In 1809, as Bonaparte’s troops occupied Berlin, they described a wonderful local potable: spritzy, tart, light in alcohol, and thirst-quenching, dubbing it “The Champagne of the North.” This brew was none other than Berliner Weiße, the German capital city’s take on both wheat beer and lactobacillus-tempered sour ale.
This obscure style’s origins are clouded in history, dating back at least to the 16th century, but it was possibly introduced into Prussia by way of migrating Huguenots from France, who would have encountered Flemish Sour Reds and Oud Bruins as they passed through the Low Countries. Wherever it originated, it has remained a fixture of the city for centuries, and holds its own today in a market crowded with international lagers.
The beer, on its own, looks rather like champagne in a glass: pale straw-colored and extremely bubbly. It is quite tart on the tongue and spritzy on the palate. It has a definite wheat presence as well: it’s no hefeweizen, to be sure, but the grainy wheat malt flavor is unmistakable. Some (the present author included) enjoy this unadulterated sour beverage straight up, but much more common is to have it served red or green — that is, with the addition of fruit syrups, traditionally raspberry or woodruff. which both alter the color of the beverage in the glass, and cut the sourness with their fruit sugars.
I happened upon a bottle of traditionally-brewed Berliner Weisse from Prof. Fritz Briem of the Doemans Institute, who brews creative historical ales in conjunction with Weihenstephaner. I aged it in my cellar for 12 months or so, which certainly did it no harm! For the tasting, I divided the bottle into two glasses: one, ohne Schuss (without syrup), and the other with the addition of some downright amazing homemade blackberry syrup I had made. While the blackberry is not one of the traditional options, it’s fairly close to raspberry, and quite honestly I don’t give a damn because blackberries are among the choicest foods on the planet. I was skeptical that I would enjoy the syrup-laden version as much as the plain, but I have to say that even as I find the plain version delicious, the addition of the syrup brings the beer to life: not only is it beautiful to behold, but the (only slightly-sweet) fruit syrup heightens the Weisse’s nuances and makes it an incredibly well-rounded summer-afternoon beer. The fruit also brings out the brew’s kinship with the Belgian Lambic family.
We at Perm’s Picks are happy to know that we will be exploring — and enjoying — this style much more in the future.