What Is a Berliner Weisse?

Trying exciting, new beer styles is an adventure for both beer novices and certified cicerones, both of whom can be curious about trying different blends and learning what makes up their complex flavors. No survey of beer is complete without trying, at least once, a Berliner Weisse. We’d wager after one experience, you’ll be back for more.

The Berliner Weisse is a traditional German beer that enjoyed the height of its popularity in the mid-century. Though its popularity was waning, craft brewers in the United States have rebirthed this beer into a new second-coming. You can find Berliner-style Weisse beers dotting the map from brewers in practically all fifty states.

A comfortable step away from traditional Oktoberfest beer so synonymous with Germany, you’ll want to give this beer a try long before summer wanes into fall. Berliner Weisse is light and sessionable and the perfect addition to a summer afternoon.

The team at TapRm loves exceptional beer. That’s why we’ve got everything you need to know about how Berliner Weisse was originally brewed, changes made since its original release in the early 19th century, and what you can expect from its complex profile. We’ll also throw in a few recommendations so you can sample this libation right in your own home (no trip to the local market or pub necessary).

How Berliner Weisse Is Made

Before we talk about how Berliner Weisse is made, let’s generally cover how beer is made to better understand how different fermentation processes affect the resulting brews. While the hops and spices added to beer influence the flavor, the fermentation style arguably plays the most important role in shaping a particular brew’s overall flavor profile.

The Beer Making Process

  1. Malting. Beer is made from grain, usually barley. The first step in the beer-making process is the drying and cracking of the grains, called malting. Some beer contains other grains. “Weisse,” in German, translates to “wheat.” Thus, Berliner Weisse beers contain malted wheat grain.

    The wheat contained in Berliner Weisse gives it a smooth, bread-like finish, which helps add sweetness and balances the acidity.

  2. Mashing. Once the grains have malted, they are added to hot water. The hot water causes the grains to release their flavonoids and sugars. After a period of time determined by the brewer, the grains are then strained from the remaining liquid, called the wort.

  3. Boiling. The boiling process is determined by the brewer. Shorter boils will yield different results than longer boils. During boiling, the brewer adds hops, spices, and any other flavors needed to perfect their desired end result.

    • Interestingly, Berliner Weisse wasn’t boiled initially. Instead, hops were boiled and then added to the mash, which increased the mash temperature. This was problematic, though, because there was no sterilization of the wort without boiling.

4. Fermentation. Fermentation creates the alcohol content in beer. During fermentation, yeast is added to the wort. The yeast eats the sugar in the wort and produces alcohol. Fermentation can last months to years, depending on the type of beer the brewer is making.

    During fermentation, beer gains very specific taste profiles that separate it into three different categories: lager, ale, or sour.

    Fermentation

    Arguably, there are only two types of beer; lagers and ales. They’re classified according to how they are fermented, with ales being top-fermented and lagers being bottom-fermented. Sours are fermented using a different method, called wild fermentation, but are often still thought of as ales.

    However, beers like Berliner Weisse are fermented slightly differently. This makes it hard to fit them neatly into the ale or lager category and places them slightly outside of the sour fermentation process.

    What Are Ales?

    Top fermentation occurs when the wort is hot. Through the top fermentation process, a yeast called saccharomyces cerevisiae, or “S. cerevisiae,” is added to the wort when the temperature is around 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Craft beers, your favorite IPAs, and practically anything you’ll find at a microbrewery will be in the ale family.

    What Are Lagers?

    Bottom fermenting is different from top-fermenting. A different yeast is used, saccharomyces pastorianus, or “S. pastorianus.” Not only is the yeast different, but the process is also different too.

    Bottom fermentation occurs when the wort is at its lowest temperature, around 41-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Lagers take longer to ferment and are stored or “lagered” for long periods of time. Lagers are the beers that introduced you to beer. Budweiser, Coors, and Michelob are all examples of lagers.

    What Are Sours?

    Sours are fermented through a process called wild fermentation. During this type of fermentation, a different yeast called Brettanomyces or “brett” is used alongside lactobacillus and/or pediococcus bacteria to produce a uniquely tart flavor.

    Sours can also be fermented in open barrels, allowing natural yeasts and microorganisms to ferment the beer. This usually results in an unpredictable flavor.

    You either love or hate a sour beer. Flavor descriptions range from barnyard to leather and every imaginable funky palette twisting taste in between. Sours have a cult following and have steadily risen in popularity over the past decade. You can even find sours on tap at some pubs.

    Berliner Weisse

    Why can’t we classify Berliner Weisse as an ale, lager, or sour? The fermentation process is too different. In the beginning, Berliner Weisse was fermented with lactic acid, similar to a sour. Because the wort was never boiled and only had a slightly higher temperature due to the addition of the boiled hops, numerous microorganisms could live in the wort during fermentation. The result was a dry, somewhat acidic beer.

