The Original Champagne of Beers Returns

Berliner Weisse-inspired beers have been booming for years, but little of what’s on the market is a true representation of the style. Berlin’s own Schneeeule Brauerei wants to change that.

In 2012, Ulrike Genz tasted something that would change her life. She was at a summerfest party at the Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei (VLB), a research and training institute for brewers in Berlin, where VLB brewmaster Curt Marshall presented a traditional Berliner Weisse, a long neglected beer style native to Berlin that once accounted for the majority of beer produced in the capital city. He’d brewed it based on historical recipes.

“I tried it and was instantly in love with this beer,” she recently recounted. “It was refreshing, not too alcoholic so I could drink it the whole night, yet it was still complex and interesting.”

The only problem: No one was making it on a regular schedule or at any production scale. So Genz, whose background is in civil engineering, microbiology and brewing technology, decided to brew the style herself with the help of her business partner, a homebrewer named Andreas Bogk. In 2016, after years of research and planning, Schneeeule Brauerei became the first traditional Berliner Weisse-focused brewery in Berlin in more than 30 years.

A traditional Berliner Weisse, according to Genz, is a lactic acid-fermented light wheat beer that must be brewed in Berlin (it has protected status), is low in alcohol (around 3 percent by volume), and is bottle-conditioned with brettanomyces, more affectionately known as “brett” (the latter being the key distinction between “traditional” and “modern” styles, which are not conditioned with brett). “It should have clear lactic acid flavor,” she adds, “no acetic acid, high carbonation, voluminous foam with a fine moussé texture, and brett aromas that change during aging.”

Along with gose and other kettle sours, Berliner-style wheat beer is one of the most popular rediscovered beer styles in the world, particularly in the States where the category includes popular beers like Bell’s Oarsman Ale, Creature Comforts’ Athena and Dogfish Head’s Festina Pêche. Even Stone Brewing, known for hardcore American-style flavors, opened an outpost in Berlin in 2016 to make a Berliner Weisse exclusively for that market. But what most American beer drinkers think of as Berliner Weisse is a far cry from the so-called “Champagne of the North” that Napoleon toasted his troops with in 1809.

“In its heyday, there were about 200 Berliner Weisse breweries in Berlin,” explains Genz, “but two world wars and the rise of cheaper-to-produce, bottom-fermented beers like pilsners took its toll.”

By 1970, only four existed—three in West Berlin and one in East Berlin—and by the 1990s all four had been taken over by the Radeberger Group, which eventually consolidated the entirety of its Berliner Weisse production under the Berliner Kindl brand. Genz says that Kindl Weisse—today, less of a serious brewery than a tourist attraction—“is merely a kettle sour, which is not bottle-fermented using brettanomyces. So, when American craft brewers came to Berlin in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was nothing other than Kindl. Of course they got the impression that this is the real thing, but it’s not.”

Genz, whose Berliner Weisse is all the rage among the city’s natural wine and craft cocktail set, is hoping to reclaim the glory Berliner Weisse once enjoyed in its home city. She also hopes to educate others, including American brewers, about real Berliner Weisse. But she’s also not opposed to experimentation.

“Of course I play with the style. I have variations like Kennedy, which is dry-hopped with jasmine flowers, and Rosa, a beer for a local restaurant, which has handpicked elderberries that grow in masses at the lakes around Berlin.” When asked about Florida Weisse, one of the most popular American variations on the style, which incorporates locally grown Florida tropical and citrus fruits, Genz says, “Yeah, why not add and ferment crazy combinations of fruits in your beer. Just don’t call it a Berliner.”

Genz’s Schneeeule Brauerei is the only brewery in the city focused entirely on brewing traditional examples of Berliner Weisse, but there are three other Berlin breweries—BrewBaker, Brauhaus Lemke and Berliner Berg—that now make traditional brett-conditioned Berliner Weisse, alongside a variety of other beers. Each offers their own interpretation of what “traditional” means. For Genz, that includes the use of a historic brett strain cultured from vintage Berliner Weisse bottles that were up to 60 years old. For others, like Michael Schwab of BrewBaker, it means combining traditional techniques with more modern approaches.

“I let myself be inspired by the traditions,” says Schwab, “but I add newer research to make my own style [of Berliner Weisse].” He says he doesn’t use the reclaimed brett strain, “because the yeast bank in Berlin has 60 different varieties that I can choose from.”

Schwab first brewed a brett-conditioned Berliner Weisse after sampling a 50-year-old bottle in 2010 that a neighbor, who was using it as decoration, gave to him. “Nobody was doing it at the time, so I started making it again,” he says. “Now, others are bringing their own ideas, so we have many more interesting Berliner Weisse to choose from.”

After nearly a century of neglect in its very own city, the revival of Berliner Weisse in Berlin is a step in the right direction towards moving the drink from a cult curiosity to the mainstream beverage it once was. But still, the question remains: What does the true “Champagne of the North” taste like?

Schwab says that the historical brett-conditioned process is important, but that no one recipe can possibly define the style. “When you had close to 200 Weisse breweries in Berlin, which is the original?”

Four Traditional Berliner Weisse Beers to Try

In Germany, only beer brewed within Berlin city limits can be labeled Berliner Weisse, but there is no requirement for brett- or bottle-conditioning. Therefore, many breweries, including BRLO and even the California export Stone can claim “true, authentic” Berliner Weisse in Berlin without using brett. By our count, there are only four Berliner Weisse producers that adhere to the historical tradition.

Schneeeule Marlene | 3.0 percent
Founder Ulrike Genz is as dedicated to spreading the history of Berliner Weisse as she is to the production of the beer itself. Her flagship Marlene is based on historical Berliner Weisse recipes, which used brett to add character and longevity. “If you work with brett, it usually adds enough complexity and depth to the beer that you don’t need to add syrups or fruits,” she says, in reference to the modern tradition of adding squirts of raspberry, woodruff, or other fruited syrups to Berliner Weisse just before serving in order to tame its acidity and tartness. For such a small beer—just 3 percent alcohol and extremely light-bodied—Marlene has multifaceted fruitiness and a gentle acidity from lacto and brett fermentations. It will soon be available in the States via Shelton Brothers.

BrewBaker Berliner Weisse | 2.5 percent
Michael Schwab’s BrewBaker Berliner Weisse (sold in the States under the Braubäcker label) was perhaps the first modern commercial brett-conditioned Berliner Weisse made in Berlin. Fermented with three yeast strains—brett, along with saccharomyces and lactobacillus—it’s a complex but refreshing thirst quencher with fruity pineapple notes from the brett.

Brauhaus Lemke Budike Weisse | 3.0 percent
To recreate this historical recipe, founder and brewer Oli Lemke worked with the Technical University of Berlin to study how mixed culture fermentation influences Berliner Weisse. He brewed more than 100 test batches over two years and finally landed on this combination of yeasts, bacteria and secondary fermentation times. The resulting beer has a cider-like quality with a complex, yet rounded, flavor. Connecticut’s B. United International will soon import it to the U.S.

Berliner Berg Berliner Weisse | 3.0 percent
Located in the Neukölln borough of Berlin, brewmaster Torsten Vullriede of Berliner Berg conducted experiments similar to those of his colleagues with various yeasts strains and concentrations of lactic acid bacteria to arrive at a final recipe for his Berliner Weisse. The result is a no-frills traditional Berliner Weisse built upon a pilsner malt base with peachy notes. The bottle-conditioned version, packaged in 750mL Champagne-style bottles, is conditioned for 12 months with brett in the brewery’s cellar.