Berliner Weisse: Word to Your Mother

This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.


Apparently, this Homebrew Recipe appeals to moms everywhere.

Homebrew Recipe: Berliner Weisse // Illustration by Phil Juliano

Homebrew Recipe: Berliner Weisse // Illustration by Phil Juliano

True story: my mom doesn’t like beer…except for Berliner Weisse.

That’s the sole exception. When my dad and I would homebrew, she would have to leave the house because of the smell. She wouldn’t try any of our concoctions or, for that matter, any commercial beers, no matter the intensity of color or flavor. She was a wine drinker and just couldn’t get behind fermented cereal grains, end of conversation. But then, one year my folks went to Hamburg to visit the grown-up exchange student they had hosted as a high schooler. During the visit, they made a day trip with him to Berlin where mom was converted by what I hope and imagine was a big-ass goldfish bowl full of that city’s appellation-protected sour wheat beer.

So: for mothers everywhere, for summer, for the good times: Berliner Weisse.

Going by the Numbers

On paper, classic Berliner Weisse looks positively featherweight: with an OG of just 1.028 to 1.032 and a typical alcohol content hovering right around 3% ABV, it also clocks in with extremely low bitterness to the tune of 3-8 IBU, and a color of just 2-3 SRM—no darker than pale straw. The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though: the hallmark feature of this style is a lightly fruity character and gentle, thirst-quenching tartness from a mixed-culture fermentation of yeast and lactic acid bacteria.

What Makes It Tick

What was it about this style that made Ma Dawson a believer where a dispirited parade of cream ales, witbiers, eisbocks, milk stouts, fruit lambics, and blonde lagers had failed? Besides the fact that it’s light and not at all bitter, it could have been that Berliner Weisse is arguably the most wine-like of beers: Napoleon’s troops called this ale “the Champagne of the north” because of its highly effervescent and fruity nature. And while, unlike many other sour styles and lambics from Belgium, the acidic quality of Berliner Weisse can be pronounced, it’s not funky or aggressive.

The engine that makes this German vehicle tear down the flavor autobahn is the interplay of extremely low bitterness in conjunction with Lactobacillus bacteria and Saccharomyces yeast fermenting side by side in a low-gravity, wheat-and-pils malt wort: it should be light, it should be dry, and it should be tart.
Lactobacillus metabolizes wort sugars into lactic acid—but not in the presence of hop acids, so an extremely low hop rate is mandatory to ensure proper souring. To help minimize bitterness, hops are usually added to the mash and the wort is boiled very briefly—if at all!

Like the Hefeweizen of Bavaria, Berlin’s wheat beer is a top-fermenting ale brewed with a healthy proportion of malted wheat in the grist, but Hefeweizen’s heavy phenolic and isoamyl acetate notes—clove, vanilla, bananas—are out of place here. Like Düsseldorf’s Altbier and Köln’s Kölsch, we want a clean, neutral-profiled German ale yeast for this job.

In a traditional Berliner Weisse brewhouse, this green beer was primed and packaged immediately after a super-speedy primary fermentation (as little as two or three days!). It was then given a cool cellaring period of several months, during which time the beer’s sour character would continue to develop and the blonde beer would drop crystal clear.

In addition to the unique lack of wort-sterilizing boil and extended aging, combined with the porosity of the wooden casks and kegs used back in the day, there’s also a school of thought that considers Brettanomyces to be a traditional component of the Berliner Weisse fermentation blend. If you choose to go that route, Brett can enhance the dryness and add a pleasant earthy note to the beer after extended aging.

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