What Is a Berliner Weisse?
Once rarely seen outside of (unsurprisingly) Berlin, the usually lightly-sour, low-alcohol Berliner Weisse has become extremely popular in America’s craft beer scene over the past half-decade or so thanks to the confluence of several changing trends in the United States.
Most notably, Berliner Weisses are sour beers. As American palates have evolved to appreciate this tart, sometimes funky style, demand for sours increased. But not all sours are created equal: Some sours get their unique flavors from special wild yeast, but typically, wild yeasts need longer fermentation periods, often of a year or more. Meanwhile, a much faster method to sour beer, known as a “kettle sour,” uses Lactobacillus bacteria. Since Berliner Weisses tend to rely on this faster method, brewers could fulfill demand for sour beers much more quickly by making them in this traditional German style.
But Berliners have other advantages as well. Unlike the classic Lambics of Belgium, which can be potently sour or funky to the point of being off-putting (think vinegar or feet), Berliners tend to be a milder and typically less funky sour. This profile makes them easier to drink – perfect for a warm day – and makes them a “gateway sour” for people who are interested in getting their feet wet in the world of sour beers without diving into the deep-end.
Finally, since Berliner Weisses tend to be lower in alcohol – in its style guide, the Brewers Association puts the ABV range at 2.8 to 3.4 percent (though be careful; many brewers make them much stronger than that) – Berliner Weisses also benefit from America’s recent obsession with “session beers,” brews that clock in at under 5 percent ABV so you can enjoy a few without running into any issues.
For all these reasons, Berliner Weisses have been popping up all over. But one of the style’s biggest strengths is that these beers taste amazing. The wheat base combined with the attributes of souring leave an effervescent, easy-drinking tartness, often lemony in nature and occasionally with cheek-tingling acidity, which still can manage to be surprisingly complex on the tongue. They’re delightful au naturel, but since some people can find that much acidity off-putting, traditionally, it wasn’t uncommon for these beers to be laced with a bit of fruit-flavored syrup to balance out the tartness. American brewers have taken that idea and run with it, and now you can find Berliners made with almost every fruit imaginable.
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So where to start with Berliner Weisses? Dogfish Head was probably the first brewer to catapult the style into the American mainstream when the brewery released its Festina Peche back in 2007. A great beginners Berliner, Festina Peche still packs plenty of the styles sour punch, but delicately balances things out with just enough peach to make this beer the kind of drink anyone can appreciate outside on a hot summer day. Those looking for a Berliner that isn’t accentuated with fruit shouldn’t have trouble finding California’s Bruery Terreux’s Hottenroth which has become a new classic as an American-style Berliner Weisse.