Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse, now pouring at Common Haus

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Jeff and Roger, American volunteers in East Berlin at the Imbiss, 1989.

Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse currently is pouring at Common Haus Hall.

In late May of 1989, I flew into West Berlin for three days of sightseeing prior to transiting the German Democratic Republic into Czechoslovakia, and two months exploring in the East Bloc.

While in West Berlin I can remember buying a bottle of Berliner Kindl Weisse and taking it back to my room, where I poured it into my camp cup and was utterly shocked by the sourness. It seemed excessive, but then again I had no idea what a sour beer was supposed to be.

In the case of Berliner Weisse, it was (and remains) a pale, cloudy and effervescent variation on a theme of Northern German wheat ale, brewed from variable combinations of malted wheat and barley, and with a very low hopping rate.

Yeast mixtures might include regular ale yeast as well as a pinch of Brettanomyces (but this is not a lambic by any stretch). The brewing process encourages the creation of lactobacillus, or naturally occurring bacteria, hence the tart acidity.

Berliner Weisse dates to the 1600s and perhaps earlier, and was famously consumed by Napoleon’s troops, who occupied Berlin from 1806 through 1809, and supposedly referred to the beer “as the Champagne of the North.”

Two months after the shock to my youthful palate, I returned. This time my lodgings were in East Berlin, where a few dozen Western work brigade volunteers resided for three weeks in 8-bunk army tents. I’ve written about it here: Staycation Stories: A Working Lunch in East Berlin, 1989.

As the title attests, East Berlin afforded a second opportunity to taste Berliner Weisse. As it happened, several pre-war breweries were located in what became the Soviet occupation zone and later the GDR, including Bürgerbräu, Bärenquell, Schultheiss and Kindl. The Berliner Kindl I’d consumed earlier in the trip came from a West Berlin brewery launched when the owners saw their properties confiscated by the “new world order” in East Berlin.

2014, sans syrup, during a visit to the old East Berlin stomping grounds.

Schultheiss seems to have been the most famous of the Berliner Weisse producers in East Berlin, and fortunately, my workplace was located in a public park with an Imbiss (meaning a food and drink kiosk) that served sausages and Schultheiss Berliner Weisse “mit schuss,” or with a shot of non-alcoholic, sweet raspberry syrup to cut the tartness.

We’d been warned by our Communist Party boss, a tiny bureaucrat with ludicrously dyed black hair, that drinking was strictly forbidden on the clock. Our co-workers, who were university students, giggled and responded by drinking lunch just about every day at the Imbiss. I usually had a sausage, too, and we didn’t see the boss ever again after his opening temperance lecture.

To make a long story shorter, the years following German unification in 1990 weren’t kind to the venerable institution of Berliner Weisse. Breweries were bought, sold and closed; tastes changed, and in retrospect, it can be seen that recipes became simpler and sourer, making the addition of sweet syrups, generally raspberry (Himbeer, red) and woodruff (Waldmeister, green), less of a choice and more of a necessity.

Happily, the craft brewing era was built for the reclamation of beer styles like Berliner Weisse. The city of Berlin is now home to several small breweries intent on reviving the style, and while these versions aren’t available to us at Common Haus Hall, Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse is on tap now.

Professor Briem is a real person. He was a lecturer at the Weihenstephan University brewing school in Freising near Munich, and has served as the managing director of the Weihenstephan yeast bank as well as the Lupex hop trading company. Briem also has ties to the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. In addition to the Berliner Weisse, which the B. United International firm imports into America, he has created a Grodziskie (smoked, sour wheat ale) and a 13th Century Gruit Bier (herbed, not hopped).

I’d peg the Briem 1809 as firmly tart, not stupidly sour. At 5% abv, there’s a solid mouthfeel with mid-range effervescence. The interplay between malt and fermentation characteristics yields subtle fruity flavors. In short, this ale displays the mark of intelligent construction, which is balance. It’s not a dirty word in my book.

Me? I’m drinking my Briem 1809 straight. I may not have understood sourness in a beer in 1989, but I do now, and this one is quite good.

However, we also know there is a Berliner syrup tradition to uphold. Maggie Oster, a Common Haus Kitchen staffer and masterful cook in her own right, created non-alcoholic Raspberry Lemon Verbena and Woodruff syrup recipes, which we’ll be keeping around during the life of the keg. If you’d like a shot, just ask (10-ounce pours for 1809).

If this goes well and I can score another keg, who knows?

You may be wondering where Briem brews his beer. The conventional wisdom is the Weihenstephaner brewery, which like the school is owned by the Bavarian state. At times in the past, the brewery has flatly denied it. In this interview (use your browser’s translation feature), Briem mentions brewing Berliner Weisse “in the Hallertau” hop-growing region.

So, I don’t have a definitive answer, and yet this shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the ale.

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