The Berliner Weiss is particularly challenging to common perceptions of everyday brews popular with the majority of beer drinkers. This style of beer is known for its distinctive, even edgy, sourness, and attracts a small but unequivocal set of fans who are passionate about its unique tart flavors and historical origins.
As the name indicates, it's a beer that arose around Berlin. Some brewing historians say it's been made since the Middle Ages. In the early 1800s, it was extremely popular. Napoleon referred to it as the "Champagne of the North" because of its light, bubbly nature.
A handful of Wisconsin's early German immigrant brewers brought the style here and made it up until the Prohibition era. In recent years, the Berliner Weiss has become nearly extinct, especially in the United States. However, New Glarus Brewing is doing its part with its Thumprint series to make sure this old style of sour beer finds a new following.
What is it? Thumbprint Berliner Weiss from New Glarus Brewing Company of New Glarus, Wisconsin.
Style: Berliner Weiss can be thought of as a specialty wheat beer. It's usually very pale to straw in color, is highly carbonated, and has a distinctive acidic sourness from a combination of yeast and lactic acid bacteria. In Germany, a shot of raspberry- or woodruff-flavored syrup is customarily offered with it to counteract the tartness. The Berliner Weiss has very little hop bitterness; rather, it has some light bready or grainy tones from the wheat that makes up a significant proportion of the grist. However, this style is more about fruity tartness, light body, effervescence and low alcohol (2.8% to 3.4% ABV), which make it a very refreshing beer.
Background: There are not many American-made examples of the Berliner Weiss. New Glarus owner and brewmaster Dan Carey makes it only periodically, last releasing it in 2008. Carey considers the style an easy-drinking light summer beer. Those who appreciate full-flavored beers while also looking for something light should try this very limited release brew because of its distinctive sourness. Berliner Weiss gets much of its tart-sourness from how it's fermented. Carey uses four strains of brewer's yeast and one strain of Lactobacillus (similar to what is used by bakers in making sourdough bread). The beer is barrel-fermented and bottle-conditioned. It ends up very light in strength, at around 3% ABV.
Carey's signature take on the style comes from using Wisconsin White Wheat from Briese Malt of Chilton -- and Riesling grapes. In previous releases, Carey has used a combination of Pinot Grigio and Riesling, but for this year's version he could find only the Riesling. It's added as an extract, and it accentuates the fruity tones while softening some of the distinctive sourness.
New Glarus Berliner Weiss is sold in the brewery's limited-release Thumbprint series of 4-packs for around $10-$11.
- Aroma: The sharp sour, lightly acidic tones let you know you're drinking something different. Yet, there's a faint aromatic clue of grapes.
- Appearance: Brilliant yellow with a slight haze. The white bubbly head of foam is so thick and long lasting, it reminded me of meringue.
- Texture: Light, bubbly and crisp.
- Taste: The initial sourness is sharp and tart, bordering on acidic. Yet it's softened somewhat by the sweetness of the Riesling grapes, which add complexity and depth to the flavor.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A grape-like accent is more evident in the ending, with hints of mustiness and fruitiness. The effervescence never quits with this highly carbonated beer. The thick, long-lasting head lingers throughout the glass.
Glassware: To fully appreciate the Berliner Weiss, don't settle for drinking it directly from the bottle. It would customarily be served in a special glass that resembles a short cup or bowl with a wide mouth. However, that's not a very common beer glass to have around the house. The footed pilsner or a small weizen glass also works, showing of the beer's bright bubbly yellow color while allowing the dense white head to rise above the lip of the glass. Some German brands say it's a style that will continue to bottle-condition and age very well; even another four or five years will allow it to become more fruity and effervescent.
Pairs well with: Its bubbly, crisp-tartness makes for a great pre-dinner beer. The Berliner Weiss is light bodied and very bubbly, and its tartness it can be a great palate cleanser.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: I like this style in the early summer. I'll also keep a few bottles around to share with friends because it's a great pre-meal beer. New Glarus Berliner Weiss is a complex beer. Despite being low in alcohol, its flavors are intense. And while the sourness dominates, it isn't completely overwhelming. I really enjoyed the floral and light sweet tones of the Riesling grapes featured in the 2013 batch. The previous versions made with a blend of both Pinot Grigio and Riesling seemed more acidic, with a green apple tartness. I prefer this season's variety using only Riesling, with its blend of grape tones and a sharp sourness from the Lactobacillus. In the end, it's still rather low in sweetness, very light bodied, and with a spritzy tartness that makes it a very refreshing and an ideal summer beer.