Will the Real Berliner Weisse Please Stand Up?

No simple kettle sours, these. In Berlin, Schneeeule is waging a battle to revive a more traditional mixed-fermentation Berliner weisse.

Joe Stange Jun 2, 2020 - 15 min read

Will the Real Berliner Weisse Please Stand Up? Primary Image

Schneeeule brewer-blender, Ulrike Genz

The Borsig industrial park is in the north of Berlin, alongside a placid lake called the Tegeler See. The company based there is 182 years old; it built steam engines in the earliest days of rail travel. During World War II, like most German factories, it had to supply the Nazi war effort—thus, it was an unlikely location for a pocket of resistance. Borsig was the secret home of the Mannhart Resistance Group, a cabal of intellectuals and workers who advocated ways to sabotage or slow the war effort. The Nazis discovered and executed some of them. Outside the old factory site are engraved paving stones to remember them.

Renting a small part of that old factory today is another unlikely pocket of resistance, in an equally unlikely location.

“We are in the old women’s toilet,” says Andreas Martin, who is showing me the tiny, cramped, inconspicuous base of operations for Schneeeule. (Yes, there are a lot of vowels in there. Say it, SHNAY-oy-luh.) The name means snowy owl—an appropriate name for an outfit that is truly a rare bird.

Martin is half of the spousal partnership that forms Schneeeule; he is the support act for Ulrike Genz, the brewer-blender-yeast whisperer who arguably has done more than anyone in Germany to revive authentic Berliner weisse.

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Authentic. Now there is a heavy word. What does it mean in this context? It means that, in their view, pretty much the whole world has been imitating the wrong sort of Berliner weisse, copying an industrial product that has little to do with the complex, consummately refreshing drink that people in this city used to guzzle, daily, by the liter.

The ubiquitous brand in Berlin is Kindl Weisse. That one is now brewed by the large Kindl-Schultheiss brewery, owned by Radeburger and its parent, the mammoth food company Dr. Oetker. For years, Kindl was the only brand you could find in Berlin—and it’s the only one American brewers would have found here 10 or even 20 years ago. When you hear about Berliners spiking their beer with red and green syrups, this is the one they mean. These days, it’s often packaged with those flavorings pre-mixed. Without the syrups, it has a sharp, one-dimensional, lactic sourness. It is not especially popular in Berlin. You occasionally see a tourist, or a teenager, or a senior citizen drink one—just one though. It’s a gimmicky beer, a vehicle for those colorful sugar syrups.

“The second wave of American craft brewers came to Berlin, and they wanted to experience Berliner weisse,” Martin says. “Some of them came to Berlin. They came here, and Berliner weisse was a style that was known. But there was no real Berliner weisse left. The only weisse that was left was the Kindl sour. And everybody thought this kettle sour with the artificial flavors was the real thing, and it’s not. Everybody thinks Berliner weisse is a kettle sour with some fruity shit in it, and this is totally not true.”

The beers of Schneeeule, and other local revivalists such as Berliner Berg and Lemke, are not simple kettle sours. These are the complex creations of mixed fermentation, which must include Brettanomyces, and tend to be softly tart rather than sharply sour—and thus they tend to be quite drinkable.

Schneeeule brewer-blender Ulrike Genz

Left: Ulrike Genz, Schneeeule brewer-blender, showing off a bottle of yeast from her library. Right: The brew kitchen, where she brews yeast starters, cooks ingredients, and blends beer.

At the Base of Operations.

This space at Borsig is meant to be a temporary HQ. It’s crammed with boxes and bottles, with a 50-liter brew kitchen tucked into one nook. Genz brews her wort elsewhere—at the CraftZentrum contract brewery in Spandau, on the other end of the lake—then she trucks it back, and they do everything else here by hand: fermenting, blending, bottling, conditioning, and the occasional pilot-batch experiment. The small kit here is for making yeast starters and cooking ingredients, such as ginger or habanero, that are added to the specialty beers.

The couple is looking for a bigger location in Berlin. The search has not been going well. Finding a place they can afford with the space and facilities they need is so far proving impossible. Meanwhile, this glorified storage space can hold no more than about 10,000 liters of beer. Boxes and boxes of filled bottles of various ages are there, stacked, ripening, awaiting their moment.

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Just outside, Genz and Martin set up a table and chairs. They pour a bottle of Marlene for me into a wide chalice, allowing lots of room for a creamy cap of foam. Marlene is the closest thing Schneeeule has to a flagship—it’s simply a mixed-fermentation Berliner weisse, fermented with a combined slurry of Lactobacillus and ale yeast, then conditioned with Brettanomyces. This bottle is four months old—still young by this beer’s standards. It takes a bit of imagination to find the musty-dusty Brett nose. Meanwhile the beer is sparkling, dry, softly tart—not sour—lemony, with a delicate, pillowy texture from the bottle conditioning, and it all starts with that foam. It’s akin to a good Belgian ale. In fact, it’s nearer in character to lambic than any American-type kettle sour.

“That’s Berliner weisse, I think, how it was 200 years ago or 150 years ago,” Genz says. “Moderately sour. Just Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces. Better with bottle fermentation than in the keg.” She likes the bubbles better from bottle conditioning; they have a softer texter and sturdier foam.

Genz tries to keep the acidity at a drinkable level. “It’s a sour beer, but I don’t want it that sour,” she says. “Sour is good, but too sour is too much.” In her view, Kindl Weisse brand is too sour.

She knows when the Berliner weisse bug bit her. It was when she was studying at the VLB brewing school in Berlin. They were having a party, and Kurt Marshall, the brewer of the school’s pilot brewery, had made a Berliner weisse. “It was mixed- fermentation, a good one,” Genz says. “It was interesting. I drank it the whole night without getting really drunk. And the next day was perfect. And I thought hey, that’s your perfect beer style; you can drink it all night and not get hung over.”

