It was Conrad Selle, local brewer and beer historian, who stopped by Over the 9 one day to show the Falls City Brewing Co. team a vintage bottle opener from his collection.
The opener dated back to around 1915 and had the names of four different Falls City beer styles that were being brewed at the time. One of them was Berliner Weisse, a traditional German sour beer made with wheat that dates back to the 16th century.
“We were shocked,” said Dylan Greenwood, master brewer at Falls City. “We had no idea Falls City was making a Berliner Weisse 100 years ago. It makes sense, though, because our head brewer (Otto Doerr) was from Germany.”
So, last year, Greenwood decided to brew a version of the beer with unfermented grape juice, partially aged in Old 502 Winery red wine barrels. But with Falls City’s shift in focus to seasonals, new bottled releases and what the brewery calls its “Seven-Barrel Series,” Greeenwood went back to the basics and created a traditional, unflavored Berliner Weisse that was released this August.
He’s not the only brewer to dig into the past for fresh brewing ideas — Berliner Weisse is a rising throwback style for many craft breweries around the United States.
Brewed with half wheat and half pale malts, the new Berliner Weisse at Falls City is fermented with Lactobacillus for souring. However, it isn’t exactly sour as much as it is tart. With just 4.0 percent alcohol by volume and virtually zero bitterness, it’s a hot-summer pleaser that is actually more like champagne than what many consider beer to be.
“It’s not super-sour; it’s not mouth-puckering sour,” Greenwood said. “Like any German wheat beer, it’s meant to be refreshing.”
Enjoyed straight, it possesses a light body with plenty of carbonation and a tart finish, with only minor sweetness and a touch of acidity. Imagine drinking an extremely bubbly piece of SweeTart candy, and you’re getting close.
Traditionally, if one orders a Berliner Weisse, the syrup is poured into a glass or bowl first, and then the beer is poured over it. At Falls City, it is served already mixed.
Add woodruff syrup, and the beer takes on a green tint. It suddenly becomes complex, with an aroma and flavor Greenwood described, for lack of any better term, as “botanical.” Indeed, woodruff, a classic German additive to this style of beer, creates a unique flavor, one that evoked lavender on my palate. It begins slightly sweet, then swirls into the familiar tart finish. Imagine an Ale-8 on steroids.
“It’s tough to make an accurate description and still make it sound good,” said Greenwood. “And it’s really good.”
The other syrup Over the 9 is using, yet another German tradition, is raspberry, which is more straightforward and might be the best choice for the uninitiated. The raspberry flavor is one most palates understand instinctively, and in this beer, it takes on just the right presence to make the now-pinkish beverage not only refreshing but fruity and familiar.
Of course, these two classic syrups are just the beginning of what can become a flavoring for the agreeable Berliner Weisse. Greenwood noted that blackberry and watermelon also work well. Bartenders can actually play around with any number of flavors on hand.
The foray into this classic style has Greenwood looking into other such historical styles brewed by Falls City back before beer began its unfortunate evolution into the light American lager it became by the 1960s. Another style that appeared on Selle’s keychain was a “strong lager,” which is identified in the book “Germans in Louisville” by C. Robert Ullrich and Victoria A. Ullrich.
The book pays passing attention to Falls City’s history, noting, “The brewery produced many interesting products in its early years, including Salvator (a strong lager), Extra Pale, Cream Beer and Berliner Weisse.”
Falls City currently produces a British-style pale ale as its flagship beer, and its spring rollout Kentucky Common is a classic dark cream ale that was invented in Louisville in the mid-1800s. Old records also show beers with names like Peerless and Life Saver, and Falls City also brewed bock — a dark, German beer — for many years.
Berliner Weisse will be available through September, and probably into October, at the Over the 9 taproom, 120 S. 10th St., as well as a few other select locations around Louisville, including Hilltop Tavern and RecBar.