Mid-Atlantic Brewing News December 2009/January 2010

Philadelphia's Weiss Squad: Brewing Berliner-Style

By Rich Wagner

The first time I tasted Berliner Weisse Beer was in 1985 while attending a homebrew conference in Washington, D.C. We were advised to check out this unique style at a German restaurant nearby. It was highly effervescent, which accentuated its sour aroma, and I was somewhat taken aback when they added raspberry syrup to the beer! My wife commented that it tasted like “bubble gum,” and at the time I couldn’t imagine anyone developing a taste for the stuff!

As a collector of embossed Pennsylvania beer bottles, Philadelphia has become sort of a specialty, and within those bottles are several that say “Weiss Beer.” In today’s world, the Bavarian style of “heffe weiss” has become the most popular, and I just assumed that was the style. Last summer, as I was setting up an exhibit of my Philadelphia bottles at the National Brewery Museum in Potosi, Wisconsin, one of the old-timers out there commented on one of my “Weiss Beer” bottles saying, “You know, that was the Berliner style.” I hadn’t thought about it much, but as I put the last bottle in the exhibit, the one that said “Berlin White,” I realized he was probably right, and the seeker in me was motivated to “get the skinny” on the Philadelphia weiss beer story.

I had only seen views of two weiss beer breweries; one looked like a garage and the other a brewpub, which made me wonder what advantage this niche might have provided the small-scale operator. I consulted the American Handy Book of Brewing (1908) which revealed a malt bill of three parts malted wheat to one part malted barley and a quarter-pound of hops per barrel. Brewers in Berlin were fermenting the 10º-12º Plato wort right out of the mash tub without boiling it. They employed a top-fermenting yeast combined in a four or five-to-one ratio with a lactic-acid producing bacillus. It was “kraeusened” through the addition of new wort after primary fermentation, and again when racked into barrels or bottles and conditioned for one or two weeks.

The book states that the Berliner Weisse was the only style “worthy of imitation” here in the States and refers to the domestic version as “American Weissbeer,” which was made using 70% pale malt and 30% corn grits and a half to three-quarters of a pound of hops per barrel. It goes on to state that “Weiss beer in America is sometimes stored, bunged, and fined like lager beer, but a brilliant Weiss beer does not seem to catch the fancy of the consumers, who are accustomed to the cloudy lively article of Berlin fame.” Some American brewers were giving the wort a short (half hour) boil, but if they followed the procedure used in Berlin and fermented right from the mash tub, they could have eliminated the need for a kettle. The fact that the beer was cask or bottle conditioned would eliminate the need for extensive cold storage facilities. These factors would reduce both the infrastructure and the utilities required to manufacture the product.

Weiss Guys

Another source that shed light on this question was a book published listing “Reports and Awards” of the various products judged during the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 which states: “Among the novelties in beer, and as the first to be mentioned because lowest in strength, is weiss-beer, the manufacture, or rather brewing, of which has but lately been introduced in the United States from Germany, where it has been quite a popular beverage for many years, principally in the vicinity of Berlin. It is, when well made, rich in carbonic acid gas and light in color, wherefrom its name, weiss, or white-beer. Two breweries from the city of New York and one from Poughkeepsie had entered samples for examination, of which two were found worthy of being recommended for an award. Another beer under this name, but of greater strength, was exhibited by Metzger Brothers, from Asti, Italy, and found most excellent; so was their beer from corn (maize), which may be mentioned here.”

Using city directories, ads, maps, and breweriana I determined there were twenty-seven brewers and twenty-five bottlers of weiss beer in the city. The earliest weiss beer brewery in the city was established by Epting & Eckhardt in 1811. Next came George Burkhardt 1850 and Andrew Wirth in 1851. The next being August Winnig in 1860, who is listed in the National Census of 1870 as having $500 capital investment and employing 2 men whose combined earnings were $1,000 per year. The plant was hand powered and produced 300 barrels of beer which sold for $1,800. The price for beer, ale porter and stout of breweries listed averaged from $7.00-$11.00.

A dozen weiss beer brewers started up in the decade after the Civil War, and a dozen went out of business between 1887 and 1891. It is interesting to note that the six weiss beer breweries produced over twice as much in 1890 as the fifteen weiss beer breweries in business did a decade earlier, a trend that mirrors what was happening in the industry as a whole. In 1880. Weiss beer made up only about one half of one percent of the city’s total beer production.

I spoke with Tod Von Mechow at a bottle show recently and he explained that Philadelphia’s earliest weiss beers were sold by brewers and bottlers with English or Irish surnames and came in faceted glass bottles. He showed me some examples bearing the names Andrews and Connor for sale at the show. He said the Germans started selling weiss beer in stoneware primarily in Wisconsin, Chicago, New York and Baltimore, and while the tradition died out around 1877 in Philadelphia and New York, it continued longer in Wisconsin and Baltimore. In addition, he said stoneware weiss beer bottles exist from Connecticut, New Jersey, District of Columbia, Virginia, Ohio and Iowa.

By the turn of the century there were only four weiss beer breweries in Philadelphia. Philip Zaun (which started out as Winnig) lasted a little over half a century and went out of business in 1912. Muellerschoen was the only one to last until prohibition and went out of business after 42 years in 1920. Muellerschoen and Zaun’s combined production was 9,000 barrels in 1905 when the city produced just over 2,000,000 barrels of beer.

Toehold in Philadelphia

Which brings us to a vestigial remnant of this once-thriving niche now produced at the Nodding Head Brewery and Restaurant. Around the turn of this century, owner Curt Decker and brewer Brandon Greenwood decided to revive the Berliner Weiss style in order to keep it from going extinct. Their “Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse” has won many awards and has actually encouraged other brewers to produce the style, as evidenced by the number of Berliner Weisse beers competing at the GABF last year. The Nodding Head serves it with Woodruff, an alternative to raspberry syrup, but patrons can order it “ohne schuss” to enjoy its tart sour flavor to the fullest.

Gordon Grubb is the brewer today, and he told me he uses 40% malted wheat and boils the wort for a short time in order to sterilize it to give him control during fermentation where he employs a mixture of neutral ale yeast and Lactobacillus delbruchii. Gordon claims to be “the largest producer of the style on this side of the Atlantic.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Tin sign advertising Moritz Ruoff's Weiss Beer (Fink Collection).


New York Times May 13, 1894

Saved by Weiss Beer

The life of Benjamin Seitter, 34, was probably saved by a bottle of weiss beer, given as an antidote for asphyxiation by inhaling illuminating gas. Seitter is an employe of the Gas Department. While working under ground, repairing a leak, he was overcome by the escaping gas. He was pulled out of the hole, and the patrol started to take him to the police station. Another gas employe suggested that a bottle of weiss beer, a remedy which he said was used at the gas works in such cases, might restore Seitter. As the man seemed about to die, the suggestion was acted upon. The beer worked like magic, and Seitter came back to consciousness in an incredibly short space of time. He was afterward removed to his home. Eye witnesses say that Seitter would probably have died on the way had it been decided to remove him to a hospital before administering the antidote.

When the story was reported in the Western Brewer (July 15, 1894) it was stated that “the effervescence threw off the deadlier gas.”

Note: This is the original unedited form of this story as submitted to the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. Which was adapted from “Philadelphia's Weiss Beer Brewers.” American Breweriana Journal May/June 2009 which was fully illustrated with factory scenes, ads and breweriana.