I’ve been meaning to write more about wheat beers for some time – probably over a year in fact. It’s a beer style which I find the most intriguing and always seems to be throwing up surprises. Lambic, for example, is a wheat beer – in fact, probably the most wheaty wheat, with a soupy, gelatinous mashy concoction from unmodified wheat and barley. Then there’s the other Belgian wheats, the fire lit by the revival of Hoegaarden and now a style full of momentum and innovative flair. I have fond memories of the banana and spice packed Korenwolf of Gulpen (over the border in Dutch Limburg) which I’ve written about before, as well as US styles, a personal favourite from Cigar City Brewing, Florida Cracker, which we drank in the swimming pool overlooking the sand bars and Keys on the Gulf Coast; and even *dare I say* a zesty, orangey Blue Moon straight from the sampling valve of the maturation tank in the Sandlot brewery under Coors’ Field. If they could sell that version of Blue Moon in the UK, I’d die happy.
Anyway, I had been intending to write about wheat beers and I had intended to do it right. I selected the ones I wanted, ordered them online, even cooled and stored them properly for once – not too cold – as is my wont. But then..but then… John came round and rather than making tasting notes, we just drank our way through them one by one, animatedly pouring them from a height into wine glasses for a profuse, billowy head – ripe like September peaches with aromas of cloves, grass, allspice – as intoxicating as the smell of warm rain on a sultry late afternoon walk. We mixed in a couple of Double IPAs too; put the World to rights and burnt pistachio shells on the chiminea simply to watch them flare like fireflies under a dark Summer sky.
In truth though, it is still worth putting pen to paper, for there is something eminently sociable about wheat beer – I don’t know; there’s something less macho than ‘pints’; something less blokey than ale or ‘lager’. Perhaps it’s this overhang I have, having drunk wheat beers in Bavaria so often. Vine and bine clad beer gardens spring to mind; wood smoke; the smell of lightly charred würst, crackling and spitting with hot fat, dense rye bread – the caraway always evoking the Middle East and bazaars for me – to soak it all up and that mustard, that vinegary, spicy, tangy yet lashingly wolfable Senf. That Senf, that doesn’t just show off the sausages but amplifies the beer too in a mutual and cyclical love-in. Forget beer and peanuts; forget beer and pizza even – this is the combination of Summer; this is the Last Supper meal request.
Because my first wheat beer love is definitely a Bavarian Mädchen, not a Belgian liefje. There is elegance in the simplicity of Bavarian wheats; no adjuncts; no concoctions of dried fruits and spicing. The complexity is in the simplicity: the yeast driving the tang; the wheat producing the dryness; the hops, what hops there are, that diaphanous veil of floral aroma. It’s a sublime blend. And a versatile one too; it’s a beer style I’ve always found equally appealing to men and women; to younger drinkers perhaps seeking voluminous refreshment, to older drinkers on a quest for taste reward. And it’s a beer style – pure of heart look away – that also takes to adding twists; a quick cut of lemon perhaps, or even poured over soft red fruit. Yes, there’s more to the elegant simplicity of wheat beers; there’s a backbone of steel too.
I do remember the first one John and I tucked into. It was from Schneider Weisse, their ‘Tap 7’, ‘Unser Original’. If all you’ve ever experienced is an Erdinger -pleasant enough but always rather thin, I feel, then this beer will create some Sturm und Drang. It is an assault of nature: full on spice (cinnamon? apple?) and cut hay and new baked bread. And it’s dark; not dark like chocolate, but dark like stained oak; the natural sediment and yeast the stippled bark, the deep, long lasting head the froth of its Spring and Summer leaf. It is a complex beer; resonant and multi-layered; it is beer that demands a second sip. It too, is a Last Supper meal request. And there was a Weihenstephaner in there too – again, the classic Hefe Weissbier – and possibly more like the style you’d picture – a zippy, luminous golden colour, a bright white head, a restrained intricacy; but again, there is the layered depth – the quenching initial bitterness; giving way to a rounded, clovey, coating mouthfeel and a slightly tart linger.
All of which got me wondering why there’s no dedicated British wheat beer brewery – something relatively common in Bavaria. Perhaps it’s just familiarity; do we still see haziness as an off character? Are these wheat beers too surprising, challenging perhaps? But that was only a fleeting thought; I soon moved on to wondering why barbecue smoke always drifts towards you no matter where you sit, and why pistachio shells flare like fireflies under a dark Summer sky.