Berliner Weisse: The Champagne of the Spree

My colleague, Don Murphy, recently visited Germany and before he left, I sweet-talked him into bringing me back a special beer. Several weeks and 18,000 kilometres later, he appeared in my office with the booty: a squat bottle of Berliner Weisse.

I had read about this beer but never tasted it. Known as the Champagne of the Spree, it is a low alcohol (3 per cent alcohol by volume) wheat beer with a sour twang from lactic acid (the same acid that gives yogurt its tartness). It is dry and effervescent like a champagne; the Spree part of its moniker refers to a river that runs through Berlin.

At one time, there were hundreds of brewers making Berliner Weisse. It was the most popular beer style in Berlin in the 19th century. These days, most Germans think it’s just a fizzy, low-alcohol drink for the university crowd with their rap music and thumb-talking. The label of the beer even depicts the face of a young boy emerging from a beer stein. You’d never see this sort of image on a North American beer label.

The traditional way to drink the beer is in a wide-mouthed, stemmed glass with a straw and a shot of sweet syrup: raspberry, woodruff or, less commonly, lemon. I had to look up woodruff on the internet, so I didn’t hold out much hope of finding such syrup. I looked for raspberry and lemon instead. After a few dead ends I found myself contemplating a can of frozen Minute Maid lemonade. Warmed up, it is sort of a syrup.

After a gruelling snowshoe hike up Grey Mountain, I rewarded myself with the Berliner Weisse. It pours a golden-straw colour with a fine head that quickly subsides. The beer tastes like a very dry apple cider — tart, but not puckering. I’m no fashionista, but I figure sour is the new black in the beer world. The last decade of hop domination is giving way to sourness.

Adding my lemon “syrup”, it transformed into a slightly sweet, very refreshing lemony cider. Personally, I like the beer better with the syrup because of the intermittent grassy notes that I found distracting. With the syrup, it has a shandy-like quality — a perfect summer lawnmower beer.

On the back of the bottle the brewery even advertises the syrups you can purchase (in Germany) to add to the beer. Apparently, you will get strange looks from Berliners if you order the beer ohne shuss, without the shot of syrup.

Chances are you won’t find this elusive beer in stores, but look out for other sour beers like Flanders Red Ale, Gueuze and lambic. And when drinking them, it helps if you don’t think of them as beer but, rather, as something completely different to awaken your palate while still giving you a pleasant beer buzz.

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