Generally speaking, brewers would prefer that beer drinkers abstain from adding ingredients to change their beer after they’ve brewed it. By the time it is in your glass, the beer should be, in the best cases, exactly what the brewer intended and shouldn’t need any additional enhancement: no sugar-rimmed glasses, no extraneous fruit garnishes or other additives to make it sweeter, hoppier or fruitier.
There is one major exception to that rule, and it is an old-world style that has started to make a comeback: the Berliner weisse.
The Berliner weisse dates back hundreds of years but has only recently returned from obscurity. A Berliner weisse is a low alcohol, cloudy, wheat-based style that originated in Germany. It is brewed, typically, with Lactobacillus, a bacteria strain that brings a sharp tartness to the finished beer. The result is refreshing, great for drinking on a hot day. It is flavorful, and especially so, considering its lack of alcohol. Typical Berliner weisse comes in under 4 percent alcohol content, which is less than a can of light, mass-market lager.
According to beer lore, Napoleon’s troops reached the northern part of Germany and sought to celebrate its occupation with Champagne. Finding none, they instead drank a locally-made light, golden-colored beer that they found pleasant and delicate. After partaking of this beer, Napoleon’s troops started referring to the beer style as “Champagne du Nord,” meaning Champagne of the north, the style that the locals referred to as Berliner weisse.
To learn more about this style, I stopped into Dirigo Brewing Co., whose brewers love to make interesting historical lager styles, and especially German ones. On tap in the Biddeford tasting room was Champagne du Maine, its Berliner weisse named in homage to this style’s history. It is true to style, brewed to 3.5 percent alcohol and coming out pale and just slightly cloudy. The taste is pleasant with a slight tartness, a bit more reserved in its bite than others I’ve tried.
Ask for a pour of Champagne du Maine, however, and you are presented with a choice – have it plain or mit schuss, which means “spiked” or “with shot.” If you order it mit schuss, the server will add your choice of syrups to change the flavor to more suit your taste. Traditionally, there were two popular syrup flavors, raspberry and woodruff, and Dirigo has added a third, ginger, to its options. Rather than cover up the beer, the flavors add a new dynamic, making more than one drinking experience out of a single batch of beer.
To take a beer and add flavoring afterward seems non-traditional, but it has been practiced with this style for centuries. “The flavors were originally added to cut down on the sourness, make it a little sweeter,” said Tom Bull, owner of Dirigo Brewing. “Back then, because it was low alcohol and sometimes fruited, it was almost like their version of soda pop.”
Each option brings its own unique character to the beer’s tart backbone. Woodruff (sometimes called “sweet woodruff”) is an herb native to Europe that produces tiny white flowers and has a pleasant aroma from its leaves and flowers. Reduced down into a syrup, with a little bit of simple sugar added, it also lends a green hue to the beer (more, in commercial versions that add food dye). The impact on the beer’s flavor is obvious, but hard to describe. It does soften the taste of the original, tart beer, but doesn’t overly sweeten it. There’s a pleasant, spring-like flavor that mentally transports me to a blooming meadow with long grasses and a gentle breeze.
The raspberry option is also sweet, but the tartness of the fruit still remains there to play with the tartness from the beer. As a bonus, the raspberries bring a bright pink color to the glass. The ginger version – unique to Dirigo, as far as I know – brings a dance of spice to the tartness and takes it to another place entirely.
Taking a different path, Woodland Farms Brewery in Kittery is making a Berliner weisse, called Ruby Slippers, with the raspberry already incorporated in the brewing process. This light pink to orange beer had the raspberries in the beer as it fermented, which means that some of the sugars that would have been there were pulled out, and the finish of the beer is pleasantly dry, and almost finishes like a wine.
If you haven’t tried these styles, I encourage you to seek them out. It is especially fun to try a flight with the different syrups to explore your flavor preferences – then have a pint however you like it best.