“The Champagne of the North.”

That's how Napoleon and his troops supposedly referred to the German Berliner Weisse beers they encountered in the early 1800s. (The style is likely older than that, though -- possibly dating all the way back to the 16th century.) Lightly colored and effervescent, its appearance is comparable to France’s bubbliest export -- but that’s where the similarities end.

Berliners are low-alcohol (typically in the 2-5% ABV range) sour wheat beers. “There’s a low hop rate and low bitterness,” says Cliff Mori, an Advanced Cicerone and founder of Asheville, North Carolina's BREW-ed, a consultancy and beer education company. Berliner Weisse’s unique flavor profile comes from Lactobacillus, a bacteria that converts sugar into lactic acid. Back when Napoleon’s crew was sipping the style, brewers didn’t boil wheat beers; today, they add those cultures in after boiling the wort. The result is a tart, carbonated beer with hints of citrus, grass, or even fruit.

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“It’s a low alcohol, refreshing, bubbly summertime beer, so throwing some fruit in there makes sense,” Mori says. In Germany, the style is traditionally served with a schuss (shot) of flavored syrup -- red (raspberry) or green (woodruff) -- to tamper the tartness. Twenty-first century brewers add the fruit during the brewing process instead. (In the United States, most of these beers are referred to as “Berliner-Style Weisse” as the name is protected in Berlin, Germany.)

Berliners -- and the broader category of sour beers -- are gaining in popularity. Time named sours “the hottest cold drink of 2017,” citing Brewers Association statistics showing that sales more than quintupled from 2015 to 2016. In 2014, White Birch Brewing upped production of its Berliners from a summer seasonal to a year-round flagship beer after considering feedback from its distributors. “Berliner Weisse is a great introduction to the sour marketplace,” says Dave Herlicka, owner and CEO of the New Hampshire-based brewery. “It’s not overly sour. You don’t get puckered. But it’s light enough, it’s refreshing enough, and it’s got a nice sour punch to it.”

White Birch has since added a variety of flavors to its lineup: blueberry (to “combat the pumpkin stuff for fall,” Herlicka says), raspberry, black cherry, peach, strawberry, and watermelon. Some are seasonal, others are year-round; all come in around 5.5% ABV. They’re among White Birch’s most popular offerings. “We have plans for about eight or nine that we’re going to release next year,” Herlicka says.
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Whether you’re a traditionalist or a fruit-ist (that’s a word, right?), we suggest giving the following four Berliner Weisse brews a try. While the first sip might shock your palate, keep drinking. There’s a reason Food & Wine called the style a “gateway sour.” Your taste buds will adjust to the flavor and, soon enough, they’ll become part of your regular happy hour rotation.

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White Birch Brewing Berliner Weisse

Hooksett, NH
“We’re known for our Berliners,” Herlicka says. Taste why with the brewery’s classic, straw-hued Berliner Weisse, which weighs in at a higher-than-usual 5.5% ABV. Try a pint -- and then compare it to the raspberry and blueberry versions, both of which are also available year-round.

Bruery Terreux Hottenroth

Anaheim, CA
Bruery Terreux is an offshoot of The Bruery that’s focused on farmhouse-style wild and sour ales. Mori recommends Hottenroth to those wanting to understand what an authentic Berliner Weisse should taste like (at least, this side of Germany, of course). The brew, released in 2015, is an ideal session beer at 3.1% ABV.

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Westbrook Brewing Co. Weisse Weisse Baby

Mount Pleasant, SC
Westbrook has been selling this seasonal Berliner since 2013. It’s brewed using the traditional no-boil method, creating a sunny, bubbly finish. We’d recommend getting your hands on the lemon-coconut version, if you can track it down. On a related note, anyone know how to get “Ice Ice Baby” to stop playing in your head?

Creature Comforts Brewing Co. Athena

Athens, GA
Napoleon’s got nothing on this Southern brewery, which dubbed its classic Berliner (with hints of citrus, Sauvignon Blanc, and cider) the “Champagne of the South.” Adventurous hop heads should keep an eye on Creature Comforts’s limited-release fruited versions of Athena, such as Athena Paradiso, which adds passionfruit and guava to the base beer.