Seeking the Real Champagne of the North – A Visit to Berlin

If beer styles were celebrities Berliner Weisse might well be viewed in the same light as David Hasselhoff or Def Leppard, more popular abroad than in its native land.  Yes, I know Napoleon dubbed it the champagne of the north when his armies occupied Berlin, but the 20th century was not a good one for Berliner Weisse.  While the style has proliferated widely in the US (there are 2450 entries for Berliner Weiss on BeerAdvocate), at one point there were only two breweries in Berlin making Berliner Weiss (Schultheiss and Berliner Kindl, which have since merged). Furthermore, I’ve yet to talk to a German from outside Berlin who didn’t view Berliner Weisse as something of a curiosity. Given this odd dichotomy I was curious to get a sense of how the locals view the style that bears their city’s name?  Do they treat it with the zeal that Dusseldorfers embrace altbier or is it thought of like an eccentric uncle, a beer best experienced in small doses.  The only sure way to find out was to pack my bags and head to the German capital.

My scouting trip to Berlin was not very stealthily integrated into a 6 day European vacation with my wife and daughter. Over the course of three days I was able to try eight different variations of Berliner Weiss, ranging from the mass-produced versions served with syrup to craft beer revivals of the style.  Along the way I visited a craft brewery housed in a structure built from shipping containers, as well as Stone’s new facility in Berlin, a beachhead of American Craft Beer in vast expanse of European beer.  Here are some notes and photos from the trip.

Rot or Grün

I started my explorations by seeking out a bottle of Kindl Weisse by the Berliner Kindl Schultheiss Brewery, the last brewery remaining from the heyday of Berliner Weisse a century ago, and now part of the Radeburger Brewing Group.  It comes in a short stubby bottle with an image of a boy peeking out over the lid of a large beer mug.  It’s a pale, hazy beer with considerable effervescence.  Initially there is a decent head, but like most sour beers it doesn’t hang around for long.  It has an approachable, but one-dimensional, lactic tartness that imparts a lemon-forward fruity flavor.  The body is thin, as you would expect for a 3.0% abv session beer, the finish clean and crisp.  It’s a straightforward thirst quencher, pleasant enough for a warm day I suppose, but doesn’t offer much in the way of complexity.

Berliner Kindl Weisse

At some point in the 20th century it became fashionable to serve Berliner Weisse with a shot of sweet syrup to offset the acidity of the base beer—mit schuss as they say in German.  The two most traditional syrups are himbeer, a red (rot in German) raspberry flavored syrup, and waldmeister, a green (grün) syrup made from the sweetened extract of the woodruff plant.  I had a chance to try Berliner Weiss mit schuss while eating dinner at a wonderfully eclectic German/Italian restaurant, called Klärchens Ballhause, that doubles as a dancehall.  We visited on a Monday night, which happens to be salsa night.  All of the tables had been moved to the periphery of the large room to make room for dozens of couples dancing to sensual Latin music.  If you are looking for a unique dining experience, I highly recommend a visit to Klärchens while visiting Berlin.  It’s oddly suitable for drinking a beer as green as anything you’ll have in Chicago on St. Patrick’s day.

As for the syrup-infused beers, the sweetness of the syrup compensates for the acidity of the Berliner Weisse and then some.  Perhaps in the old days the sweet-sour balance would have been better. The beer with himbeer syrup is very raspberry forward, not unpleasant but a bit too sweet for my liking.  The beer with woodruff tasted remarkably close to a Jolly Rancher in liquid form.  What can I say, it’s hard to take a beer seriously when it’s served with a straw in the glass.

Berliner Weisse mit schuss
Berliner Weiss with himbeer (left) and waldmeister (right) syrups.  Not a bad option to cool down after some serious salsa dancing.

