In 1809, during the Franco-Prussian war when Napolean’s troops entered Berlin they were introduced to a beverage they called the “Champagne of the north.” This “champagne” was actually a Berliner Weissbier, which is a pale top fermenting wheat beer created with the aid of lactic formation. Around 1900, there were around 700 Berliner Weissbier breweries in Berlin, which required all beers with the ‘Berliner Weissbier’ name to be made in Berlin. After two world wars and changing tastes, there are now only a couple breweries in Berlin brewing them.
Berliner Weissbiers are typically very pale, highly carbonated, light-bodied, with a tart, refreshing lemony-citric acidity. Most are around 3-5 percent abv. Traditionally, since the tartness can be off-putting, the beer may be mixed with woodruff or raspberry syrup. In Garrett Oliver’s book, “The Brewmaster’s Table,” he explains the flavor with woodruff syrup added: “Think Grandma’s hard candy tray, with lemon, lawn clippings and a starting blend of Robitussin and Jagermeister. It’s more pleasant than it sounds, but no less strange.” I have reviewed these beers without any added syrups, but maybe in a future article I’ll explore what raspberry flavor adds, or if I can find some, woodruff syrup.
In the last couple of years, several American craft breweries have attempted to resurrect this style. The most common one is probably Bell’s Oarsman, which Bell’s considers a “Session” beer, but is probably more of a Berliner Weissbier. Dogfish Head’s Festina Peche is their spring seasonal with added peach flavor. I sampled it at the hazy tail-end of a beer fest and thought the peach flavor was a little too much, but I look forward to getting some this spring. New Belgium brewed an Imperial Berliner Weissbier for their fairly limited Lips of Faith series. While I really enjoy it, it is clearly an Imperial: bigger, more intense than the traditional style. Finally, breweries such as The Bruery, White Birch and Southampton have brewed their own very limited versions of the style. While more breweries are making it, it still has not reached the mainstream for craft beer drinkers, let alone for all beer drinkers.
Bell’s Oarsman (4 percent abv): Oarsman pours perfectly clear, light copper color with a bright white head that quickly vanishes. I smell a significant amount of lemon-citric zest and bread-like malt. In the taste, I immediately get a lot of acidic, tart lemon flavor. Halfway through, the tartness steps back and the wheat takes over to finish this refreshing beer. The wheat beer flavor is really smooth and seems to counter the sharp tartness very well. The beer is very carbonated as it clings to the tongue, and is very light bodied. Overall, this is probably my most purchased beer. The high carbonation and crisp, clean flavor make it outstanding with food. The tartness makes it really refreshing, making it a great option in summer to cool off. And at 4 percent with the light body, the beer is extremely session-able, meaning you can have several in one sitting, or session.
Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse (5 percent abv): Unlike Oarsman, this beer, made in Germany, is a very cloudy yellowish orange. I pick up some lemon on top of cracker-like malt in the aroma. The most distinct aspect when tasting is the huge carbonation. Big carbonation bubbles seem to stick in your mouth for a couple of seconds. The carbonation leaves a tingling sensation on your tongue right when the tart finish starts. This light-bodied beer initially tastes like fresh lemons then the wheat malt takes hold, giving way to a tart, dry finish. Compared to the Oarsman, this one is a little more lemony and tart, but less like a wheat beer. It is also not as clean as Oarman, but a little more complex. Given a choice between the two, I think I prefer this one, but it is really close.
Bayerischer Bahnhof Brau & Gastsattenbetrieb GmbH & Co. KG Berliner Style Weisse (3 percent abv): Quite possibly the longest brewery name ever, this German brewery only brews this single beer, but it is my favorite of these three. This is another cloudy, yellowish, straw-colored beer with a light off-white head surrounding the edge of the glass. The aroma contains light lemon up front with a lot of grainy wheat. I also pick up a weird, funky, musty smell that reminds me of a gueuze, which make sense because both can use a lactic fermentation. My favorite aspect of this beer is how it is the most tart and lemony of the three. Lots of tart lemon right off the bat and it ends with a light wheat flavor. The mouth feel is also very intriguing. The beer is clearly highly carbonated based on just looking at the beer and how it tingles the tongue, but the beer is amazingly smooth at the same time. This, along with the highly refreshing tart lemon flavor, leads to just an absurdly high drinkability. I guess my only complaint is that this one is lacking the stronger wheat flavor the others had, but I would still take this over the others.