Genz went on to study Berliner weisse and wild yeasts in greater depth. These days, she keeps a library of different yeasts she likes, including about seven different strains of Brett that all produce different aromas. There are also some lambic cultures and a mixed-fermentation saison blend. She is always tinkering, trying them out in small amounts of beer and blending.

She points to one bottle and says, “Breithaupt yeast.” That’s a name with deep roots in the history of Berliner weisse, going back to the 18th century. The Breithaupt brewery closed in 1968, but this is one of several yeasts that Genz and others have resurrected from old bottles.

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Genz has more yeasts than she needs. “They are too much,” she says. “Because you can’t play with everything. And so I activate every year one or two favorite cultures, and I use them the whole year. And the next year, something different. My beers are not the same all the time, so it’s different qualities. For me, it’s more interesting to do a same-but-different beer. So the beer geeks can try my beers and not be bored.”

In the old days, Berliners might age their weissbier for many years. As with a beer like Orval, the evolution of the Brett in Schneeeule beers allows you to choose your moment to open it. “People have to know which age they prefer,” Genz says. “I love the really young Berliner weisse…and the really old one.” She developed a liking for the younger beer, she says, because she would inevitably drink it while filling bottles.

The Brett is what drives the aroma in these beers, especially the aged ones. There are less of the horsey, farmy notes that many of us are familiar with. Instead, at their best, there are fruity esters that can resemble stone fruits and berries. Genz says that fermenting with the Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces yeasts first is key to making that work.

“The Brettanomyces makes the special flavor when it has to change bigger carbohydrates, when it has to fight for its food,” she says. “When the fast-fermenting sugars are gone, then it makes the Brettanomyces taste.”
Schneeeule Marlene

Left: A cubitainer of fermenting wort. Right: A glass of Marlene

Schneeeule Technique

Many brewers making beers with Lactobacillus tend to set expectations low when it comes to foam retention; most strains of it chew up the proteins that are good for foam, turning them into amino acids for food. But Genz wants good foam. She opts for less-modified malts, which have proteins less easy for the Lactobacillus to gobble up into pieces. She also employs a complicated mash schedule that sometimes begins with a phytase rest at 95°F (35°C). “Nobody knows the phytase rest anymore because nobody does it,” she says. (This acid rest is seldom used because it can take several hours for the phytase enzyme to lower the mash pH to the desired range.) So why does she do one? “Because I love rests.”

Genz does boil her wort, the hops going in with 45 minutes left in the boil. Based on her own research, she believes many Berliner weisse brewers started boiling their wort sometime around 1900—before that, it wasn’t common. She’s seen brewing texts from around that time that say, “Basically, please cook your wort.”

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However, the Schultheiss brewery is one that didn’t boil well into the 20th century. Genz has had conversations about it with that brewery’s former brewmaster, Wolfram Lange. “He said, ‘Why do you cook it? We didn’t do that.’”

After brewing a 20-hectoliter (roughly 17-barrel/530-gallon) batch of base wort in Spandau, Genz brings it back here to Schneeeule HQ and divides it among four cubitainers. Then she uses the different containers to pitch different yeasts, or add other things, and or blend it to make different beers.

The wort for Marlene, for example, gets a grist of 50-50 pilsner and wheat malts. Generally, its starting gravity is about 8°P (1.032), and it will finish at about 3.5 percent ABV. Primary fermentation lasts about a week. That wort gets about 10 IBUs worth of hops, any variety, which mainly serve to keep the Lactobacillus from producing too much acidity.

On the other hand, Genz’s ginger beer Irmgard is quite sour because it has fewer hops to keep the lactic acid in check. That lactic acid, in turn, slows down the fermentation, so this beer can take 20 days or longer to finish (not counting the weeks or months of bottle conditioning while the Brett evolves).

Other variations on the theme include Kennedy, which is dry hopped with Hallertauer Blanc and Sorachi Ace; and Yasmin, which gets a boost from jasmine flowers. My personal favorite is Otto, which gets a bright berry-floral punch from elderflowers picked alongside the Tegeler See. “The Otto is not vegan,” Martin says, “because there are bugs from cutting the flowers. We use fresh flowers; we don’t dry them.”

Genz is always blending to get the flavor and aroma she wants. “The wort is just your canvas,” Martin says to her. “The blending is fine art, and how you use the yeast, bacteria, and so on. And the love!”

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Genz nods in agreement. She turns to me and adds, “Sometimes I have to sing to it.”

Love is an important motivation, in this case. This is a passion project, and money is tight. They worry that if they can’t find a bigger place with room for a bottling line, they may have to close Schneeeule altogether. (As we went to press, they were hoping to close a deal to rent additional space at Borsig.) Meanwhile the beers are gaining more renown around Europe—and now Shelton Brothers is importing some to the United States—but quantities are small, and the beer is slow to mature.

Meanwhile Schneeeule is doing nothing less than trying to change the world’s idea of what Berliner weisse is, resurrecting an older way of making it, all while trying to make a living at it in a city where it long ago fell out of fashion. Quixotic is an apt description.

“We hope we change it, right now,” Martin says. “We are trying. We are fighting windmills. We’re fighting windmills in Berlin every day. There are not too many people who know what real Berliner weisse is. We are right now in the beginning of bringing it back. But it’s still a long way to go...

“I’m not sure this culture will be as big as it was. We survive in a niche.”

The resistance, in the meantime, is being waged from a former factory lavatory.

Photos: Joe Stange

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