Wine Snobs, There’s a Beer for You
One wine aficionado had given up on finding an ale she actually liked. And then she tasted the Fritz Briem Berliner Weisse 1809, and everything changed.
Beer is the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage and nearly the oldest, second only to Mead. It dates back to the early Neolithic Era, around 9500 BC. Everyone from the ancient Greeks to the ancient Romans, and even King Charlemagne (namesake of the great Corton-Charlemagne vineyard in Burgundy) sipped some form of the cereal-based brew once consumed for hydration, because potable water didn’t exist. Beer is inextricably linked to civilization.
Despite this impressive liquid lineage, I have had a hard time embracing beer with the same level of enthusiasm with which I embrace wine. Unlike many people, I haven’t had an adulthood-long love affair with the brew. Beer will never hold the allure or transportive powers as, say, a bottle of La Tâche, and it’s hard to find one as delightfully refreshing as a simple glass of Muscadet.
Beer’s most ubiquitous representative in America is lager. While millions of people love it, I’ve tried it in various incarnations — highbrow and low. For me, the smell of lager is permanently intertwined with beer pong and college dorm room, with characterless swill and with a one-dimetional yeastiness. Lager, for me, is the Wonder Bread of beer.
Beer had poor branding in my life. My parents don’t drink it; a few bottles of Coors Light and Breckenridge Ale languished at the back of our fridge from time to time, leftover stock from dinner parties. But my father’s father made wine in his basement, and wine had a personal significance for our family in a way beer simply did not.
My current lukewarm affection for lagers no longer stems from a lack of exposure. I tried beer in high school, before discovering Zima, a sweet and bubbly malt-liquor/wine-cooler hybrid that tasted like Sprite. In college, we all drank “Natty” Light until my friend Kate turned me on to André “Champagne,” which tasted like an upgrade and cost only four dollars. As a cook, after college, I drank Pabst Blue Ribbon along with the rest of the team. It was cheap, and we could afford it. As I worked at fancier restaurants, we served various Pilsners, Amber Ales, India Pale Ales, and a multitude of microbrews.
As I began a career in wine, I appreciated the history and context it offered. I loved the stories the winemakers shared and the way wine connected people with geography and with each other. Aside from a short stint working with the indefatigable Sam Lipp (now General Manager at Union Square Cafe), beer seemed impersonal. The kind of beers that intrigued me (Milk Stouts, Saisons, Trappist Ales) were not as accessible in my world or as versatile with the foods I like to eat. So I focused on wine, sake, sometimes spirits—and didn’t even think to miss beer.
And then, a few months ago, my friend and I decided to have dinner at a popular restaurant in Williamsburg that does not accept dinner reservations. We chose a rainy Saturday night when diners are reluctant to leave their tables and head out into the bad weather. With a two-hour wait to kill, we went next door to a beer hall called Spuyten Duyvil (which means “Spitting Devil” and is known for its impressive beer collection). We had no choice but to order beer.
That moment led to a revelation. My friend had ordered one before I arrived. As I organized my umbrella and shed my dripping coat, she sipped something golden and opaque from a tall pint glass. Reading the expression on my face that must have conveyed something like “surely I can get a margarita at this place?” gently explained that I should try her beer. That it was good.
So I tasted it. And my world changed. I ordered the same beer she had, and for the next two hours, we drank this refreshing brew: Fritz Briem Berliner Weisse “1809.” It is a glorious German wheat beer that refreshed and enlivened our palates and, as I would learn later after drinking it to the point of obsession, it also happens to have an intriguing history.
The Fritz Briem Berliner Weisse “1809” is a beer made with 50 percent wheat mash in the exact same style as one that Napoleon drank. It is made, as the label narrates “with traditional mash hopping and without wort boiling.” It is unpasteurized and unfiltered, and the wort reaches the boiling point but never boils. The beer is a lovely golden color—slightly opaque, reminiscent of an aged Austrian Reisling, or even an older white Burgundy. And it is fresh! It offers a citrusy brightness—lemon peel, fresh lemon juice and kaffir lime, hints of basil and floral notes like edelweiss and chamomile. It is not overtly hoppy, and the herbaceous, citrusy notes replace any bitter ones.
Napoleon is quoted on the label calling this very recipe “lively and elegant.” Supposedly, he and his troops drank it after defeating the Prussian army in 1809. They loved it and dubbed it the “Champagne of the North.”
This moment kickstarted a dormant curiosity within me. Berliner Weisse represented the wine drinker’s beer—a perfect springtime beverage for people looking for something seriously refreshing, quaffable, and nuanced. Since then, I’ve been on a hunting spree, searching for more beers that offer these qualities. And the good news: they exist in spades. So wine lovers, this one’s for you. Here’s a guide to beers you will actually like. None of them will remind you of college.
A wheat ale whose origins date back to the 16th Century and Northern Germany, Berliner Weisse is slightly sour made with, generally, 25-percent wheat and the balance barley (Fritz Briem doubles his wheat ratio for his recipe). Often, the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, just like Champagne. In Germany, Berliner Weisse drinkers occasionally like to mix their beer with sweetened fruit syrups, with raspberry the popular flavor.
Lambic beers are brewed in or around Brussels. Their main distinguishing factor involves spontaneous fermentation by indigenous yeast as opposed to a carefully-selected, cultivated brewer’s yeast strain. Spontaneous fermentation results in a sour quality with vinous notes. Like Berliner Weiss, these beers are unfiltered and slightly opaque. Lambic represents the parent classification for a host of sub-categories. Some of the most popular include Kriek (fermented with sour cherries), Framboise (raspberries), and Pêche (peaches).
The most famous brewery for this style is Cantillon, the last and lone brewery operating solely within Brussels. Cantillon has been producing beers the same way since 1900, with the sole change that, since 1999, they use only organic ingredients.They are particularly famed for their Framboise bottling, Rose de Gambrinus (named after the legendary European cultural icon of beer), though all of their bottlings are sought after and deeply impressive.
A larger company called Lindeman’s makes perhaps the most available version of Framboise and Kriek. Lindeman’s fruit lambics are significantly sweeter than most other brands, and were the only beer I enjoyed drinking in my early twenties. They remain a blissful guilty pleasure to this day.
Another style of Lambic is Geuze, which involves a blend of one-year-old and two-to-three-year-old lambics that undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. They are vinous, herbaceous, and reminiscent of sourdough yeast starter.
Gose (Pronounced Goze, and not to be confused withGeuze):
Gose is athousand-year-old style of German malted wheat beer brewed with coriander and salt. It is brewed with coriander and boiled with salt water and is the one exception to the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 that mandated only water, Barley and hops be used as ingredients.
My husband Robert Bohr, sommelier at Charlie Bird and a prodigious beer drinker, maintains that Kolsch, a traditional German ale, is the perfect spring beer because “it is both refreshing and complex.” He prefers Riesdorf, and I agree. It’s quite palatable.