Berliner Weisse not quite gone, forgotten

Why haven't Berliner Weisse beers caught on? Throughout the past few years, a range of sour beer styles — from crisp, tart Belgian lambics and fruity Flanders red ales to funky American wild ales — have steadily gained followings. Yet, the sour, lemony German wheat beer has largely gotten lost in the shuffle.

Try to find a Berliner Weisse at even the best shops, and you'll find only one, two, maybe three (actually you probably won't find an actual Berliner Weisse, but rather a Berliner Weisse-style because, like Champagne, which must come from the Champagne region of France, Berliner Weisse must stem from Berlin). Even in Germany, they're relatively obscure.

That wasn't always the case. Nearly 700 Berlin breweries produced the style in the late 19th century, when the style was the most popular alcoholic drink in the city, according to the Oxford Companion to Beer. But by the mid-1950s, their popularity began to wane.

And, for the most part, they haven't recovered; few German breweries or American craft brewers have sought to try their hand at the style.

That's partially because the craft beer industry is a game of piggybacking. For instance, mega-hopped India pale ales beget mega-mega-hopped double India pale ales, not to mention black India pale ales, Belgian India pale ales and a host of other variations. When few take on a style like Berliner Weisse, even fewer follow.

"It's a relatively obscure style," says Beejay Oslon, co-founder of Chicago-based Pipeworks Brewing. "A few years ago, it was nearly dead. People weren't really making them. People still don't know what it is."

But that hasn't stopped Pipeworks from rolling out several Berliner Weisse — both those brewed with fruit, including blueberries (Blue Lady) and raspberries (Well Read Temptress) and those without (Flower Child). Similarly, St. Louis-based Perennial Artisan Ales makes a Peach Berliner Weisse for a limited August release.

Brewers tend to use fruit with Berliner Weisse to cut some of the beer's natural tartness. And it has a historical precedent, as publicans often blended the beer with fruit-flavored syrups such as raspberry.

While there are other sour styles, Berliner Weisse has a certain appeal, says Oslon. The beer is sour but not too sour. Refreshing and not too alcoholic — for instance, Flower Child is 3.5 percent alcohol by volume. It may not be for everyone, but it probably would have more fans if more people knew what it was, says Oslon.

"We're brewing beers we want to drink and that introduce something to the market," he says.

Try it

Pipeworks Flower Child: A straw-colored beer with a tart, bready aroma. The flavor is tart, with lemon and mineral notes.

Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse: Golden, with a yeasty, citrusy and funky smell and a taste that brings to mind lemons, green apples, pears and yeast.