BRLO – Craft Beer German-style

Our first full day of vacation in Berlin was devoted to visiting some of the excellent museums that make Berlin such an interesting city.  We spent a good part of the day at Museum Island, which boasts no less than five museums.  Turns out there’s a kernel of truth in the old Indiana Jones movies, the Germans were big into the archeology of Mediterranean civilizations during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Pergamon Museum in particular is largely devoted to reconstructions of wonders from the ancient world, like the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.  Later we visited the Holocaust Memorial, a truly moving experience that combines the statistics of the holocaust, numbers so unfathomable that it’s hard to register them, with personal stories and letters that provoke a profound emotional response.  It’s not an easy place to visit, but it’s the one place in Berlin that you cannot miss.  Bring plenty of tissues.

DSC09005
The stelae that fill the street above the holocaust museum set a somber tone. An appropriate memorial for one of humanity’s darkest hours.

Night had fallen by the time we left the Holocaust Museum.  The somber grey stelae that take up the city block above the subterranean museum seem particularly eerie in the dark after grappling with stories and images of the holocaust.  We were in dire need of a lighter atmosphere, and what could fit that bill better than a craft brewery housed in a shipping container?  After a short ride on the metro, and a walk through down a quiet street to a dark corner of Gleisdreieck Park we reach BRLO.  When I was told it was housed in a shipping container I envisioned a nanobrewery in a large metal box on a dimly lit side street.  What I failed to grasp is that the structure that houses BRLO isn’t made from one shipping container, it’s made from 38 shipping containers.  That makes for a sizeable structure with room for a 20 hectoliter (17 bbl) brewhouse, a restaurant, a loft and a small merchandise area, not to mention a large outdoor beer garden.

BRLO Bar
The inside of BRLO as seen from the loft.

Given a taplist of 20 beers and the fact that this was likely to be my only visit to BRLO, I went against my usual instinct and ordered a five-beer tasting flight.  All five were solid, but if you pushed me I’d have to say my favorites were the German IPA (hazy, full of hop fruitiness, balanced by a Helles-like malt base) and the Baltic Porter.  Just in case you don’t think housing a brewery in a shipping container is sufficiently avant-garde, the food menu is largely based on vegetables.  The main courses are vegetables, the sides are vegetables, you can get something called “on tops” which are also vegetable based.  It’s the first restaurant I’ve visited where the main courses include smoked celery, brussel sprouts, and Jerusalem artichokes.  Not that I’m complaining, after a few days in Germany it’s nice to have a break from roast pork and plates of sausages. Fortunately, if you’re a devoted carnivore like my daughter, there are a few meat dishes on the menu.

Enough pattering on about celery and shipping containers, what about the Berliner Weisse?  The BRLO Berliner Weisse offers an interesting take on the style. Pale and slightly hazy, with a persistent effervescence.  The nose is a mix of the pale malts and fruity notes that bring to mind white grapes and pomme fruits. The taste initially presents itself as mildly acidic with a faint citrusy flavor, there’s a hint of more complex funky acidity in the middle, a touch of acetic acid perhaps.  The finish has a surprising amount of sweetness from the malts.  Both the 4.0% abv and the mouthfeel are more substantial than the Kindl Weiss.  On the draft version I could swear there was a little salt as well (ala gose), but when drinking a bottled version weeks later I didn’t pick up on that.  My wife, who is generally not a fan of sours, didn’t object to the BRLO Berliner Weisse, commenting that it reminded her a little of white wine. My daughter, who might be a supertaster given her extreme pickiness when it comes to food and drink, claimed that it smelled like vomit and would have nothing more to do with it.  That’s not my take, but it’s possible that my grizzled half-century old olfactory system might be understating the funk.  Personally, I think BRLO has managed to make a beer that is both interesting and approachable, unless of course you are a 16 year old girl in which case I’d advise you to steer clear.

BRLO Tasting Flight
The tasting flight at BRLO, left-to-right the beers are: baltic porter, German IPA, pale ale, helles, and Berliner Weisse.

