by Florian Kuplent
Once brewed in over 700 Berlin breweries, the beer that Napoleon called “the Champagne of the North” is sadly now on the endangered species list
Berliner Weisse, a light, sour wheat beer originally produced only in the vicinity of Berlin, is one of several beer styles that may disappear within the next 20 years. The difficulty of producing it, the increasing popularity of modern Pilsener-style lagers, and its unusual flavor have led to its decline. Though Berliner Weisse was very popular in the first half of this century, when Bavarian-style Weiβbier was virtually unknown, only two breweries in Germany (though soon to be three) and a handful of micros and brewpubs in America continue to produce this very refreshing and fascinating beer.
Though it actually means “white,” not “wheat,” the name Weisse suggests a relationship to the well-known wheat beers brewed in Bavaria. It is widely believed that the term was used in the past to distinguish pale wheat beer from its darker contemporaries. But the similarity to other wheat beers ends there. Although both types of beer include wheat malt as a primary ingredient and both are made with top-fermenting yeast, the sour character of Berliner Weisse distinguishes it from all other German beers. This trait results from fermentation with a mixed culture of top-fermenting yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria. The sourness, high carbonation, and low alcohol content of this beer make Berliner Weisse one of Germany’s most refreshing beers, and the style deserves to be better known.
Click here to browse of selection of cultures and liquid yeast for making Berliner Weisse!
The precise origins of Berliner Weisse are unknown. Brewing with wheat malt was a common practice a couple of hundred years ago, and because brewers knew little or nothing about sanitation, fermentation involving lactic acid bacteria probably occurred quite often. It is quite possible that Berliner Weisse owes at least some of its origins to the Huguenots, religious refugees who migrated from France and Switzerland to the Berlin–Brandenburg area in the 17th century. They may have acquired knowledge about brewing with Lactobacillus and wheat malt as they made their way through Flanders, where witbeers and lambics developed. Indeed, gueuze has a flavor profile very similar to that of Berliner Weisse.
Another theory on the origin of Berliner Weisse leads further back to Hanover-born brewer Cord Broihan’s attempt to copy a popular beer from Hamburg in the year 1526. He was apparently not very successful, and therefore began brewing a different type of beer, one with wheat, which he called Halberstädter Broihans. It supposedly became a fashionable beverage, and over the centuries, as the brewers of Berlin perfected their brewing practices, it is possible that it evolved into the beer that we know today.
Written records do not provide evidence of the style’s existence until the late 1500s. A man named Heinrich Knaust wrote about the “recht gut roth Bier” (good red beer) from Berlin in 1575 and had lived there for quite some time, but he never mentioned Berliner Weisse in his writings. It was first described by Johann Coler in 1592, and 50 years later, in 1642, J.S. Elsholz praises what he called “Berlinische Weitzenbier” in a cookbook. At that time there were approximately 700 breweries producing lactic Weiβbier in Berlin.
The beer’s long-lasting popularity is evidenced by a famous quote of Napoleon’s two centuries later; as he was conquering Europe, he is said to have referred to Berliner Weisse as “the Champagne of the North,” obviously a sign that he and his troops enjoyed the fruity, thirst-quenching beverage.
Tidbits from history books tell of Berliners going to great lengths to try to make relatively consistent beers. One 1852 textbook for brewers states that breweries got fresh top-fermenting yeast without Lactobacillus after every second or third brew from the breweries in Kottbus, a city more than a hundred miles south of Berlin, where a hoppy ale similar to British bitter was brewed. Brewers were apparently concerned that the beer would become too sour if the old yeast was pitched too often. This method changed around 1900 when the brewers developed techniques for pitching the same ratio of yeast to bacteria over and over again. Today, of course, the ratio of bacteria to yeast in the cultures is well-regulated.
