Getting to know: Schneeeule Brauerei GmbH

Anti-mimesis is a philosophical idea that Life imitates Art.  Bubo Scandiacus (the snowy owl, schneeeule, or sneeuwuil) is one example of a vulnerable species (life) that, once extinct, cannot be imitated.  The original Berliner Weisse is a beer style (art) that was just about extinct and, yet, it was highly imitated but never faithfully duplicated.

Besides Berliner Weisse being an appellation in the EU — a beer of this style cannot be called a Berliner Weisse unless it is brewed in Berlin — many brewers globally have tried to copy the style with over-sour or sweet interpretations that have names alluding to some affinity with the original product.  The attributes shared by an original Berliner Weisse and a facsimile are sourness (something that can vary wildly in copies), a smaller percentage of wheat in the grain bill than is usual in a German wheat beer, and very low levels of ABV around 3%.

Despite once being the most popular beer style in Berlin with hundreds of breweries producing it, popularity in Berliner Weisse has waned over recent decades.  What was once dubbed the “Champagne Du Nord” (Champagne of the North) by Napoleon’s Prussian Army, is reduced to little more than a footnote in German beer style history.  Even during the last few decades, the final types of beer produced to a Berliner Weisse style in Berlin are industrial, homogeneous facsimiles produced by a German multi-national corporation.  Omnipresent and far from original or artisanal.

Moreover, many craft breweries nowadays use a brewing method called Kettle-Souring to produce an easy-to-make, inexpensive sour beer that is labelled as a Berliner Weisse.  This contemporary method essentially means lactic acid bacteria are added to the wort in the Mash Tun to induce a brief lactic fermentation that creates the familiar tartness of a sour.  This method differs vastly from the original method of Mixed Fermentation, which is the practice of fermenting beer with a mixture of brewer’s yeast (always top-fermenting for Berliner Weisse), the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces and lactic acid bacteria, such as lactobacillus.

Even the homogeneous, industrialised Berliner Weisse is not produced using Mixed Fermentation.  Top-fermentation occurs separately from the lactic fermentation, and both are blended together at the end; Brettanomyces may not even be present.

Then there’s the syrup.  Anybody asking for a generic Berliner Weisse in Berlin will be presented with either a pre-mixed red or green concoction of something that may-once-have-been-an-original Berliner Weisse bundled with a woodruff (green) or raspberry (red) syrup.  The presence of these syrups are themselves indicative of the fate that befell the once-glorious Berliner Weisse; the quality and standard got so poor that the only means to make the beer palatable was to mix it with something sweet and fruity.

But, the situation is being righted.  There is a resurgence of interest in original Berliner Weisse, with a handful of artisanal craft beer brewers in Berlin relearning and rediscovering the almost lost art of producing the original article.  And there is no need to add any syrup, since the awesome flavour is once again at the heart of an original Berliner Weisse.  The taste that some believe arrived in Berlin with the Huguenots — who developed the beer style while passing through Belgium towards Germany, fleeing from religious persecution in France — is, once again, accessible to all.

Although a few of Berlin’s larger craft brewers have started to (re)produce an original Berliner Weisse over recent years, there is only one Brewery, however, that is not only dedicated to Berliner Weisse and wild beers, but is also committed to the art of optimising quality through bottle fermentation: Schneeeule Brauerei GmbH.

The Schneeeule Brauerei (Snowy Owl Brewery) is guided on its flight by Ulrike Genz, an enthusiastic and devoted advocate of the original Berliner Weisse and wild beer.  The schneeeule is a great metaphor for the ethics employed by Ulrike and her team at Schneeeule Brauerei, since not only is the owl an efficient hunter that doggedly pursues its goal, but it also has steely eyes that maintain focus on the objective.  The goal and objective in this case being, of course, the original Berliner Weisse.  Ulrike is known to work late into the evening, similar to the habits of the owl.  An original Berliner Weisse is highly carbonated when it’s at its best, which could be represented by the expanse of whiteness displayed by a snowy owl in flight.  Owls are territorial, and Ulrike is passionate that original Berliner Weisse is only produced in Berlin.

