Joe Sixpack: Should you add syrup to your Berliner Weisse beer?

Posted: July 22, 2011

I LIKE MY COFFEE black, my whiskey straight and my hefeweizen without a lemon slice. But I'm a total sucker for that green syrup they pour into Berliner Weisse.

It's called woodruff, made from a sweet, aromatic herb, and it's usually served as a dessert topping. How anyone thought to spike a wheat beer with the stuff is beyond me. Yet, if you order a goblet in any Berlin beer garden, the waiter will almost surely ask: "Rot oder grĂ¼n?" A schuss (or shot) of red or green?

The red is sweet raspberry syrup, which is kid stuff. The green gives the pale yellow beer the misty, grayish hue of a cloudy morning at the seashore. Not particularly attractive . . . but the syrup's cut-grass flavor softens and complements the beer's trademark tartness.

Naturally, there's a bit of controversy surrounding the Syrup Question, and I'm not talking about red or green. So-called purists say you shouldn't add it at all. Mike Griffin, who authors the online British Guide to German Beer, says the syrup unnecessarily masks the intense character of Berliner Weisse.

"If you're used to assertive flavors, such as Brussels Gueuze, Islay malt whiskeys and spicy foods," he told me, "it really goes against the grain to put syrup in your beer. The syrup removes the beer's refreshing, distinctive qualities."

Like Gueuze, the character of Berliner Weisse is produced by its intentional exposure to something most brewers normally would rather keep out of the fermentation tank. Where Gueuze gets its funky barnyard aroma from the Brettanomyces strain of yeast, Berliner Weisse picks up its tartness from Lactobacillus, a type of bacteria that converts sugar into lactic acid.

"Without the bacteria," said Brandon Greenwood, the former brewer at Nodding Head (1516 Sansom St., Center City) who created the brewpub's endearingly named Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse, "it's a boring, tasteless wheat beer. There are no hops to speak of, and it doesn't have any of that banana or clove flavor from traditional wheat yeast."

With an acidity that the late beer critic Michael Jackson once described as "worthy of Dorothy Parker," Berliner Weisse is a challenging beer at first. "For those who aren't familiar with it, it's a bit of a shock," Greenwood said. "It's overwhelmingly tart on the first sip. But after that, the fruity esters come out on the palate, so you get a citrus kind of component."

What you also get is refreshment.

The tartness cleans the palate and slakes the thirst. Its low (3.5 percent) alcohol content lets you drink it all afternoon without breaking into a sweat.

The style probably dates to the 1500s and was so renowned that Napoleon's troops supposedly called it the "Champagne of the North." In the early 1900s, more than 700 breweries produced it; today, however, it's bottled regularly by just two or three in Germany, including Kindl and Weihenstephan. Often, the version served in Berlin's beer gardens is closer to soda pop: fizzy and sweet as candy.

Surprisingly, authentic Berliner Weisse has enjoyed a minor resurgence in the United States, mostly after Greenwood's draft-only version began picking up national awards in the early 2000s. More than one American beer judge has told me that he or she now regards Nodding Head's as the style's benchmark.

So, I asked the expert: Do you favor your Berliner Weisse with or without a schuss?

"I would say the purists drink it neat and the recreational users add woodruff," Greenwood said. "I personally prefer it neat."

For an authentic German taste, try imported Berliner Kindl Weisse and Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse, both available in bottles. Meanwhile, Nodding Head's famous Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse is on tap throughout the summer.

As for woodruff syrup (also known as Waldmeister syrup), that's a bit harder to track down. Not even Riekers Prime Meats, the German specialty store in Fox Chase, carries the stuff. Get it online at www.GermanGrocery.com.

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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