Another interesting fact from that time is that the green beer was shipped to the Gasthäuser (pubs) on the day after it was brewed. The landlord was responsible for the fermentation (in wooden vessels), kräusening, and bottling of the Weisse. The practice of adding water during bottling to dilute the beer, though now prohibited, was very widespread around the turn of the century. The cheap Halbbier (half beer) was sold in ordinary taprooms, but people from the middle and upper classes preferred Ganz- or Voll-Weisse (regular-strength Weisse) without an addition of water. The people of Berlin also often put Strippe (caraway, anise, or rye schnapps) into their beer to spice it up (or to make it stronger).
The trend toward industrial brewing that had started at the beginning of the 19th century began to escalate as the turn of the century approached. Production amounts started to increase, along with the sizes of breweries, peaking between 1890 and 1900. In 1892–1893, there were 47 wheat beer breweries in Berlin with an annual production of 850,000 bbl (1 million hL). Five years later, the ranks had grown to 71 breweries with an annual output of 1.1 million bbl (1.29 million hL). About a third of the beer produced at that time was top-fermented, and the two largest wheat beer breweries each had an annual sales volume of about 130,000 bbl (152,490 hL). Kindl alone produced 170,000 bbl (200,000 hL) in 1900.
Around the turn of the century brewing science developed rapidly. The Versuchs und Lehrbrauerei Berlin, or VLB (Center of Brewing Science in Berlin, today part of the Technical University of Berlin) was founded in 1883 by Professor Dr. Max Delbrück, among others. Three decades later Delbrück isolated lactic Bacillus cultures, and one strain was named after him, Lactobacillus delbrückii. (The Lactobacillus culture most commonly used in Berliner Weisse is actually L. brevis.)
Berliner Weisse Recipes: Modern versus Traditional
The following two recipes are formulated both for home brewers (quantities given per gallon) and for commercial brewers (per barrel) for easy scaling. The Spree River Weisse is similar to Schultheiss’s recipe and is the easier of the two to brew, because it uses a step infusion mash and calls for fermentation in unitanks or bottles. The second recipe, my own formulation, is meant for those who want to brew the beer as traditionally as possible, with a triple decoction mash and fermentation in three stages. The resulting beer should be very close to Berliner Weisse as it was brewed 80 to 100 years ago.
Spree River Weisse
Target gravity: S.G. 1.028 (7 °P)
Ratio of wheat malt to pale barley malt: 50–50%
Grist Bill per gallon per barrel
Wheat malt 0.4 lb (181 g) 12 lb (5.44 kg)
Pale barley malt 0.4 lb (181 g) 12 lb (5.44 kg)
Hop Addition (6 IBUs)* per gallon per barrel
Whole Perle hops 0.11 oz (3 g) 2.85 oz (80 g)
Mash method: This method is similar to the one that Schultheiss uses. Mash in the grains with the hops at 126 °F (52 °C) and hold for 20 minutes. Raise the temperature to 144 °F (62 °C) in about 15 minutes and rest for 40 minutes. Raise the temperature to 162 °F (72 °C) in about 15 minutes and hold for 30 minutes. Check for starch conversion using an iodine test. Raise the temperature to 172 °F (78 °C) in 10 minutes and rest for an additional 5 minutes. This mash schedule is very conventional and could also be used for a Helles.
Runoff and sparging: Sparge water temperature should be at 176 °F (80 °C). The final amount of wort in the kettle depends on the gravity of the wort. The gravity should be around 1.028 (7 °P), because the short boil will not increase gravity. Home brewers may wish to make a little extra wort (about 10% of the batch) with which to prime the bottles. Store the extra wort in the freezer and boil it to sterilize it just before priming. Extra wort can also be pressure- canned.
Wort sterilization: Either hold the wort at 194 °F (90 °C) for 30 minutes, or boil it for 20 minutes. I recommend the latter method to be on the safe side and ensure the sterility of the wort.
Primary fermentation: Pitch the yeast (any German ale yeast will do, except a Weizen strain) and Lactobacillus culture as soon as the wort cools to 66 °F (19°C). Ferment at that temperature for 3–5 days and skim the yeast from the top.