The Snowy Owl is also a vulnerable species deserving conservation efforts, much like the Berliner Weisse was until it was discovered and recreated.

Most modern craft brewers consider wild, volatile yeast and spoilage bacteria as an abhorrence, and they are determined to prevent any infection or cross-contamination that may cause an unnecessary fruitiness or funkiness in their beers.  Consequently, breweries fear the methods used to create styles like Berliner Weisse in the original manner.  As such, Schneeeule Brauerei GmbH undertakes its own fermentation in a small industrial unit in north-western Berlin.

Beyond the unassuming steel door is a wonderland of all things Berliner Weisse, Brettanomyces and wild beers.  It’s a combination of wizardry, laboratory, fermentation unit, storage, workshop and passionate heart of Ulrike’s team — devoted to original Berliner Weiss and wild beers.  The practiced art of perfection is unmistakable, despite the term “perfection” being considered something of a paradox when associated with wild beers.  The dedication, loyalty, knowledge and enthusiasm for Berliner Weiss and wild beers is laudable.

Ulrike continues the work of fellow-Berliner Andreas Bogk, who has the distinction of preserving the Brettanomyces yeast from a couple of bottles of Berliner Weisse brewed over 50-year-ago by a long-gone brewery.  The yeast preserved by Andreas is still used by the Schneeeule Brauerei.

The Schneeeule Brauerei team are also extremely fervent advocates of Berliner Weisse being matured, handled and served in the proper manner, which is the reason Schneeeule Brauerei beers are mostly found in specialist bottle shops, discerning restaurants and knowledgeable taprooms.  Supermarkets are considered the wrong outlet for Schneeeule Brauerei due to a reduced level of handling, care and guidance; champagne is, in much the same way, only obtained through dealers who can advise customers accordingly.

Bottle conditioned Berliner Weisse can be fermenting and active for up to a year or more because Brettanomyces works its magic slowly.  A bottle opened too early will have nothing of the same character displayed by a bottle that’s adequately matured.  Temperature is vital, too, as with most beers, since Berliner Weisse needs to be kept and served chilled (in the correct glassware: wide) if it is to be enjoyed correctly.  Information about the particularities of keeping and serving a Berliner Weisse may not be adequately shared if sold by a disinterested vendor.

The Schneeeule Brauerei plays an important social and cultural role, too.  With limited capacity at its current home and plans to relocate to a larger location, bottling and labelling is still performed by hand.  Bottling and labelling parties are common, during which fans, friends and followers of the brewery join together to accomplish the task whilst enjoying some great beer and conversation.

The next step in the evolution of the Schneeeule Brauerei is its own bottling-machine, which may serve to make the bottling and labelling parties redundant.  However, with its loyal bunch of supporters and family-type atmosphere, parties at the Schneeeule Brauerei are likely to continue, bottling-machine or not.

Beers from the Schneeeule Brauerei are quite indescribable and need to be tasted.  The core and seasonal range includes the Marlene (the original Berliner Weisse); the Yasmin (tinged with jasmine); the Kennedy (crafted with US hops); the Bruno (a bruine saison); the Mr Paul (a Brettanomyces Porter); the Helmut (a blanche saison); the Inge (tinged with ginger); the Otto (tinged with elderflower); and several others.  Furthermore, the Schneeeule Brauerei collaborates with many of Berlin’s top craft beer brewers to enhance some of their beers with a little sprinkling of Schneeeule magic-dust, pimping some well-known classics into Brettanomyces and wild originals.

The Schneeeule Brauerei’s beers deserve to be sought and savoured.  Catch them before the snowy owl takes flight, or worse, faces extinction.  Do a little for conservation and help to preserve the Berliner Weisse.