    Today, Berliner Weisse brewed in Germany uses an entirely separate fermentation process that results in a more controlled and consistent flavored beer. The fermentation happens outside of the wort and is added to the beer, giving the brewmaster complete control over the resulting beer.

    In the United States, craft brewers use lactic acid and yeast, and occasionally brett yeast, to create brews that more closely resemble sours. Because of this, you’ll be more likely to find a Berliner Weisse-style beer alongside the sours in the refrigerator case.

    The History of Berliner Weisse

    You’ve probably already guessed that this beer originated in the area in and around current-day Berlin. From the 17th to 20th century, the beer evolved and became its own style.

    The tart, slightly fruity flavor of Berliner Weisse was so enjoyable and drinkable that it was dubbed the “Champagne of the North” by Napoleon’s troops, who enjoyed it and found it a nice change from the traditional lagers they were used to.

    In fact, most of Germany’s beers were light, easy-drinking lagers with about a 3% ABV. Initially crafted from a 50/50 blend of barley and wheat, Berliner Weisse was more akin to an ale, well-loved but completely unpredictable.

    As previously explained, the lack of sterilization by boiling the wort combined with the semi-wild fermentation process resulted in inconsistent flavor and body, leaving Berlin Weisse drinkers dissatisfied.

    Attempts to control the outcome of the beer were successful, but by the mid 19th century, the style had reached its climax of popularity. After that, the beer virtually became extinct.

    The Addition of Syrups to Berliner Weisse

    Any traditional Berliner Weisse style beer will likely be served with the addition of a few drops of syrup, keeping with the tradition of how the beer was initially given to patrons at a pub. Even though the Berliner Weisse we enjoy today is usually low-gravity, it didn’t start that way.

    Berliner Weisse was much higher in alcohol content but was usually watered down to taste by local pubs or at home by the consumer. Because of the highly acidic content of the beer, flavored simple syrups were added, effectively cutting the acidity and giving the beer a sweeter, smoother flavor.

    The most popular syrups used in Berliner Weisse were woodruff and raspberry.

    The Battle of the Syrups

    Traditional Berliner Weisse was always served with simple syrup. It was usually a drop of flavored oil combined with sugar water added to the beer to cut the acidity and add a slightly more intense flavor.

    Berliner Weisse purists will argue that no other syrup besides woodruff syrup belongs in a Berliner Weisse. From a popularity standpoint, raspberry syrup is usually the crowd pick.

    Woodruff Syrup

    A German herb, woodruff is a wild-growing plant with a slight hay-like flavor. Its syrup is green, which gives the beer a greenish tint. This herb is earthy in aroma and most closely resonates with the familiar “barnyard” flavor you’d find in a classic lambic-style sour.

    One small drop of woodruff syrup is enough to make an impact on a pint of Berliner Weisse, but woodruff is hard to come by and not nearly as popular as its raspberry counterpart. Additionally, with a more controlled fermentation process, today’s Berliner Weisse beers are less acidic, which means the addition of powerfully potent woodruff isn’t really necessary.

    There’s also the pesky problem of coumarin, a mildly toxic chemical found in woodruff. While anecdotal evidence supports the use of woodruff for health benefits, coumarin is, at the very least, concerning, especially for people who suffer from liver conditions.

    It’s true you’d need to consume a lot of woodruff syrup to be in danger of coumarin toxicity, but if you already have weak liver function, this could take it off the table for you completely.

    Raspberry Syrup

    There’s nothing especially interesting about raspberry syrup, but it’s familiar and exceptionally well-liked. It’s easier to obtain than woodruff syrup, doesn’t contain any problematic toxins, and reminds people of flavors they’ve grown up with.

    Raspberry syrup also gave the beer a warmer, amber/red color that was preferable to the green tint of woodruff.

    Today, you’re more likely to find Berliner Weisse beers pre-flavored with fruit juice and extracts instead of actual syrups.

    Where Is Berliner Weiss Made?

    To understand anything about German beers, you’ll need to appreciate how seriously they are taken. So seriously, in fact, that an entire edict was written about how they could be made and where they could be made.

    The Reinheitsgebot, a 500-year-old law that governs how German breweries make beer, is still in effect today. Often referred to as the beer purity law, it guides breweries in the brewing process. If a brewery wants to craft a beer outside of the scope of Reinheitsgebot, they have to get special permission.

    The law relates to Berliner Weisse in that it states that brewing is only allowable within the city limits of Berlin. Despite this restriction, only two breweries currently make Berliner Weisse in the city, and it’s made without the combination of yeast and bacteria that originally gave it its famed flavor.

    Craft brewers in the United States have recently begun to experiment with Berliner Weisse and have been largely responsible for their sudden spike in popularity. Although you’ll rarely find any Berliner Weisse that closely resembles the original, you’ll get an entire tasting experience when you sample them.

    Berliner Weisse Profile

    Those looking for a beer encounter won’t be disappointed with a Berliner Weisse. These highly complex brews are similar in aroma, body, and flavor to wine and definitely worthy of at least a ten-minute conversation with the bartender about what you’re sampling.