Maturation: Add priming sugar (in the form of fresh wort). Bottle the beer or rack it to a serving or maturation tank. Let it age at 59 °F (15 °C) for a week then cool it to 45 °F (7 °C) and let it mature for three more weeks.
*Adjust amount of hops depending on bitterness yield.
Target gravity: S.G. 1.032 (8 °P)
Ratio of wheat malt to pale barley malt: 70–30%
Grist Bill* per gallon per barrel
Wheat malt 0.7 lb (318 g) 19.5 lb (8.84 kg)
Pale barley malt 0.3 lb (136 g) 8.5 lb (3.86 kg)
Hop Addition (7 IBUs)
Whole Perle hops 0.12 oz (3.5 g) 3.21 oz (90 g)
Mash method: This is a triple decoction mash similar to the traditional method used for centuries. Mash in the malt together with the hops at 99 °F (37 °C) and hold for 10 minutes. Let the mash settle down for 5 minutes and pump the first decoction mash to the kettle. The decoction mash volume can be calculated with the formula shown in the accompanying box. Slowly heat the decoction mash (1 °C per minute) to a boil lasting 20 minutes. Pump the decoction mash back to the mash tun; the resulting mash temperature should be around 126 °F (52 °C). Pump the second decoction mash to the kettle after 5 minutes and slowly heat it to a boil lasting 10 minutes. Return it to the mash tun; the resulting mash temperature should be around 149 °F (65°C). After 5 minutes, pump the third decoction mash to the kettle, slowly heat it, and boil it for 10 minutes. Return it to the mash tun; the resulting mash temperature should be around 169–172 °F (76–78 °C).
Runoff and sparging: Sparge water temperature should be 176 °F (80 °C). The final amount of wort in the kettle depends on the gravity of the wort; the gravity should be around 1.032 (8 °P).
Wort sterilization: Hold the wort at 185 °F (85 °C) for 20 minutes, as was the traditional method.
Primary fermentation: Pitch the yeast (any German ale yeast will do, except a Weizen strain) and Lactobacillus culture as soon as the wort cools to 68 °F (20 °C). Ferment at that temperature for 3–5 days and skim the yeast from the top.
Maturation: Allow the green beer to mature at 37 °F (3 °C) for three weeks. Add priming sugar (in the form of fresh wort; see the preceding recipe). Bottle the beer or rack it to a serving or maturation tank. Let it age at 59 °F (15 °C) for a week then cool it to 45 °F (7 °C) and let it mature for at least three more weeks.
*The degree of protein modification of the malt should be relatively low, or the foam stability will decrease (this is especially a problem with malts used today). A substitution of 10–15% of the barley malt with chit malt or raw barley can help here. (Chit malt is kilned after only 3 days of germination [the usual time for this process is 5–7 days], so the protein level in the grain stays relatively high.)
Calculating Decoction Volume
Here’s a simple formula:
Decoction = (v x [ tf – to ]) ÷ (tb – to) mash volume
v = total mash volume
tf = desired temperature after returning the decoction to the mash tun
to = mash temperature before separating the decoction
tb = temperature of the boiling decoction mash
Note that the temperatures must be calculated in degrees Celsius.
Today only two breweries in Germany still produce Berliner Weisse — Schultheiss Brauerei GmbH and Berliner Kindl Brauerei AG. Interestingly, each is owned by a different German brewing conglomerate: Brau und Brunnen AG and the Binding-Gruppe, respectively. A third, Berliner Bürgerbrau, is planning to release one next year that will have a starting gravity of 11 °P, but because Berliner Weisse is an appellation whose use is controlled by the Brewers Association of Berlin, only beers conforming to the style and produced in Berlin can bear the name. Although brewed in Berlin, Bürgerbrau’s high-gravity brew will not qualify. It can only be called “Berliner Weisse” outside of Germany; it will be called “Hauptmann von Köpenick” in Germany.
