Catawba Beer 101 – Berliner Weisse
The Berliner Weisse is a beer of cloudy appearance and clouded origins.
It has been theorized the inspiration for the local sour wheat ale may have been brought to Berlin by Huguenots who fled to Germany in the late 1600s. They likely would’ve been familiar with sour beer traditions of Northern Europe after migrating across Flanders, Brussels, and the Rhineland. Some have credited a 17th century Hamburg brewer with pioneering the style, which was later replicated by brewers in Berlin. Others believe it was already being brewed in Berlin by the late 1500s, well before the previously mentioned influences existed.
By the 19th century, Berlin had become the brewing capital of Continental Europe.
Napoléon’s troops famously dubbed the local beer the “champagne of the North” due to it’s dry, wine-like characteristics. Wheat in the mash gives the beer a sharper edge as compared to malted barley. Add lactic bacteria cultures and top-fermenting yeast into the mix, and you get a more intense, thirst quenching creation (similar to a wine or champagne) that could impress even the most discerning Frenchman!
Historically, the Berliner Weisse wort was never boiled and the mashing process was used as a filtering aid since it didn’t go through an actual filtering step.
The beer was typically served with a dash of sweet syrup to soften the tart edge, usually of raspberry flavor. Woodruff, a green herbal essence, was also used as a flavor enhancer.
Like most historical styles, the popularity of the Berliner Weisse has risen and fallen with the prevailing beer trends of the times. Yet, it has lived on as a regional specialty, an enduring expression of Berlin’s brewing individuality. While some brewers in other areas were adapting their techniques with the times, Berlin’s brewers stayed true to the old ways of top-fermentation combined with the creative use of lactic cultures.
Brewers did however stray from spontaneous fermentation with advances in fermentation sciences. As scientists were able to identify the organisms and conditions responsible for the signature Berliner Weisse character, brewers began inoculating the wort with specific yeast strains, allowing the style to be maintained for generations to come.
Over time, the chemistry of the beer has changed.
The proportion of malted wheat has decreased from 50% to 30%, and the wort now undergoes a short boil. This serves the purpose of sanitation while allowing protein compounds to be retained – critical to the fueling of Lactobacillus.
Top-fermenting yeast is added and the beer ferments at standard ale temperatures. Once the desired attenuation is achieved, the wort is sent to kettles for conditioning. The yeast continues to breakdown sugars, and the Lactobacillus enhances the sour bite. The beer is never pasteurized and is usually further conditioned in bottles.
True to style, the Catawba Berliner Weisse is brewed with a significant portion of malted wheat, giving the beer a bready backbone with a touch of sweetness.
It was then soured in the kettle for three days with our house Lactobacillus culture, followed by a short boil and fermentation. The result is a gentle tartness that doesn’t overpower the palate – light, complex, and refreshing.
We hope you had the chance to experience this taste of German beer history at one of our tasting rooms since its release last Thursday (September 7). If not, don’t fret! Catawba’s Oktoberfest is coming up on Saturday, September 30th. Berliner Weisse, as well as our next two Small Batch German-style beers will be available during the festivities!