisse” came into vogue.

The American interest in fruitiness, fueled by a renaissance in hop varieties and hopping techniques, led to a parallel trend in milkshake IPAs that eventually collided with these fruity American weisses. “Slushie” or “smoothie” sours, variously called gose, Berliner weisse, or something else, have emerged as a popular complement to milkshake IPAs. Typically made with titanic amounts of fruit, they use lactic acidity to structure the drink—even if the acid is sometimes lost amid the sweetness.

The result of all this is that walking into a pub these days and ordering “Berliner weisse” can be a roll of the dice. Will it be an 8-percent-strength beer the color of merlot or a spare 3.5-percent wild ale—complex, austere, and the color of September straw?

This stylistic fraying can be frustrating to traditionalists, but in this case, the frustration may be misplaced. Both of those expressions have historical precedent. And whatever you happen to think of the flamboyant expressions out there now, one thing’s for sure: The situation—with all its sizes and shapes and colors—is far better than Berliner weisse’s near-extinction as recently as 15 years ago—because “Berliner weisse” is so much more than a style—it’s a tradition that contains multitudes.

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