Fresh, colorful, slightly sour and with only 3 percent alcohol, Berliner Weisse, or Berlin Wheat Beer, has long been considered a perfect summer beer.
But the drink that has been the German capital’s traditional tipple for decades actually has little to do with the original version of Berliner Weisse, which Napoleon’s troops once dubbed the “Champagne of the North.” Not in the way it’s brewed, not in the way it tastes, not in the way it now comes with a straw – and especially not for the added red or green syrup.
“Up until a few years ago, real Weisse in Berlin was essentially extinct,” said Andreas Bogk, an IT security expert from Berlin’s Chaos Computer Club, and a hobby beer enthusiast since 2010.
Mr. Bogk has built his own mini brewery in a cellar in the Berlin suburb of Kreuzberg. After learning about the demise of Berliner Weisse, he decided to attempt to resurrect the beer. He is one of many with similar plans. The low-alcohol beer is cut either with raspberry syrup, which makes it red, or with Waldmeister, a syrup derived from a forest herb called sweet woodruff, also known as wild baby’s breath, which makes it green.
So what is real Berliner Weisse?
The beer was probably served as early as the 16th century, but the first official mention of Berlin wheat beer was in 1680. It quickly became the favorite brew of the city’s populace and around 1800 there were as many as 700 pubs selling it. The beer was quaffed from two-liter glasses weighing 3 pounds, which had to be lifted using both hands. It is now served in dainty stemmed glasses, first introduced at the beginning of the 19th century.
Berliner Weisse gets is characteristic sour taste from lactic acid bacteria. The beer isn’t brewed in kegs, but ferments in a bottle like a wine.
Particularly important is the use of a special type of yeast, Brettanomyces. “That’s what makes the fruity aroma,” explained Mr. Bogk.
“Up until a few years ago, real Weisse in Berlin was essentially extinct.”
The amateur brewer bought a still-sealed 1980s bottle of East German Berliner Weisse on eBay in 2012, and used it to harvest the Brettanomyces culture he uses for his own traditional Weisse. It is this key ingredient that is missing from the mass-produced stuff drunk in Berlin’s beer gardens each summer.
“That sort of Weisse tastes like a sour pilsner to me,” said Mr. Bogk.
From more than 100 local producers a century ago, Berlin’s Kindl brewery, which is run by the Radeberger brewery group, is today the only big producer of Berliner Weisse. But its product is brewed along modern lines, fermented in large tanks without Brettanomyces yeast.
“The last traditional Berliner Weisse was probably brewed in 1984,” said Oliver Lemke, who runs his own small brewery in Berlin.
He tried to revive the beer in 1999, but “the market wasn’t ready for it yet.” Now though, following the success of the craft brewing revolution in the United States, he plans to start brewing “real” Berliner Weisse – with the right yeast and definitely no syrup or straw – again next year.
“I’d ruin the beer if I put syrup in it,” Mr. Lemke said.
The syrup and straw factors are sore points among the traditionalist brewers. Today’s Berliner Weisse is made instantly recognizable by its green woodruff or red raspberry syrup, and many think it is the original method of serving the brew.
“[The U.S.] is wild about Berliner Weisse – the world is waiting for a real Weisse without syrup!”
But the sugary addition was actually the result of a marketing stunt in the 1920s. And the use of straws only came into fashion in the 1970s, says Mr. Bogk. Nowadays the beer is rarely drunk without the accoutrements.
“Every now and again there are a few guests who want to drink the beer without syrup,” said Dominik Ries from the historic Berlin beer garden Schleusenkrug. “It’s mostly tourists drinking it.”
But he added that demand for Weisse had risen slightly in recent years, and Radeberger said sales of the Kindl brew were “constantly” growing.
Back in the traditionalist camp, Mr. Bogk produced 700 liters of his hand-bottled brew last year, selling it through specialist shops in the German capital. “That’s just a drop in the bucket,” he said.
In an attempt to expand, he will start offering his creation in a Berlin beer garden next summer. Brewbaker, the only other Berliner Weisse producer in the city using Brettanomyces, makes just one batch a year.
Mr. Bogk would like to ride the U.S. craft beer wave. “If I could ship abroad, I could fill several containers – the demand is unbelievable.”
Mr. Lemke agreed that there is a “boom in sour beers” in America. “They’re wild about Berliner Weisse – the world is waiting for a real Weisse without syrup!”
Mr. Bogk believes now is the time to break into the U.S. market. “The craft brewers in the USA are also trying to make Berliner Weisse, but they get a lot wrong,” he said.
But he’s conscious of his debt to his American counterparts. “After breweries started dying out, the Americans saved an unbelievable amount of European knowledge in recent decades,” Mr. Bogk said. “Some types of yeast are now only available there.”
This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. Contact: email@example.com