    What Color Is Berliner Weisse?

    The color of Berliner Weisse-style beers is pale to golden. They usually range from straw gold to slightly yellow. If they’ve been flavored with syrup, expect a tint from the type of syrup used. You’ll also notice a bit of haze from the hops. Don’t expect the depth of a hazy IPA, but a slight cloud in the brew is common.

    What Aroma Does Berliner Weisse Have?

    On the nose, the encounter can truly differ from individual to individual. Many liken the initial waft to the dry funk of Sauvignon Blanc, with notes of passion fruit or even apple cider. The finish smells of white cracker or bread.

    Does a Berliner Weisse Have Carbonation?

    Napoleon’s troops referred to Berliner Weisse as the Champagne of the North due to the massive amount of light, small bubbles that definitely resembled champagne fizz. The head on a Berliner Weisse is rapidly fading, and the light carbonation is gentle and inviting.

    What Palate/Body Does Berliner Weisse Have?

    The wheat grain inclusion in Berliner contributes to the cloudiness and medium body common in this style of beer. The wheat balances perfectly with the fermentation to produce the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, but unlike some wheat beers, this isn’t where the party ends.

    What Flavor Does Berliner Weisse Have?

    The flavor of the original Berliner Weisse was mildly tart, acidic, and slightly funky. The lactobacillus content lends itself to the classic descriptions used for sour beers like barnyard, farmhouse, leather, and hay.

    Today, you’ll more likely find flavors like passion fruit and sauvignon blanc to come forward first, followed by earthier flavors. If you’ve been reluctant to try a true sour, this would be a good excursion that would take you close to the edge without actually committing.

    ABV

    Berliner Weisse is still highly sessionable, with an average ABV anywhere between 3%-5%, making it a relatively low alcohol beer. These are light beers with complex flavors and the right choice for a sour lover looking for a little lower-gravity funk.

    Berliner Weisse Options To Try

    At TapRm, our registry of craft beer is always evolving and changing. We’ve seen some magnificent Berliner Weisse styles come across our storefront, but they don’t usually last long. The takeaway: when you see a Berliner Weisse you’d like to try, jump on it fast.

    Right now, we’re loving Mikkeller Brewing Company’s Raspberry Blush. The Danes make a great beer, and their San Diego-based operation recently produced a sour that is a twisted take on the classic Berliner Weisse with raspberry syrup.

    Flavored with raspberries and rich coffee flavor, this brew is effectively funky and slightly acidic. Medium-bodied, with an ABV of 4%, it’s still got plenty of room for sessionability.

    We also love Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s Sea Quench Ale. This mashup of Kolsch, Gose, and Berliner Weiss is brewed with plenty of lime and sea salt to create a tart, citrus explosion that is part beer, part wine, and undeniably margarita-like in flavor. We guarantee you’ve never had anything like this before.

    The salty-sweet malt finish is refreshing, fruity, and drinkable year-round. The ABV of 4.9% gives it the perfect balance of heft and sessionability.

    As always, be on the lookout for new brews cruising through our storefront. We can’t help that exceptional beer goes fast, but it usually does.

    The TapRm Difference

    Depending on where you live, it can be hard to get your hands on a Berliner Weisse, even if you try local pubs. The heart of American beer-making lies in the smaller microbreweries that dot the map. Unfortunately, microbrewing the best beer has two problems:

    1. The cost to get great beer to your consumers is high, and shipping across state lines is often full of red tape.
    2. Getting your beer into the mouths of beer connoisseurs can be difficult without a heavy advertising budget and the ability to ship nationwide.

    TapRM exists to fix these problems and connect passionate brewmasters with equally passionate beer drinkers. We make it possible for you to experience beer you simply can’t find in your hometown. That beer you loved from your New England vacation? We’ve probably got it.

    By connecting beer drinkers and beer makers across the nation, we’re building a better and more accessible infrastructure. We want to allow microbrewers to still focus their time and attention on their craft and reach a larger population of obsessed consumers simultaneously (but without the massive marketing and logistics price tag).

    German Beer Without the Airfare

    You don’t need a trip to Germany to sample great German beer. The Berliner Weisse style of beer is making a comeback, right here in the United States. With a complex flavor profile, mild acidity, and zippy citrus notes you’re used to in your favorite sour, the Berliner Weisse is a lighter version that won’t turn your mouth inside out on first sip.

    For access to the best up-and-coming Berliner Weisse styles, trust your taste buds to TapRm. We’ve got our finger on the pulse of beer culture, and it shows in our selection of unique beers from the best microbreweries across the country.

    Don’t wait for October to get your German beer fix. TapRm has the Berliner Weisse styles you love, delivered right to your door.

    Sources:

    What is a Cicerone? | Cicerone

    Woodruff, Sweet Uses, Benefits & Dosage | Drugs.com Herbal Database

    How a 500-year-old law makes German beer what it is today | Matadornetwork.com

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