In recent years, there has been a particular fondness for brews with “extreme” qualities. Intense hoppiness, rugged roasted flavors, wild funkiness and alcoholic potency all fit this bill. Sour flavors have most recently become a desired affection. Berliner weisse features a reserved lactic sourness as its keynote, the supplementary fermentation resulting in an effervescent, bone-dry beer, placing them among the most refreshing beverages, beer or otherwise. Rare even in Berlin, the recent general delight in sour beers has put them on our collective radar. Daring American brewers are dabbling in Berliner weisse, nouveau German artisans are reinventing it, and traditional brewers of the style are holding firm.
They couldn’t be more different from the spicy and textured hefe-weissbiers of Bavaria. Instead, they emanate from the swath of Northern and Central Europe where top-fermentation and wild influence was preferred, home to the beery rascals of lambic, Flanders red and brown, Gose and witbier. As Berliner weisse is investigated by today’s brewers, it is becoming something of an interpretive beer, often more in line with its older roots, curiosity ripe for further exploration.
Brewing with wheat is as ancient as beer itself, and barley has failed to displace it entirely. Wheat cultivation was widespread in Europe by The Middle Ages, with many regional brewers using it for their indigenous beers. Many of those old “styles” became extinct, but many persevered, as demonstrated by the vast assortment of beers that still feature raw or malted wheat. Often these were, or are, influenced by wild yeast and bacteria. Some brewers wisely opted to leave well enough alone in this respect, while others were intent on purging their beer of mischievous bugs, by careful selection of inoculating slurry or fermentation conditions.
Berlin began its life as a brewing city in 1572 and 1642 as a wheat beer brewing city, making beers undoubtedly influenced by the ubiquitous and inescapable lactobacillus and brettanomyces organisms. Berlin, now en route to becoming the brewing Mecca that it would by the 19th century, was ready to stylistically refine a distinctive homegrown beer. This begs the query, “What lead to the development of the style?”
Some implicate the Huguenots, Reformed French Protestants who came to Germany to escape Catholic hostility. While scurrying across Northern Europe, they encountered numerous regional brews, including those of France, Flanders, Brussels and the Rhineland. These regions have given us an assortment of top-fermented modern brews, some of which were heavily influenced by wild bugs and often contained wheat. A more precise theory points to Cord Broyhan, an accomplished brewer who honed his craft in Hamburg and Hannover. His eponymously named Broyhan style became the most widely distributed type in Northern Germany during the 16th and 17th centuries. Relatively pale and low gravity, the popular Broyhan found a home among the opportunistic brewers of Berlin, one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in Europe.
Berlin became the preeminent brewing city in Continental Europe by the 19th century. Berliner brewers did exercise a bit of individuality with their indigenous brew, and a single brewery may have put out several versions, varying the hop levels, strength and grain ratios. It was common for brewers to make strong stock beer and dilute it with water to the inclination of the patron. It may have been the signature thread of tartness permeating the Berliner weisse style that set it apart from other German brews. As the template was developed, unusual and archaic procedures were followed in spite of the progressive brewing that enveloped most of Europe. Wort was often not boiled, though some decocted, and mash hopping was employed as a filtering aid and to fully extract the preservative qualities. Typically, between 2 and 5 lbs of wheat was mashed for every pound of barley. As brewers elsewhere were moving towards bottom-fermentation and single-strain fermentation, Berliner braumeisters stayed true to their style. It was simply another regional specialty that may have been more at home in Belgium. In fact, Berliner weisse was sometimes reenergized with a dose of young, rambunctious beer, much as gueuze is made by blending old and young lambic.