Mit Schuss: Fruit and Herbal Flavors are the Unsung Heroes of Berliner-Weisse Style Ales
Fruit and herbally enhanced beers can be pretty polarizing, but one style that often gets a pass among even some of the staunchest purists is the Berliner-style weisse. While plenty of drinkers prefer the tart, sessionable brew au naturel, there’s a disproportionate number who are happier to have it with slightly sweet and colorful accoutrements. In fact, many Americans’ introduction to the style didn’t even give them an option, as they often came from the tap or bottle with peach, blueberry or raspberry enhancements built in. And, if they had the chance to taste it in the city that bears its name, servers would shoot them some serious side-eye if they didn’t order it mit Schuss—usually a choice between rot (red) or grün (green), raspberry or woodruff syrup, respectively.
American brewers, untethered to the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law, had grown accustomed to often incorporating the supplemental flavors during production—either in the kettle or aging barrel—experimenting well beyond the two traditional flavors and colors.
Creature Comforts Brewing Co., of Athens, Georgia, has produced a range of limited-release, fruit-enhanced variations on its year-round unflavored Athena Berliner Weisse. The Athena Paradiso line has included everything from a raspberry and cranberry version to a more tropical spin with passion fruit and guava.
“When we’re thinking about Athena flavors, we want to think particularly about the acid balance of the fruits,” says Creature Comforts co-founder and brewmaster Adam Beauchamp. “One of the fruits, passion fruit, is really, really acidic, and the base beer has some tartness to it as well. I don’t think that that particular Paradiso release would have been quite as nice if we didn’t have the guava along with that fruit to really balance out the aggressive acidity of the passion fruit.”
Smuttynose Brewing Co.’s Short Weisse is a popular blank canvas for the brewers working on its experimental Smuttlabs projects. Cherry, Smoked Cherry and Smoked Peach are a few of the directions Smuttlabs has taken the base Berliner-style brew, and, as far as head brewer Charlie Ireland is concerned, the sky’s the limit.
“I haven’t found a fruit that doesn’t work with the style,” Ireland says. “I’ve been coming up with some fun combinations, so we’ll see in the near future.”
Naturally, as drinkers discover these combinations, they get a bit more curious about their more traditional German roots. And, considering the fact that we’re living in the “customize-everything” age, mit Schuss may be poised to have its American moment.
That would be a welcome development for beer industry veteran Mary Pellettieri, who applied her chemistry and botany background to her latest project, Top Note tonics, a line of fruit-, root- and herb-based tonic concentrates.
Pellettieri, who spent eight years as quality manager at Goose Island Beer Co. and wrote the book Quality Management: Essential Planning for Brewers, developed some syrups for ABV Social, a bar in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, specifically for use in Berliner-style weisse ales and based on the traditional German accompaniments. And “traditional” doesn’t necessarily equate to “easy.”
Making a raspberry syrup in particular, Pellettieri notes, is a bit more challenging than it might sound.
“We used a lot of raspberry, balanced with a little cranberry for tanginess but not acidity, knowing that there’s acid in the beer,” she explains. “It’s simple in thought, but difficult to make cooked down. We cooked down about 3 pounds of raspberries per batch—it’s almost like making wine from raspberries, but for only one account.”
The cranberries also served to localize the flavor, giving a nod to Wisconsin’s abundant cranberry crop.
ABV Social general manager Jamie Shiparski also requested a woodruff syrup, which involved another set of challenges. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration stipulates that woodruff (a sweetly aromatic herb more formally known as Galium odoratum) may only be used in alcoholic beverages. That may not sound like a problem since this is beer we’re dealing with, but it means that it may not be sold as a separate product. So you’re not likely to find it at other bars, and you can also forget about buying it to take home to flavor the Berliners in your fridge or your homebrews.
“I still made the syrup. We just limited it to [the bar] using it in alcohol, and we’re not making it commercially available outside of that,” Pellettieri says.
Shiparski personally prefers woodruff (hence his request), but notes that raspberry is the bigger draw at ABV Social. It’s still a bit of a foreign flavor for most American drinkers, but it does become something of a conversation piece when people see a bottle of the bright-green syrup on the bar shelf.
“It’s really an homage to the way it was traditionally served in Germany,” Shiparski says.
He also went with an über-traditional example of the style for the base beer, Friesing, Germany’s Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner.
The bar also stocks a bitter orange syrup, a flavor he says might not be the first to come to mind when someone requests “mit Schuss,” but it plays remarkably well with the brew’s wheat and yeast.
The flavors aren’t simply a lure for beer geeks looking to connect with German beer-drinking heritage. They also offer a bridge for those who may spend more time in other alcohol categories.
“When someone comes up to the bar and says, ‘I want to try something new, but I don’t really like beer,’ [flavored Berliners] are really approachable and approachably mild,” Shiparski explains. “We don’t have much of a wine program, and all of the people drinking wine all the time need something, and they don’t want to go straight to cocktails. They want to try something in the beer world.”
Shiparski expects the Berliner-plus-syrup combo to be a bigger draw this year than it was last summer, when the bar first opened and guests were just starting to get used to the concept.
And other bars, breweries and brewpubs across the country are beginning to ponder the opportunity. When Creature Comforts first launched Athena (in its unadorned form), its tasting room offered a very limited volume of syrups, more or less as a novelty for visitors.
“We haven’t gone too deep down that route; it was something we did in the beginning when we had a few syrups we’d gotten from Germany,” Beauchamp says. “I think people enjoy mixing their own—they feel they have a creative component that they can control themselves. I would love to do it a little more.”
He’s actually somewhat surprised that the mixing concept hasn’t really been a big part of drinkers’ cultural knowledge around Berliner-style beers, at least not in the Southeastern part of the country where his brewery calls home.
“In Germany you would never drink the Berliner without the syrup,” he says. “It’s kind of bizarre that [the style] has been able to catch on without the rest of that.”
Yazoo Embrace the Funk: Berliner (Blood Orange)ABV: 3.5% | Berliner-Style Weisse w/ Blood Oranges
Tasting Notes: A solid example of the style, with a slightly salty, savory characteristic that still puts forth honey, and a Cap’n Crunch graham cracker sweetness. A spritz of orange peel and rich tart orange juice come on after the second sip and take root on the tastebuds. It’s hard not to think about having a few of these on a terrace over brunch. Golden and mostly clear, it’s delightfully refreshing. –John Holl
Bruery Terreux Frucht: CherryABV: 5.4% | Oak-Foeder-Aged Berlin-Style Tart Wheat Ale w/ Cherries
Tasting Notes: A harmonious blend of sweet, savory, fruity, herbal and wood. All the flavors of this dynamic beer will rush at you with the first sip. Then as your glass slowly empties, each will take a few minutes to show its full range. The cherries have a wild characteristic to them, a bit sweet but mostly ¬tart and assertive. The oak is rich and warming with the slightest bit of vanilla. The base beer is savory and honey-like at the same time. Time and talent went into this beer, and it’s best shared with good friends on a quiet afternoon. –JH
10 Barrel Raspberry Sour CrushABV: 6.5% | Kettle-Soured Ale w/ Raspberries
Tasting Notes: The color of fruit punch Kool-Aid with a pleasant green tart aroma. The raspberry is dominant but more in a just-ripe way than a candied sugary mess. There’s hints of raspberry seeds, too, that appear just before the lip smacking finish. It feels refreshing and hides the higher-than-usual ABV for the style. So be careful as you go for the second or third can. –JH
Jeff Cioletti is the author of Beer FAQ, The Year of Drinking Adventurously and The Drinkable Globe. Follow him at @JeffCioletti and at DrinkableGlobe.com.