Berliner Weisse (Sour Ale) / Beer Style

When Napoleon occupied Berlin in 1809, he dubbed Berliner Weisse the "Champagne of the north" and Frederick Wilhelm encouraged the spread of the beer through Prussia, declaring it as "best for our climate", and having his son, Frederick the Great, trained to brew it. 

At the height of Berliner Weisse production in the 19th century, it was the most popular alcoholic drink in Berlin, and 700 breweries produced it. By the end of the 20th century there were only two breweries left in Berlin, and a handful in the rest of Germany.

Berliner Weisse is a sour, tart, fruity, highly effervescent, spritzy, and refreshing ale that holds only a fraction of a percent market share in Germany as a whole but is stll fairly popular in and around Berlin, especially on hot summer days. Berliner Weisse is relatively low in alcohol, normally only 2.5 - 2.7% by volume, and it is usually taken with a shot (a "Schuss") of raspberry syrup or woodruff-flavored syrup to cut the brew's tartness. By law, Berliner Weisse may be brewed only in the German capital, because, similar to the Kölsch ales of Cologne and the Trappist ales of Belgium, the name enjoys the legal protection of an appellation d'origine contrôllée.

It's on old beer whose lineage dates back at least to the Middle Ages. Today, Berliner Weisse is usually made from roughly 25 - 50% pale malted wheat.The rest of the grain is always barley malt - brownish in the old days, but pale Pils-like today. The result is a finished beer with a dark-yellowish color. It is extremely spritzy-effervescent, but very low in alcohol, which is why it falls into the German beer-tax category of a Schankbier, a sort of session beer. However, about two centuries ago, Berliner Weisse was made in any strength. It could be even weaker than a modern Schankbier or as strong as a mighty Bockbier.

The Berliner Weisse dates from a time before glass beer bottles. In those early days, the effervescent brew was sold in earthenware crocks closed with string-fastened cork stoppers to contain the beer's powerful carbonation. The crocks were often buried in sand during three months of conditioning.

Berliner Weisse ought to be served in a wide-rimmed, bowl-shaped chalice, about twice the size of the bottle, because Berliner Weisse will foam much like champagne. 

History: A regional specialty of Berlin; referred to by Napoleon's troops in 1809 as “the Champagne of the North” due to its lively and elegant character. Only two traditional breweries still produce the product.

Aroma: A sharply sour, somewhat acidic character is dominant. Can have up to a moderately fruity character. The fruitiness may increase with age and a flowery character may develop. A mild Brettanomyces aroma may be present. No hop aroma, diacetyl, or DMS.

Appearance: Very pale straw in color. Clarity ranges from clear to somewhat hazy. Large, dense, white head with poor retention due to high acidity and low protein and hop content. Always effervescent.

Flavor: Clean lactic sourness dominates and can be quite strong, although not so acidic as a lambic. Some complementary bready or grainy wheat flavor is generally noticeable. Hop bitterness is very low. A mild Brettanomyces character may be detected, as may a restrained fruitiness (both are optional). No hop flavor. No diacetyl or DMS.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Very dry finish. Very high carbonation. No sensation of alcohol.

Overall Impression: A very pale, sour, refreshing, low-alcohol wheat ale.

Comments: In Germany, it is classified as a Schankbier denoting a small beer of starting gravity in the range 7-8°P. Often served with the addition of a shot of sugar syrups (‘mit schuss’) flavored with raspberry (‘himbeer’) or woodruff (‘waldmeister’) or even mixed with Pils to counter the substantial sourness. Has been described by some as the most purely refreshing beer in the world.

Ingredients: Wheat malt content is typically 50% of the grist (as with all German wheat beers) with the remainder being Pilsner malt. A symbiotic fermentation with top-fermenting yeast and Lactobacillus delbruckii provides the sharp sourness, which may be enhanced by blending of beers of different ages during fermentation and by extended cool aging. Hop bitterness is extremely low. A single decoction mash with mash hopping is traditional.

Commercial Examples: Schultheiss Berliner Weisse, Berliner Kindl Weisse, Nodding Head Berliner Weisse, Weihenstephan 1809 (unusual in its 5% ABV), Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Southampton Berliner Weisse, Bethlehem Berliner Weisse, Three Floyds Deesko

Source: 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines -, German Beer Institute -, Wikipedia -