Berliner Weiße, Berlin’s lost beer, is making a heady comeback. All from Schneeeule – a tiny brewery near Tegel.
Berliner Weiße was once known as the Champagne of the North. Now it’s only known as that novelty drink tourists add syrup to. It’s a Berlin tradition that’s sadly slipped through the cracks (like, well, speaking German…), but boutique brewery Schneeeule is ensuring this complex, heady, delicate yet volatile drink is making a comeback.
Put down that radler! We spoke to the amazing Schneeeule brewmasterin Ulrike Genz about Berliner Weiße, Berlin’s original and best summer drink.
What is Berliner Weiße?
Sour, light wheat beer (with wheat malt and top fermented, Schankbier 7-9°P), bottle-fermented with brettanomyces yeast, highly carbonated, with a nice beaucoup foam head (if you want an exact definition!).
You can also say it’s light (just 3% alcohol), bubbly like champagne, tart and refreshing. A great beer for summer.
“In Schneeeule Berliner Weiße you don’t need syrup.”
Why do people pour syrup in it?
In Schneeeule Berliner Weiße you don’t need syrup.
The thing with the syrup started around the end of the 19th century. As more and more people started to produce Berliner Weiße, the quality of the product became worse. To cover the bad taste that resulted from this, people started to add sugar water. Flavoured syrup was added when the Berliner Weiße was served to kids, which was common back in those days.
But to clarify this: classic, decently-brewed Berliner Weiße does not need syrup. Sometimes people added kummel schnapps to increase the alcohol content or bitter orange/pomegranate to make it more bitter.
How did it taste when Napoleon drank it?
We hope that we come close to the taste. There are unfortunately not too many historical sources left. Two world wars took its toll here. The sources we found described the beer as “mildly sour” and “highly carbonated” (bubbles!) and bottle fermented. With our “Marlene” we try to come as close as possible to the original.
Our variations with jasmin (“Yasmin”), American hops (“Kennedy”), elderflower (“Otto”) and others are our modern variations of this style.
“What’s most important is: you have to do it in Berlin.”
There are many breweries talking about making the original Berliner Weiße again but kind of don’t… do it. What makes it so hard to brew a good Weiße?
As I said before there are not too many historical sources left, so there is some room for interpretation. Our colleagues at BRLO, Brewbaker or Lemke do their own interpretations which is great. But we are so far the only ones with bottle fermentation.
Back in the day there where more than 200 breweries that made Berliner Weiße, so I think it’s a bit presumptuous to say we do the ONLY original Berliner Weiße, but what’s most important is: you have to do it in Berlin. Outside of Berlin it isn’t an original.
Also we think the use of the special brettanomyces yeast is pretty important if you want to get close to the original Berliner Weiße.
Maybe it takes a female brewer?
Hahah, I don’t know if it’s a matter of gender. But I consider my beers as my babies – and the name of my daughter is Marlene – maybe this helps.
So how did you guys get into brewing Weiße? Legend says you found some 50-year-old bottles in a basement, took the yeast that was preserved in them and used that culture as a base for Schneeeule?
That’s mostly true. We use old yeast strains from old bottles. But the honour of being first to preserve the yeast from old bottles goes to Andreas Bogk. Andreas started a brewery a couple of years before us but didn’t have the time to make it into a business. So we took over his strains and some of his equipment and, if he has the time, he sometimes comes over to help with the brewing or just hang out.
A Weiße continues to develop its taste and alcohol in the bottle. Your bottles say it has 3% alcohol – how high can the alcohol in a bottle go?
A young Weiße is relatively sweet. Over time the yeast eats away the sugars and produces alcohol and CO2. The alcohol content can rise up to 4.5%, but after a while, when everything is sugary, the brettanomyces yeast eats the alcohol and the alcohol content goes down again. But we are speaking about years here.
Opening a Weiße is a bit like popping the cork on a bottle of champagne – fun! Can your bottles blow up?
Not really. But our product is still living, the yeast and the bacteria in it are still alive and they love temperatures over 20°C. If you store your Weiße somewhere warm, there will plenty of eating and pooping CO2 by the bacteria which will cause the pressure to rise. Because the gas doesn’t dissolve into the beer, you will get a lot of foam when opening the bottle… So don’t do this!
The beer is best when chilled down to 6 to 8 Celsius and served out of a wide glass.
Which kind of foods go well with your Weiße, if you were to do a food pairing?
Basically everything that goes great along with white wine or even cider. I like to drink my beer with all food.
“Support your local brewer!”
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Support your local brewer! There are some many good ones in Berlin and the number is growing! If you go to a fancy restaurant and you have to drink industrially produced stuff from Radeberg or Bitburg along with your dry aged steak or your Bison burger there is something wrong. If you can purchase a 40€ bottle of wine but they just serve the cheapest beers, complain and demand a change here. Ask for beer from small local breweries like Fräulein Brauer, Lenny’s, Schoppe, Bierfabrik, Flessa, Heidenpeters, Gebr. Wiestner and all the other great ones from Berlin.
Photos: Tom Taylor
Camera: Canon EOS 6D