History is a funny thing. Often we can learn a great deal from the actions of our forebears, but sometimes the details get muddled and all we’re left with are the overall themes. This is especially true in the world of brewing, where countless styles of beer have been mentioned in tomes dating back thousands of years—and not all of them have survived in their original forms through the ravages of time to refresh our modern palates.
Fortunately, Berliner Weisse is not one of those lost beers, though its history is rather ambiguous. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), publisher of one of the brewing world’s preeminent guides for judging beer, describes this brew as having a sour, acidic flavor with mild bread or wheat flavors as well as a light and effervescent mouthfeel. It’s very low in alcohol, at just 2.8 percent to 3.8 percent ABV.
As with many older styles of beer, the precise origin of Berliner Weisse is not specifically known. However, some theorists posit that it’s an offshoot of sour Belgian styles like the lambics and red ales brought to northern Germany by the Huguenots, protestant refugees fleeing to Germany from Catholic France in the 17th century. Others point out, however, that there seems to be mention of the beer as early as a century before the arrival of the Huguenots.
More likely, the style was developed from an earlier brew created in 1526 by a Hanover brewer named Cord Broyhahn. The beer Broyhahn fashioned—called simply Broyhahn—was characterized as very pale, with very low alcohol content and noticeable acidity. Originally, it was made exclusively with malted barley, although written accounts indicate that, as the style steadily gained popularity, copycat brewers often added wheat or whatever grain they had readily available. Thus, Broyhahn became the most popular beer in Northern Germany until the mid-1700s.
As wheat became a more common ingredient in Broyhan, the style began its metamorphosis into Berliner Weisse. Early brewers tried to subdue the style’s wild, sour qualities. But, as it gained popularity, the tart nature of the style became its defining characteristic. The German people—especially those in Berlin—embraced the style. As proof of its popularity, when Napoleon and his troops occupied Northern Germany in 1809, the French general proclaimed Berliner “the Champagne of the north.” The style reached its peak of popularity from 1870 to 1900.
Back in Berliner’s heyday, it was served in huge, three-liter glass tubs. The drinking vessels were so large and unwieldy that the drinker required the assistance of friends to lift the containers so they could drink their beer. Over time, the more practical goblet or chalice became the glassware of choice. Today the style is produced by only two Berlin breweries. Imbibers often enjoy it with a shot of raspberry or herb syrup and drink it through a straw.
As the craft beer boom took hold, American brewers added their own twists to the style. The most noteworthy is Florida Weisse brewed with fruit—often brightly-colored Florida tropical fruits. As sour styles continue to increase in popularity, Berliner Weisse deserves its day in the sun. Indeed, it is best enjoyed on a warm sunny day—lederhosen and dirndls optional.