It must still be summer, because I'm noticing a lot of Berliner Weisses making the rounds at my usual haunts. The style isn't strictly a summer beverage, to tell the truth, but it goes so perfectly with the weather that it might as well be. A slightly tart, low-alcohol session beer for the warmer months nearly always hits the spot. But what is a Berliner Weisse, exactly? I was hoping you'd ask!
Berliner Weisse is not actually a seasonal style, as I've been a bit quick to imply; rather, it's a regional style belonging to — you guessed it — Berlin, Germany, where this style has been brewed for 400 years or so. Like Champagne or Cognac, Berliner Weisse is technically a term only to be used for beers originating from Berlin; you'll often see beers in this style labeled as "Berlin-style Weisse" or something similar to that effect. This is a convention that I'll be breaking repeatedly in this column.
The Berliner Weisse is a particularly interesting style, not just for the method of production (which is quite unusual), but for the traditional method of consumption, which involves adding sweet raspberry or woodruff syrups and drinking the finished product with a straw. You see, Berliner Weisses are generally a bit sour, so Germans will often balance them out with flavored syrups.
The tartness is a result of an unusual brewing procedure — unlike most beers, traditional Berliner Weisse wort is not boiled; instead, the hops are boiled and added to the unboiled wort, allowing wild lactobacillus (lactic acid bacteria) spores present on the grains to survive. The bacteria is what causes the sour flavor. This is pretty difficult to accomplish with any degree of consistency, so many brewers actually add lactic acid directly to the beer rather than to try and obtain it the hard way.
But before my fellow lactobacillus fiends get too excited, I should mention that Berliner Weisses don't always achieve the sourness present in other notoriously sour beers, such as Belgian lambics and Flemish sour ales. Many are as mild as their alcohol content — which is generally around 3 or 4 percent alcohol by volume — with only a faint suggestion of tartness. However, some take the extreme route, aiming for maximum lip-puckering. If you'd like to try a few on for yourself, I may be able to help.
I spotted a few bottles of Bayerischer Banhof's Berliner-Style Weisse — a Leipzig version of the style — in the clearance section of Rollin' Oats, so I grabbed a couple for the fridge. This is a more mild example. Here, the tartness is more present in the nose than the taste, which is more along the lines of a nice, smooth wheat beer. There is some solid sourness present, but it's more balanced, leading me to believe that the BB folks use the traditional method of brewing, which often results in a more mild beer. It's a good entry-level Berliner Weisse.
Along similar lines is the current seasonal draft at Tampa Bay Brewing Company in Ybor City. This Berliner Weisse is served in a conspicuously-large goblet, perfect for making your pint-sipping friends look like amateurs. It's also fairly mild, but there's a nice bite in the finish that is unmistakably Berliner Weisse-esque. It's perfect for warm nights in the TBBC courtyard.
The leading candidate for my personal favorite is Hottenroth from The Bruery. Billed as a "Berlin-style tart wheat ale," this beer starts to really pick up in the sour category. It's crisp and refreshing, with enough of an unusual character to keep me interested. Fortunately, it's also one of the easier Berliner Weisses to find, as it's carried in all of the Total Wine locations.
And then we get to the really sour stuff, in the form of the Rainbow Jelly Donut from Peg's Cantina in Gulfport. This over-the-top creation is the result of a grain bill consisting entirely of a sour mash — grains that have been exposed to lactobacilli for an extended period of time, altering the pH of the grains. Peg's sometimes flavors the Rainbow Jelly Donut with lime and raspberry, but that doesn't stop it from being an outrageously sour beer. It also happens to be delicious.
Astute readers may have noticed that my examples consist solely of non-Berlin beers. The fact is that a true Berliner Weisse is pretty hard to find outside of, well, Berlin. And since I'm already breaking tradition, I'll also suggest that you try these Berlin-style Weisse beers ohne Schuss — without syrup. It's not entirely authentic that way, but there's nothing better for a long, Florida summer.