Germany brews some of the world's greatest beers in line with purity laws, but also has a strange custom of mixing them with soda and juice. A call to keep apart great beer and sugary, artificial sodas.
Berliner Weiße, with Waldmeister and raspberry syrup added
Years ago, when a Hamburg bartender first told me about Bananenweizen, I assumed she was kidding. I figured she wanted to see if she could fool an American into thinking that Germans, of all people, actually would mix banana juice with their famed wheat beers. But it was no joke.
Well-crafted German wheat beers often have subtle hints of banana, among many other flavors and aromas. It's pleasant in small quantities, the hallmark of a careful brewer able to draw out many complex flavors from traditional ingredients through centuries-old craftsmanship. But there's nothing subtle about bananenweizen. The sickly-sweet banana juice annihilates the beer's flavor, smothering all the fruits of the brewmaster's labor. Bananenweizen is just one example. Lemon-lime soda, cola, fruit syrup and all sorts of sticky industrial ingredients are regularly mixed with any number of styles of beer. They appear on the printed menus of bars and restaurants all over the country under various names.
Purists pushing impure products
The bartender may have been telling me the truth, but I still can't believe these beer combinations, called Biermischgetränke, are popular here. (Mixing beer with soft drinks is not exclusive to Germany, but no country does it with such frequency and variety.) Germany, after all, is the birthplace of the Reinheitsgebot, the legendary Bavarian beer purity law that mandated that brewers use only a strict set of approved ingredients.
Dark Radler is dark beer mixed with lemon-lime soda
The stellar reputation of German brewing is built upon the 1516 law. The country's beer gained a reputation for high quality that exists to this day. It's no longer the law of the land, but many German breweries still follow the Reinheitsgebot's rules out of respect for tradition or at least recognition of its marketing value.
That's why it's so unfortunate that many of the same brewers who splash Reinheitsgebot rhetoric all over their labels also make huge quantities of Biermischgetränke. They'll proudly cite the pure, traditional ingredients in their beer. But then they'll turn around and mix their brew with soft drinks made with any number of chemicals and colorings, not to mention heaps of sugar. Many breweries now sell Biermischgetränke premixed in bottles, making it ever easier to drink a defiled beer.
The big brewers make these products in search of big profits, not wanting to lose out on revenue from young consumers who aren't beer fans. And they aggressively market these products. I saw this first hand on a recent shopping trip, when the clerk begged us to take two free six-packs of some mix of beer and allegedly black currant flavor. She urged us to just try it and see if we like it, like a playground crack dealer.
Green gulps of Berliner Weisse
Researching this story required me to try perhaps the most infamous of Biermischgetränke, Berliner Weisse mit Schuss. That's a low-alcohol wheat beer spiked with a shot of supersweet raspberry or waldmeister syrup. Waldmeister is billed as an herbal flavoring, but most of what it brings to the table is tooth-achingly thick sweetness and intense green color. Pour it in a beer and you get something that you'd imagine elves doing shots of at bachelor parties before the nymph pops out of the cake. The drink is a staple of touristy Berlin restaurants and boats that cruise the Spree.
This Diesel is a sugary combo of beer and cola
This drink in particular arouses strong feelings. Mere moments after I announced I would try one on Facebook, friends erupted with comments: "Gross!" "PUKE!" (Emphasis theirs). I couldn't look the server in the eye when I placed my order. Merely holding this creepy green potion instantly transforms you into a monstrous outcast. People look; then they shudder and turn away. Once I finally summoned the courage to try it, the drink met absolutely all of my expectations. That is not a compliment.
Time for a new law
It's sad to see great German beers vitiated by soda and other industrial sludge in the name of profit. But some consumers love simple, sweet things and brewers are going to pander to them, so there's no point in taking arms against a sugary sea of Biermischgetränke.
Maybe what's needed is a new beer law pertaining only to Biermischgetränke. This would allow only the cheapest and most miserable German beers to be mixed. I've already found one perfect candidate, a beer described to me as "the favorite of German homeless people." And true to its reputation, it has bland flavor and a dreary gray label evocative of cold, shelterless nights.
A Biermischgetränke law would ensure that those who know and love good beer could rest assured that none of Germany's legendary product would be poured off to die in a syrupy grave. This would protect the reputation of German brewing. And since the sweetness of soda and syrup brutally overwhelms the flavor of a good and bad beer alike, Biermischgetränke fans will never know the difference.
I'll never be a Biermischgetränke lover. But if I could be sure that no quality beer is wasted in the making of these unfortunate concoctions, then I'd happily clink my mug of delicious German beer with a glass full of green, red or cola-colored swill any time.
Mark Garrison is a journalist and co-host of The Sporkful, a food podcast and blog, at sporkful.com.
Editor: Stuart Tiffen