The city of Bremen is home to a similar lactic style, Bremer Weisse, that is not as acidic.
The uniqueness of Berliner Weisse — that is, its pale, slightly cloudy, sour character, and the fact that it is well-attenuated with a high carbon dioxide content — is achieved by means of certain methods of wort production and by fermentation with a combination of yeast and Lactobacillus. Although some literature states that the Schultheiss also uses Brettanomyces yeast, it could not be confirmed by the brewery.
Grist composition: The grist bill contains 50–70% wheat malt, and the rest is pale barley malt. Until the middle of the last century, breweries also used smoked wheat malt in addition to regular wheat malt. Once one brewery began using unsmoked wheat malt, however, consumers seemed to prefer it, and so the other breweries followed as well.
Wort production: Today’s Berliner Weisse is usually brewed as a Schankbier (low-gravity beer) with a gravity of around 1.028–1.032 (7–8 °P) and an alcohol content of around 3–3.5% (v/v). Before 1900, however, brewers made many different kinds of Weisse; there was even a Starkbier (strong beer) with a gravity between 1.064–1.072 (16–18 °P). During World War I, a shortage of wheat forced the breweries to lower the gravity to its current strength. A 1923 law gave Berliner Weisse a special status as a low-gravity beer and reduced the taxes on its breweries. Today’s commercial brewers of Berliner Weisse generally prefer a double or triple decoction mash, but infusion mashing is becoming more common.
Classically the hop cones are mashed in together with the malt. The huskless wheat causes the filter bed in the lauter tun to become very compact and blocks the flow of the wort; the hop cones provide an aid in lautering. The bitterness yield with this method is rather low, which has to be considered when calculating the hop amount. The bitterness in the finished product should be quite low, at 4–10 IBUs, because hop compounds inhibit the growth of lactic acid bacteria. Noble hops ate therefore not necessary; a common bittering hop like Northern Brewer or Perle is sufficient (even Schultheiss apparently selects from a variety of German hops).
Traditionally the wort was not boiled after lautering; it was simply pumped into the coolship and then on to a chiller, where it was immediately cooled to a temperature of 57–68°F (14–20°C). Again, this deviation from standard brewing practices was in deference to the bacteria; boiled wort is not a good culture medium for lactic bacteria. Nevertheless, the wort must somehow be sterilized. One turn-of-the-century source recommends sparging with boiling water to keep the temperature in the runoff above 176 °F (80 °C). Today a short boil (without another hop addition) of as long as 30 minutes follows lautering; alternatively, heating the wort to 185–190 °F (85–88 °C) will kill wort-spoiling organisms.
What Do You Take in Your Beer?
by Stephen R. Holle
Berliner Weisse is not the only German beer that is often mixed with a flavoring before it is drunk. Biermischgetränke (beer mixed drinks) are drinks combining beer and Zitronenlimonade, a lemon-lime soda like 7-Up or Sprite. Two of the most popular mixed drinks are the Radler and Russ’n. A Radler is a mixture of Helles beer (a blond, malty lager) and Zitronenlimonade. The German word for bicycle is Rad, meaning wheel, and a Radler is a person who rides a bike. As the story is told, about 13,000 bikers descended on an enterprising Bavarian innkeeper named Franz Xaver Kugler during the summer of 1922. Realizing that he did not have enough beer, he mixed the beer with lemon-lime soft drinks. The drink became a popular alternative that allowed the imbiber to quench his thirst and still ride home.
The Russ’n is a mixture of wheat beer and Zitronenlimonade. The economic hyperinflation and shortage of brewing materials that occurred in Germany following World War I led to a shortage of beer and the brewing of weaker beer. A means to extend the limited beer supply and improve the diminished taste was to add lemon/lime soft drinks, and wheat beer seems to have been most compatible with dilution. Because this sweet mixture was especially popular with Russian workers who frequented the Munich Mathäser-Keller where the drink was probably first mixed, it became known as a Russ’n.
