Sunday, May 24, 2009

Know Your Styles: Berliner Weisse

As the French Protestants Reformers known as the Huguenots were making their way to Flanders in the 1600s, they documented a particular beer as they passed through Berlin. Later in 1809, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops decided to celebrate their Prussian victory with that same type of beer, which the Napoleon referred to as the "Champagne of the North". That beer, of course, is Berliner Weisse.

Berliner Weiss is a very specific style of wheat beer most often originating from Berlin, Germany. An interesting note about this style is that is one of the lowest in alcohol among all styles, with the the BJCP guidelines listing it between 2.8-3.8% ABV. The two examples I enjoyed were Bayerischer Bahnof Lepzig (3%) and 1809 by Dr. Fritz Briem (unusual at 5%).

Interesting facts
Unlike any other beer I can think of, it is served in a large goblet with a straw. Because of its sour taste, it is commonly drunk mixed with raspberry (Himbeersirup), woodruff (Waldmeistersirup) syrup, or lemon (Zitronensirup) and is then called Weiße mit Schuss (Weiße with a shot [of syrup]). The mixtures are called Berliner Weiße rot, grün, or gelb respectively. This mixed drink is very refreshing in the hot summer months and is served throughout Berlin. For my tasting, Paul provided authentic German raspberry syrup. I decided to drink half way through, then mix the syrup in.

As described in one of my homebrew books and also on the label of the 1809, the wort or a portion of the wort in this beer is not boiled. The boiling kills off the natural bacteria to allow the yeast to ferment the beer without other "critters" infecting your finished beer.

This beer has been described by some as the most purely refreshing beer in the world.

What you should be smelling
A sharply sour, somewhat acidic character is dominant. Can have up to a moderately fruity character. The fruitiness may increase with age and a flowery character may develop. A mild Brettanomyces aroma may be present. No hop aroma. The 1809 was much more sharp in sourness than the BBL, but the BBL did show some light fruit notes.

What you should be seeing
Very pale straw in color. Clarity ranges from clear to somewhat hazy. Large, dense, white head with poor retention due to high acidity and low protein and hop content. Always effervescent. The 1809 poured like champagne as you can see in the pictures. The BBL was very similar to most other wheat beers, but lost it's head quickly.

What you should be tasting
Clean lactic sourness dominates and can be quite strong, although not so acidic as a lambic. Some complementary bready or grainy wheat flavor is generally noticeable. Hop bitterness is very low. A mild Brettanomyces character may be detected, as may a restrained fruitiness (both are optional). Again, no hops. I didn't even pick up light bitterness. The 1809 came through with the sour, but was not sharp. You might expect a real sour kick from the aroma, but it's not really like that.

What you should be tasting with syrup
Awesomeness. The super sweet syrup rounds off the sourness and turns this into a happy little mixed drink. It wasn't bad at all to start, but this is like raspberry Kool-Aid with a tiny punch. Ohh-Yeah!

Additonal comments from the BJCP guidelines
Wheat malt content is typically 50% of the grist (as with all German wheat beers) with the remainder being Pilsner malt. A symbiotic fermentation with top-fermenting yeast and Lactobacillus delbruckii provides the sharp sourness, which may be enhanced by blending of beers of different ages during fermentation and by extended cool aging. Hop bitterness is extremely low. A single decoction mash with mash hopping is traditional.

Vital Statistics
OG: 1.028 – 1.032
IBUs: 3 – 8
FG: 1.003 – 1.006
SRM: 2 – 3
ABV: 2.8 – 3.8%

Commercial examples
Schultheiss Berliner Weisse, Berliner Kindl Weisse, Nodding Head Berliner Weisse, Weihenstephan 1809 (unusual in its 5% ABV), Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Southampton Berliner Weisse, Bethlehem Berliner Weisse, Three Floyds Deesko

New Glarus also made a version available last summer. I don't know if they are planning that again, but it was very good.

Final thoughts
The two commercial examples I was provided were both great beers, but the BBL is probably closer to the style guidelines. It was very refreshing, especially when you add in the syrup.
If you haven't tried a Berliner Weisse style beer, do yourself a favor this summer and grab one (preferably from The Wine and Cheese Place). Even if you're tried other sour beers and didn't like them, you may enjoy this one. While you're at it, get some of the syrup. I think it was $.99 and it would also be great over ice cream.

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