As every American knows if something is good more must be better, a philosophy that has spilled over to the beer world.  How else can you explain brewing imperial versions of styles that were designed to be everyday session beers like gose (King Gose Home – Hoppin’ Frog) and pilsner (My Antonia – Dogfish Head).  Apparently, that trend has made a foothold in Germany, because BRLO had a 6.0% imperial Berliner Weisse called Goosebumps on tap. (I later learn that it’s a collaboration with the Utah brewery Epic, which helps explain a few things.) For the sake of research, I feel I should order a glass for my after-dinner aperitif.  Goosebumps is even hazier and paler than the standard BRLO Berliner Weiss.  I’d venture a guess that they are pushing the upper end of how much wheat you can use in the grist.  Tastewise the imperialization muddles the flavors, the mouthfeel doesn’t seem right, and the finish is not as crisp and refreshing as it should be.  By pumping up the abv they seem to have lost an important part of what is appealing about a Berliner Weisse in the first place.

BRLO Save the Planet
At BRLO their heart is in the right place.

Stone Brewing – America’s Craft Beer Beachhead in Europe

You don’t see a lot of American Craft Beer in Europe, and many of the brands you do see—Lagunitas, Brooklyn, Boulevard—are I presume brewed at the facilities of their European overlords.  That’s not too surprising because beer is relatively expensive to ship, and for most styles the quality doesn’t improve with age, particularly the hoppy styles for which America is best known.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t demand for American craft beer, as the existence of places like BRLO signals.  Hoping to capitalize on this demand Stone Brewing made the bold move of opening a brewery in Berlin, the first American craft brewery to build a production facility in Europe.  How could a beer story about Berlin be complete without a visit to Stone.

The first thing to know is that Stone’s Berlin brewery is not located anywhere close to the center of Berlin.  It’s roughly 10 km south of the city center in the Mariendorf neighborhood of Berlin, on a large space of mostly undeveloped land that used to be a natural gas distribution facility.  It takes about 45 minutes to get there via a combination of subway, bus, and foot.  Unless you take the wrong branch on the metro, in which case I can tell you from personal experience takes an hour and a half.  It’s the kind of journey that requires a commitment to the destination, so naturally my wife and daughter opted out of the trip.  Fortunately, my friend from Columbus, Laura Oldham, just happened to be visiting Berlin and we made plans to meet up at Stone on a Monday afternoon.

Stone Street Sign

After finding the parking lot it takes me a few minutes to work out which building houses the brewery.  When I do find my way in I’m surprised it wasn’t easier to spot because the brewery and bistro is housed in a massive 25,000 square foot building that resembles an airplane hangar.  The brewing equipment occupies the back third of the building and is separated from the bar and bistro by a large glass wall that stretches up toward the ceiling.  The bar/bistro area is mostly given over to wooden tables and no small number of leafless trees.  There’s an area filled with couches and coffee tables between the dining area and the brewing equipment. The centerpiece of the room is a long bar with about two dozen beers on tap.  There’s a loft above the bar with more seating and yet another leafless tree whose roots come through the floor of the loft and hang over the bar.  The end of the building opposite the brewing equipment features a large circular window with a silhouette of a gargoyle. There are several 3 meter high palates of cans randomly located around the room.  To no one’s surprise there is an extensive merchandising area near the entrance.

Laura is waiting at the bar when I arrive, working her way through a flight.  When I see that Stone brews a Berliner Weisse called White Gheist the first round is an easy call.  Stone describes White Gheist as being boil soured with lactobacillus, I assume that boil soured and kettle soured are different terms for the same thing.  Like the BRLO version it combines a mild acidic twang with some malt sweetness to deliver a very quaffable sweet and sour taste profile, although it has less complex acidic funk in the mid-palate than the BRLO beer.  Stone has made a few tweaks that are not stylistically accurate, but nevertheless don’t detract from the drinking experience.  They’ve pushed the abv up to 4.7%, and if you concentrate you can pick out contributions from the Huell Melon and Callista hops, though fortunately they’ve kept the bitterness low at 12 IBU.  Contrast this with Kindl Weiss, where the brewers split the mash and prior to boiling and only hop a small fraction of the mash [1].  White Gheist also has unusual clarity for a Berliner Weisse.  I suspect the recipe has been tweaked to make the beer more palatable outside of Berlin.  It’s a pleasure to drink, even if it diverges from the historical article on a few counts.

Stone BerlinerWeisse
Stone’s White Geist.

