Tart and tasty, 'Florida Weisse' beer style becoming Sunshine State's signature

Pink Berliner beer, from Cycle Brewing, is part of the Florida Weisse movement.
Pink Berliner beer, from Cycle Brewing, is part of the Florida Weisse movement.
Published June 27, 2013

In the last Beer Chronicles, I talked about a new style that's currently gaining traction among serious craft-beer enthusiasts, the session IPA. I'd like to explore another new style, but this one originates from the Sunshine State.

Florida Weisse, a regional variation of the traditional German wheat beer, Berliner Weisse, is making waves throughout the craft-beer community, with fans lauding its complexity and eminent drinkability, and critics dismissing it as not distinct enough to warrant a separate style category.

If you spend any time at all in your local brewery tasting room — and you should, by the way — you're liable to find one or two of these Florida Weisses. With their light, crisp taste and added fruit flavors, some consider these beers to be the ultimate thirst quencher for the Florida heat, But to really understand these beers, you need some background on the style it originates from — the "Champagne of the North," Berliner Weisse.

Berliner Weisse is a light-bodied, low-alcohol (generally between 2 to 5 percent by volume) wheat beer that became a tremendously popular regional style in and around Berlin in the 19th century. It's most notable for its unique flavor, which is, in a word, tart. In Germany, the classic way to serve a Berliner Weisse is mit Schuss — adding sweet woodruff or raspberry-flavored syrups into the beer, which help to balance out its tartness. In less-traditional cases, exotic flavors are offered, including tropical fruit flavors.

Enter Florida Weisse. A couple of years ago, Doug Dozark of St. Pete's Cycle Brewing made a beer called — get ready for this — Ich Bin Ein Rainbow Jelly Donut Berliner Weisse. Rather than make a traditional Berliner and offer flavored syrups to balance it out, Dozark had the bright idea to add lime zest and actual raspberries to the beer itself. The beer created a buzz (pun intended), and it didn't take long for this technique to catch on with other Florida brewers.

See, the fun thing about brewing Berliner Weisse is that it can be accomplished in many ways. While there's basically one way to brew a hefeweizen, for example, getting that characteristic tart Berliner flavor can be accomplished by a variety of techniques, ranging from the direct addition of lactobacillus bacteria (the source of the beer's tartness) to the beer all the way to just throwing in some grains while mashing the wort, thus allowing the lactobacillus living on the grain husks to naturally "infect" the soon-to-be beer.

Florida Weisse is basically an extension of these approaches, allowing the brewer to create a fruit-forward take on the classic Berliner by whatever means they can devise. Johnathan Wakefield, a homebrewer from Miami whose Miami Madness Florida Weisse (brewed as a pilot batch at Cigar City) currently holds the No. 13 spot in RateBeer's list of the top 50 beers in the world, adds heavy loads of fresh, tropical fruit to the beer while it ages in secondary fermentation. In Dunedin, 7venth Sun Brewing occasionally makes a Key Lime Berliner, a fruited version of its Midnight Moonlight Berliner Weisse that's infused with key lime-flavored tea.

The style has gained in popularity so much over the past couple of years that Peg's Cantina, the original home of Cycle Brewing, has held two annual Berliner Weisse festivals. The most recent one, in April, had over 500 attendees, with a dozen Florida breweries serving their takes on the style.

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That sour beers, and Berliner Weisse in particular, are becoming more popular in the American craft-beer scene is news to just about no one; but as the debate over whether Florida Weisse is a legitimate style rages on, it's getting harder and harder to dismiss the movement.

While Miami Madness holds an impressively lofty rank in RateBeer's scope of all beers produced worldwide, a perusal of the rankings within the Berliner Weisse category alone is quite telling. Twelve of the top 25 Berliner Weisses in the world are fruit-flavored beers belonging to Florida breweries like Funky Buddha, Cigar City and Cycle.

In other words, nearly half of the 25 highest-rated Berliners in the entire world are Florida Weisse. That's tough to ignore.