Unfortunately, the Russ’n may have contributed to the American misconception that Germans serve their wheat beer with lemon slices. Like lemon-lime soda, lemon slices may have been used in the past to mask bad-tasting wheat beer, but wheat beers in Bavaria are not served with lemon slices. The practice is specifically rejected by breweries, including the Bayrischer Brauerbund, because the lemon juice adulterates the taste and the lemon oil causes the beer foam to collapse.
Although Berliner Weisse and Biermischgetränke are still mixed by bartenders at the time of dispensing, it has been legal since 1 January 1993 for the mixture to be concocted in the brewery and marketed as a reduced-alcohol drink.
Primary fermentation: Berliner Weisse is fermented with a combination of top-fermenting yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Fermentation temperatures range between 57 and 72 °F (14–22 °C).
If a brewer wishes to increase the sourness of the beer, he or she must pitch the yeast and lactic acid bacteria at the higher end of the range, 63–68 °F (17–20 °C), in a ratio of 4:1. At lower temperatures (57–64 °F, 14–18 °C), the yeast-to-lactic ratio must be 6:1. In general, a ratio of 5:1 should achieve the correct balance. The fermentation parameters therefore determine the acid content in the finished beer. The yeast and lacto-bacilli both rise to the surface at the end of the fermentation and can be cropped there. The mixed culture must be repitched as soon as possible because it does not store well.
Note that keeping an ongoing Lactobacillus culture in a brewery can be somewhat problematic. The danger of spoiling other beers through cross-contamination is very high. Having a dedicated tank and fittings is a good idea if beer is to be brewed regularly with Lactobacillus.
Maturation: Usually the beer is matured in tanks for three weeks or more and then bottled with an addition of 10% green beer, or kräusen,* which ensures a secondary fermentation in the bottle. A warm storage period of about one week at 58–61 °F (15–16 °C) carbonates the beer to the desired level (0.6–0.8% CO2 by weight, or as much as 4 volumes). The beer clarifies and a compact sediment forms in the bottle. After another three to five weeks of cold storage at 46–50 °F (8–10 °C), the beer is ready for consumption. Time does not hurt this beer; it is still enjoyable after two or three years, developing a very flowery and nutty flavor with age.
*Kräusening produces secondary fermentation in the maturation tank or in the bottle, ensuring carbonation and the development of flavor. Fresh, viable yeast and fermentable extract in form of green beer is added to the beer. (The degree of fermentation should be 10–15%, which means that the wort usually has been fermented for 1–2 days.) Adding Speise (“food”) in the form of unfermented wort and yeast to the beer will produce the same effect.
Alternative brewing methods: An alternative method for brewing Berliner Weisse is to ferment it with regular top-fermenting yeast and then, shortly before bottling, to add acidic beer produced in an independent step with lactic fermentation. Another possibility is to inoculate a pure culture of Lactobacillus delbrückii into the wort just after the wort comes out of the lauter tun at temperatures of 113–116 °F (45–47 °C). The wort reaches a lactic acid content of 0.18–0.20%, enough to give the beer a sour taste, within 5–7 hours. (It is important not to exceed this amount of acid, because a higher concentration will hinder the upcoming alcoholic fermentation.) The wort is then heated to 176 °F (80 °C) and held there for one hour. From this point on the usual brewing process continues; the wort is cooled down and yeast is added. The advantages of both of these methods are that pure culture yeast can be used and the beer is more resistant to bacterial spoilage. The big disadvantage, though, is that the character of the finished beer will be noticeably different from that of a beer brewed with the more traditional Berliner Weisse brewing methods; the complex flavors will not develop. A final option is to simply add food-grade lactic acid to the fermentor, though once again, the resulting flavors will likely be lacking in complexity.
The brewers at the Berliner Kindl Brewery have developed their own methods of production. There is no bottle fermentation, for example; the wort is fermented and matured in tanks under pressure and then packaged.
