You know what I love? Drinking a whole bunch of beer all at once. I mean, I know beer geeks like to go on and on about sitting back and taking your time with a beer. “Sip the beer conservatively, letting it warm up and blossom in your glass like a fine port wine blah blah blah”. I’m a busy guy. Sometimes I want to take a couple of beers to the dome before driving my kids to their soccer game. (Just kidding. About having kids, that is.) But man, with all this Kraft Macaroni Beer or whatever it’s called being 7% and up, it’s tough to pound a six pack without falling on your donkey. Luckily, there’s the wonderful world of session beers, and my personal favorite is the Berliner Weisse. That’s why I usually grab a Berliner when I need to fill up my styrofoam Big Gulp and hit the road. (I’m kidding. Don’t drink and drive).
What the hell is a Berliner Weiss?
Berliners are little guys, usually around 3% ABV. They are are dry, tart, and refreshing. Sometimes, American brewers will get all fancy and make their “Imperial” Berliners upwards of 6%, but technically speaking they shouldn’t be anywhere near that high. Usually consisting of pilsner malt and wheat, the beer has no hop character whatsoever. In fact, sometimes hops aren’t added at all. The beer can be brewed a few different ways, but the most common is a no-boil and a little to no hop mashing process. The tartness comes from the wonderful bacteria Lactobacillus, which is the same stuff found in yogurt that gives it the twang. Occasionally Berliners will have Brettanomyces, a “wild” yeast that produces flavors that craft beer aficionados will refer to as “funky”. Don’t let that dissuade you, though, because even though Berliners feature bacteria and wild yeast, they usually taste quite clean. They are very approachable and kind of like the training wheels of sour beers.
The History of Berliners
You may have guessed that this beer comes from Berlin, Germany. It dates back to the 16th century, and was at one time the most popular alcoholic beverage in Berlin. There is a popular story that in 1809, Napoleon’s troops dubbed this beer the “Champagne of the North”. In recent years, the style has lost its market share and it is difficult to find examples outside of Berlin. In Germany, the beer is almost never served by itself but rather with fruit syrup, raspberry and Woodruff being the most common. While unblended Berliners are fairly common in the United States, you may get a strange look if you order this beer in Germany without the syrup addition. Americans are so cray-cray.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of Berliners floating around compared to more popular styles like IPAs. Luckily, the ones that are available are pretty delicious. Hands down, my favorite is Professor Fritz 1809. This is pretty much the quintessential Berliner Weiss available around here (even though it’s a bit high at around 5% ABV). In my experience, there is some slight bottle variation; some are a bit more sour than others, but they are always fantastic. Another fine example is The Bruery’s Hottenroth, which features both Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces. As with all of The Bruery’s bottled beers, this one comes in a 750ml bottle so it’s perfect for sharing with a few friends. Though there is some debate as to whether or not it’s a true Berliner Weisse, Bell’s Oarsman Ale is a wonderful little beer that is very refreshing. They use a sour mash to produce the tartness, and I usually have a bottle or two in the fridge at all times. Want something a little fruitier? Dogfish Head’s Festina Peche is fermented with peaches, something that isn’t exactly traditional but gives some wonderful sweetness to balance the tartness.
Brewing a Berliner
Unlike pretty much any other sour beer, Berliner Weisse beers are fairly simple to brew and don’t take nearly as long. There are a lot of different techniques that brewers use to create the tart, lemony flavor. Some brewers use a sour mash, which is literally letting the grains partially ferment before adding any yeast. Malted grain is naturally covered in Lactobacillus, so letting the beer sit at around 120 degrees Fahrenheit for a day or two will produce sourness. Then, the brewer can sparge, heat the wort, cool it down, and add ale yeast like any other beer. Another technique is to add the Lacto to the wort before adding any ale yeast. This is the method I have done in the past and I’ve had good results. Giving the Lacto a day or two head start will ensure that there is enough sugar for the bacteria to eat rather than the ale yeast dominating. A third technique is to add the Lacto and ale yeast all at once, though sometimes the ale yeast will ferment the beer out before the bacteria has a chance to consume the sugar and produce acidity. Whatever method you use, you want to keep it warm (around 110-120 degrees) and make sure you don’t add very many hops to the beer as Lactobacillus won’t work in a hoppy environment. Keep your bacteria happy, not hoppy.
So there you have it. Berliner Weisse beers are the nectar of the gods. Very few beers are as both satisfying and refreshing at the same time. Sour beers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Berliners are pretty easy-going. I like to think of them as the alcoholic’s alternative to lemonade. Next time you cut the grass, consider reaching for a Berliner Weisse to cool off.