Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tasting notes - 1809

Of all the historical styles of beer that seemed doomed to sink into the wort of oblivion, obscured by the barm of time, lost in the trub of moderization, Berliner Weisse has most certainly outlived its expectations, to the point where its novelty and scarcity might soon be its saving grace. Whereas in the 17th century this style was easily the most fashionable and commonplace in the chic urban taverns of one of central Europe's most rapidly populated metropolises (both before and after the 30 Years War - during the war, scarce and valuable wheat was reserved for baking), its quenching, refreshing effects should have by all means been no match for the burgeoning effect of Bavaria's lager explosion and the following KO punch of the Czech pilsener. But, we humans like our underdogs and are prone to the weakness of local pride, reasons alone which probably account for the tenacity of this strangely-brewed, much-maligned, and typically adulterated relic of a brew.

Enter Dr. Fritz Briem, Manager of the Doemens College of Technology, Technology Consulting and Faculty Brewery Technology, and head of the Siebel-Doemens international brewing course, stage right. Apparently, that's what it takes to inject some life into Berlin's namesake beer: a PhD from Weihenstephan and a crack team of German scientists from the highest profile brewing academy on the planet. At least they did a good job of it.

I could go on about what exactly this style is all about, but if you look at the label in the image above, you'll see that the good doctor has all but forsaken art in lieu of a near novella on the subject. Before we go any further, check it out:
Already in the 1600s the Berliner Weisse Style Beer was mentioned in documents by the French Huguenots as they crossed Berlin on their way to Flanders. In 1809, the Emperor Napoleon and his troops celebrated their Prussian victory with it. This Berliner Weisse is brewed with traditional mash hoping [sic] and without wort boiling. This along with a traditional strain of lactic acid bacteria provide a fruity and dry but palateful character. A character that Napoleon and his troops characterized as "lively and elegant."
The is the first of the Historic Signature Series, aka "forgotten styles brewed according to their historic recipes by Dr. Fritz Briem of the Doemens Institute," that I've had the joy to sample, and it really is a joy, as the 1809 is a spot-on mimic of the only other major surviving example as made by Berliner-Kindl, and likely quite similar to the one favored back in the day by Albrecht von Wallenstein. It's got a puckeringly quick, sharp, almost citric sourness, a clean, grassy grain character, and only the slightest hint of hop bitterness in the finish. It actually has a great deal in common to the Belgian sour ales, like gueuze and faro, but without the "wild" cheesy, horsey aromas that can dominate those styles. It's that dominantly rustic quality, the haze from the suspended yeast and unfiltered wheat, and natural carbonation that betrays their family ties. It's lighter in effervescence, however, much lower in alcohol (2.8%!) and much more evocative of the German perfection-in-engineering vibe than the Belgian crazy farmer kitchen sink ethos. There's no spontaneous brettanomyces-driven fermentation here, my friends: No, the good doctor has taken care to bring along his own lactobacillus to this party.

One could almost think of this style as a missing link between the highly evolved Belgian lambic family of beers and the traditional southern Bavarian weizen beers. However it fits in the spectrum of Europe's fringe styles, though, this weirdly deviant (mash hopping? no boiling?) style deserves a bit more of the spotlight, and one could only imagine how it would benefit by some modern craft brewers' interpretations.

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