Where’s the Berliner Weisse in Berlin?

Beer Without Borders by | Jul 2013 | Issue #78

Photo by Jessica Spengler

Sour, refreshing, low-ABV wheat beer, which is ostensibly inspired by Berliner Weisse, has surged in popularity around the world. But in Berlin, Germany, the style’s birthplace, finding an authentic Berliner Weisse isn’t so easy.

Berliner Kindl Weisse is the only Berliner Weisse brewed in significant volume in Berlin, and while it’s on menus around the city, it’s rare to see anyone drinking it apart from tourists. On a recent visit to the city, I ordered one; I’m asked if I’d like “rot oder grün,” meaning would I like the raspberry or woodruff syrup. This brightly colored sweetener softens the tart edge, but I want it without syrup (which takes a lot of explaining; this seems to be an inconceivable request, especially from a tourist). Served in a chalice, it’s simple and has a subtle sharpness, but it’s a bit like a sour Pils, and surely the beer hasn’t always tasted like this?

A look at the Kindl website is a freakshow of colors and irksome music, as pale blonde beer is mixed with a rainbow of syrups. The classic red and green are joined by “MIXcups” of grapefruit, green apple, white peach, black currant, wild strawberry, Morello cherry and rhubarb. And while in the un-beer-geekiest of ways, I find the syrups strangely appealing, it feels like this old style is now being targeted at cocktail drinkers rather than those looking for a traditional beer. Where’s the Berliner Weisse going?

Thankfully, two small breweries have started brewing Berliner Weisse, and both use old recipes to resurrect the original taste.

Andreas Bogk started as a homebrewer, and when researching his home city’s beer, he realized that “Berliner Weisse was at risk of becoming extinct,” and that the one beer that remained (Kindl) didn’t reflect the great history of this style. So in 2012, Andreas sought €3,000 in funding using inkubato.com (a German crowdfunding site) to “rescue” Berliner Weisse and bring the taste of those brewed many years ago back to Berlin. The Bogk-Bier project gained attention, and he’s raised over €21,000, which he’s spent on brewing equipment, materials and brewery renovations—“investors” get their return in beer.

In attempt to create something as close to the original taste as possible, Bogk took a bottle of Schultheiss Berliner Weisse from 1989, drank it (“It had a white wine-like character going in a sherry direction, plus tartness and citrus,” he remarks) and then successfully isolated the mixed culture within it, which contained Brettanomyces and lactobacillus. The Brett is very important because, as beer historian and BeerAdvocate columnist Ron Pattinson had previously discovered, Brett was a key component of historic Berliner Weisse. “The reason no one spotted it was because it wasn’t deliberately added but just picked up somewhere in the brewery,” Pattinson writes of why it took so long for people to realize there was Brett in traditional Berliner Weisse. There’s no Brett in Berliner Kindl Weisse.

Bogk uses a mash of half Pilsner malt and half wheat; after the mash, he boils with hops for just five minutes, and then it’s fermented with English ale yeast before the mix of Brett and bacteria is added for a three-month secondary fermentation in the squat Steinie bottle.

The Brett gives Bogk-Bier a light funkiness but not full-on farmyard; there’s apple and lemon and a dry, tart, Champagne-like finish. And would Bogk add syrup to this beer? “If you have a good syrup, made from 100 percent fruit, then I’m not completely against it,” he says.

Across the city, BrewBaker’s Michael Schwab makes two versions of Berliner Weisse, including one designed to be aged; both contain Brettanomyces. Like Bogk, he was inspired by an old beer: “A few years ago I had a 50-year-old bottle of Berliner Weisse, and it reminded me more of Champagne than beer,” says Schwab. With only Kindls left, he says, “OK, let’s brew it again!” What makes Bogk-Bier and BrewBaker stand out is how the tartness is delicate and refreshing, not puckering and aggressive, while the Brett adds an inimitable depth and aroma.

Berliner Weisse has slipped to be more of a tourist’s novelty than a local favorite in Berlin, which is a sad reality for a beer that’s inspiring many others around the world. Hopefully, Bogk-Bier and BrewBaker’s traditional-tasting Weisses will beckon Berliners back to their local beer style.