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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fun With Beer - Berliner Weisse

I spent the waning, sunnny hours of the evening last night at the Pilsner Room enjoying a Berliner Weisse. Chris's Summer D-Lite is assistant brewer Chris Haveman's wonderful entry in the "Brewer's Share" program at Full Sail. I've enjoyed Berliner Weisses in the past, but never as they're served at the Pilsner Room--and in Berlin--with accompanying woodruff and raspberry syrup.

The style, noted for its dry, tart lactic character, is at least 400 years old and may date back to the Huguenot migration into Germany. The Huguenots were Flemish-French protestants, so could the style have passed through, say, the Zenne Valley? A hypothesis I consider with relish. In any case, the style is, for sourheads, a joy. Beers are sour in different ways; a good Berliner Weisse should be sharply tart, like a fresh lemon. They aren't punishingly or funkily sour, just tart, and therefore perfectly thirst-quenching, like a fresh lemon soda.

I have always been intrigued by this passage from Jackson, and have regretted that I'd have to go to Berlin to enjoy the experience:
"I have only ever seen the summer versions, with a dash of the herbal essence of woodruff (Waldmeister) or raspberry syrup. This is now the familiar face of Berliner Weisse.

"The syrup colors the head as well as the beer, the woodruff making for a vivid lime-cordial hue and the raspberry looking more like peach. Everyone knows the flavor of raspberry, but what about the essence of woodruff? Sampled on its own, it is heavily fragrant, with notes of hay, lemon grass, and cough drops. The herb grows in the forests around Berlin, and is also used to make a soft drink and to flavor mineral water. When Berliner Weisse is served in this way, the idea is that the drinker first tastes the sweetness of the syrup, then sense the acidity of the beer.

"Whenever I asked for a Weissbier in Berlin, the server has demanded: "Red or green?" If I have requested it without either, to sample the beer in its native state, I have sometimes been viewed as a madman. The syrups are considered necessary to moderate the intensity of the acid..."
You get something like this experience at Full Sail. Instead of--or in addition to--the query "red or green," you may hear "raspberry or marshmallow?" (Marshmallow? See below.) I wanted to taste all three variants, so I ordered the syrup on the side. My experience with the style isn't vast--there just aren't very many examples available in the US--but this version seemed like a perfect example. Berliner Weisses are not designed to be complex; they depend on the clarity of the tart note. It has to be very fresh and clean and have that citrus-like thirst-quenching quality. These beers are made with some wheat, a flavor evident particularly in the finish, but not a dominant one. All of these things describe Chris's Summer D-Lite. It's spot-on. Germans might find a beer like this too intense, but those of you who like sour beers of Belgium will find it quite approachable.

The syrups surprised me. Added to the beer, they recall some long lost fountain drink, like a phosphate. (For those who don't like to stray too far from sight of a hop, these are a distant wander to foreign land--a word to the wise.) The raspberry wasn't too weird--hold your mouth right and you could imagine a fruit lambic. But the "green" was something else. I didn't get "marshmallow" from it. There's a strong vanilla note, and something herbal behind that. Hay isn't far off, but with a tiny touch of anise. The syrups are heavier than beer, and you need to stir as you go along, or you'll end up with two fingers of weird Fanta. I recommend getting them on the side so you can add to taste. Just a touch and they add some flavor without much sweetness. Go hog wild and dump the whole thing in if you want a wild ride.

It was one of the more entertaining times I've had drinking beer in the past decade or so. Don't miss it--you'll regret it if you do. (Or end up having to go all the way to Germany. Not bad, but inconvenient.)


  1. In Germany, "Green" would be a Woodruff Syrup. It has an herbaous and vanilla flavor.

    Today, Woodruff syrup is usually made with artificial flavorings as the use of natural Woodruff has been banned.


    Woodruff is a strongly scented plant, the sweet scent being derived from coumarin. This scent increases on wilting and then persists on drying. It is also used, mainly in Germany, to flavor May wine (called "Maiwein" or "Maibowle" in German), beer (Berliner Weisse), brandy, sausages, jelly, jam, a soft drink (Tarhun), ice cream, and a herbal tea with gentle sedative properties.

    High doses can cause headaches, due to the toxicity of coumarin. Very high doses of coumarin can cause vertigo, somnolence or even central paralysis and apnoea while in a coma. Since 1981, woodruff may no longer be used as an ingredient of industrially produced drinks and food stuffs in Germany; it has been replaced by artificial aromas and colorings.

  2. Jeff,

    You might be interested enough to follow through on this one. I purchased a german Berliner Weiss from Belmont Station a couple of years back, and inquired about the syrups. Although they didn't carry these, who ever was helping me at the time was pretty certain that the Woodruff could be purchased from the Scottish Shop off of Powell I think.

    I was pretty tempted to pursue this, and am extremely excited to go to the Pilsner Room to get the full effect. We'll be asking for the syrups on the side!

  3. Nodding head brewery in center city Philly, has a berliner weisse served with woodruff syrup. Had it two/three years ago; never heard of it before, nor have I seen it anywhere since. Refreshing on a hot day. Nodding Head is a nice homey brewery with good beer, and a huge collection of bobbleheads. Plus they've got a lager called "monkey knife fight" so they've got that going for them:

  4. I finally got back to the Pilsner Room to try the Berliner Weiss with the syrups, and I have to agree with whoever asked you, "Raspberry or marshmallow?" *?*

    I didn't give them a chance to ask me what I wanted - I just told them to put the syrups on the side, and I had no recollection of that particular tidbit in this review going in, so I went into the tasting with no preconception for how (artificial) woodruff should taste… but marshmallow is exactly what I got out of it. "…strong vanilla note…with a tiny touch of anise" isn't far off either, but I don't know from where hay comes, nor would I say it's particularly herbal (I guess anise is technically an herb).

    Overall not a bad experience, but I think I'd prefer the all-natural variety if I could get it, and of course real raspberry would've been much more preferable (or even a shot of one of the many excellent framboise's). Of course, I'm just as likely to order the beer straight; for someone who's used to funky Belgian sours, this is easy… and pleasant.