The Schultheiss Brewery still uses somewhat more traditional methods. Berliner Weisse production has risen recently, but still represents less than 4% of the brewery’s total annual production of 2.5 million bbl. (The new premixed version accounts for two-thirds of the Berliner Weisse produced.) The malt (9.2 metric tons of grist, of which 50% is wheat and 50% barley malt) is mashed in at 125 °F (52 °C) and heated up to 162 °F (72 °C) over the course of two-and-a-half hours in an infusion mash. After the runoff the wort is heated to either 205 °F (96 °C) or to 223 °F (106 °C) and held there for 30 minutes to ensure sterilization. The beer then ferments in a unitank for at least three weeks, after which it is bottled with an addition of kräusen and undergoes warm and cold storage periods. The beer has a shelf-life of several years and gains complexity and flavor as it ages. The Lauben-pieper (a word from the Berliner dialect for people who have a plot in a community garden) even used to bury a couple of bottles of Berliner Weisse in their garden during fall; the beer matured in this cool, dark environment over the winter and could be enjoyed in spring.
Sources of Berliner Weisse and Ingredients to Make Your Own
The beer: As far as BrewingTechniques knows — and we’d love to be proven wrong — no U.S. brewery makes a Berliner Weisse–style beer year-round. Sleeping Giant Brewery in Helena, Montana brews it in the summer for local distribution. The Weinkeller Brewery in Berwyn, Illinois also brews a version. The Elysian Brewery in Seattle, Widmer Brothers Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon, and Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington have made Berliner Weisses in the past, but don’t know when they’ll brew one next.
Berliner Kindl and flavoring syrups are distributed in the United States by B. United International (Elmsford, New York; 914/345-8900). Call them to find a retailer in your area that carries these beers. Schultheiss, formerly distributed by B. United, is temporarily unavailable in the United States until the brewery determines whether its new, thin bottles can survive transatlantic shipment by air.
The ingredients: Woodruff syrup is nearly impossible to find in this country. The raspberry syrups sold for Italian sodas will work well for flavoring, however. Lactobacillus delbrückii cultures are available from Wyeast Laboratories (Hood River, Oregon; 541/354-1335) and from the Yeast Culture Kit Company (Ann Arbor, Michigan; 313/761-5914). As for the yeast, any German ale yeast will do, except a Weizen yeast. Culturing the combination from a bottle may work, but you will not be able to control the ratio of Lactobacillus to yeast. The Weihenstephan yeast bank can provide suitable strains of yeast and Lactobacillus, tel. (49) 8161 71 33 31, fax: (49) 8161 71 41 81.
Aeonbräu/Head Start, which used to sell exotic brewing bacteria and wild yeasts, including a couple of cultures specifically for Berliner Weisse, is no longer in the yeast business. However, Head Start’s cultures may soon be distributed by another yeast supplier.
Berliner Kindl has a nutty flavor and a pale color and forms a nice head, though it is on the bland side, presumably because of the absence of bottle fermentation. Schultheiss is not widely distributed in Germany, and I have never tasted it.
Its sourness was probably the reason that people around the turn of the century enjoyed Weisse with Strippe, a shot of caraway schnapps. Nowadays it’s more common to drink “Weisse mit Schuss,” a shot of raspberry or woodruff syrup in a special glass filled with wheat beer. (Woodruff is an herb with a sweetish vanillalike taste and aroma.) A straw is used to sip this delicate mixture. The combination of three glasses — one filled with pure golden Weisse, one mixed with the red raspberry syrup, and one mixed with the green woodruff syrup — is called “Ampel,” which means traffic light. Other mixed drinks are also common. A remarkable one is “wheat beer bowl,” a combination of Berliner Weisse, strawberries or cherries, sugar, and brandy. The connoisseur, though, drinks this beer without any flavor-changing additions. Whatever brand you can find, drink it with passion! Prost!
All contents copyright 2023 by MoreFlavor Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this document or the related files may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.