Stone is also pouring a variant of their Berliner Weiss infused with lime and ginger called Ginger Ghost.  Given the tradition of adding syrups, an infused Berliner Weiss seems perfectly acceptable.  This is not a beer that requires deep concentration to find the spice addition.  The ginger is very prominent, it adds a spicy, Asian twist that works beautifully with the other flavors in the beer.  The lime is subtle, but it serves to accentuate the citrusy tartness of the base beer.  I enjoyed this beer, so much that I might try and cook up something similar in a future homebrew.

While Laura and I are sitting at the bar we learn that Stone gives brewery tours everyday at 5:30 pm.  Having come all this way, it’s a no brainer to stick around for the tour.  That gives me a chance for one last Berliner Weiss, a guest tap made by a small Berlin brewery called BrewBaker.  If my research is correct this is one of, if not the first locally produced revival of style.  I had hoped to make a journey to their brewpub north of the Tiergarten, but I ran out of time.  So I’m excited to see it on tap here at Stone, and at 2.5% abv it’s a good choice for my third beer of the afternoon.  It’s a little more sour, a little more complex, than Stone’s Berliner Weiss.  This seems as close as I’m going to get to what I imagine would be an accurate historical representation of the style.  Interestingly it’s also crystal clear, which upon consulting the BJCP guidelines I see is acceptable for the style.

By the way the tour at Stone is well worth it.  For only three euros you get a 60+ minute tour of the brewery that finishes with samples of three beers and a Stone IPA glass that’s surely worth much more than the price of admission.  Look for a follow up post with some photos from the tour and more details about Stone’s European expansion.

Stone Tree Roots
Interesting tree placement.

Conclusions

At its heart Berliner Weiss is a simple beer, a sour that’s meant to be a refreshing thirst quencher.  In the old days it was typically delivered to the pub while still fermenting, and meant to be consumed while fresh, lest it become too sour.  This is a stark contrast with slow barrel aging process used to make lambic.  Even by those modest standards, the modern Kindl Weisse, the last remaining holdover from the glory days, is rather pedestrian in my humble opinion.  That’s not to say that Berliner Weisse can’t have character that goes beyond a conventional kettle sour.  Both the BrewBaker and BRLO versions had more going on that simple lactic acidity and I think that’s what separates the contenders from the pretenders.  Having said that high drinkability is a must, and anything with an abv that approaches or exceeds 5% is ill advised.

It’s worth noting that Berliner Weiss doesn’t come anywhere close to dominating its home market in the way that pilsner, altbier, and kölsch do in Prague, Dusseldorf and Cologne, respectively.  It was on the menu in nearly all of the restaurants and bars I visited, but nowhere was it the only beer on offer.

It also must be said that while Berlin is a fascinating, cosmopolitan city it shouldn’t be confused with one of the great beer destinations of Europe, or even Germany for that matter, but that’s not to say there aren’t some worthwhile stops.  If do visit Berlin, you should have a Berliner Weiss with syrup just to say you’ve done it, and try to track down one of the historic revivals, like BrewBaker.  If you get your fill of the tart local stuff, and want to try some Bavarian wheat beer be sure to check out the Weihenstephaner Café and the Hackeschen Market.

Berlin TV Tower Cathedral
The Berliner Dom with the iconic TV tower in the background.

[1] Stan Hieronymus, “Brewing with Wheat: The Wit and Weizen of World Wheat Beer Styles” Brewers Publications (2010).

3 thoughts on “Seeking the Real Champagne of the North – A Visit to Berlin

Add yours

  1. Here is a useful addition that was posted to my facebook page by Michael von Westfall. With his permission I’ve included it here in the interest of people who might be heading to Berlin.

    Great write up. Next time you are in Berlin, check out Schneeeule’s Marlene, I’ve found it to be the most consistent of the true Berliner Weiße, it’s got the lactic tartness that boarders on lemon chiffon with a whiff of leather from the Brett. I’m now a Berliner, but was born and raised in Ohio, next time you are in the Hauptstadt, we should meet up for a beer.

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