Tag Archives: wheat beer

Summer, wheat and Senf

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.

SchneiderI 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.

Wraiths and Zombies

In Tolkien’s ‘Ring’ trilogy there’s a scene in the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo, the hairy-toed hero challenged with destroying the Ring, is attacked by the Ring Wraiths, the Nazgul. Mixing our genres a moment, let’s just say that these former Kings have gone over to the Dark Side. The Ring is their Force; slaves to its power, it determines their destiny. Unsurprisingly, they’re pretty keen to get the ring back, and run old Frodo through attempting to do so. Frodo, being stabbed by a cursed blade, a Mordor blade, begins to transform. Mixing our film genres yet again, it’s rather like a Dementor, sucking not just the happiness out of him, but his will to live too. He’s becoming a shadow-human; living somewhere between the dark world of Mordor and the ‘real’ world of Middle Earth. His eyes glaze over as if he’s wearing those freaky Halloween contact lenses and he becomes all pallid and sweaty; but a couple of Paracetamol won’t sort him out, he needs Elvish medicine, and there’s no Co-op pharmacy anywhere to hand.

Frodo should be a warning to us about the real impact of these brewing mega-mergers. As I wrote in my last post, there’s a lot of debate about the potential implications of ABI buying SAB. Will it be an opportunity for the small guys? Will the middle-rankers be able to pick up some tasty titbits that fall from the table? We will see in due course of course, as a period of intense restructuring will be catalyzed across the industry by the deal, should it go through.

Despite the huge resources of these mega-brewers; people, time, money, the truth is all these businesses want to do is focus. Focus on simplifying hugely complex operations; focusing on managing families of brands; focusing on cutting back; focusing on maximising profit from doing scale activities. Fewer brew streams; fewer breweries; fewer priorities with fewer people throwing off more and more and more money. My concern is for the brands that don’t make the cut; neither one of the (very few) global focus brands; nor a big local leader. I have experienced first hand great brands – important brands – being virtually exterminated by mega-mergers. At the start of the noughties, the leading cask ale in the UK was Draught Bass, that lovely nutty pale ale that characterized great Burton brewing. But then Interbrew bought the brewing assets off Bass plc… and suddenly a treasured jewel becomes a bit-part portfolio player, its value not in the legacy and heritage it represents but the profitability it throws off in one market (the US). Immediately the brand tumbles; immediately daft marketing put in place by daft leadership fills a void that needn’t have existed in the first place. Where is Bass today? Probably on keg in a golf club selling a dozen pints a week, if you’re lucky.

IMG_5163And I was reminded of it again the other week on a trip to The Netherlands. Heineken, the dominant Dutch brewer have a range of riches to call upon there: Heineken itself; Amstel, Brand (originally from the south of the country), Affligem… and a wheat beer, Wieckse Witte. There’s a wraith brand if I ever I’ve drunk one. In the all-consuming push for growth; these marketing companies forget the product truth; forget what made the beers great. They push for the centre-ground and while they may win an election or two, they lose the distinctiveness. That’s Wieckse Witte for you: thin; bland; no bananary-ester character, no clovey yeastiness; no malt-accented body nor hoppy aroma. It’s a hazy pale lager poured from a bottle that’s had the character designed out of it. A brand that’s passed form the land of the living into a brand of virtual reality; of focus groups and social content; of believing that what people tell you on Twitter is actually true or that ‘Follows’ or ‘Likes’ amount to something. It’s a brand that’s barely concealed in its shallow grave; colour washed from its cheeks as it slowly turns into a zombie, all personality lost, just a tool, a puppet, for delivering profit. And that’s the thing with the centre-ground. You may win an election, but eventually you become unelectable. No one knows what you stand for. Everyone has forgotten what made you great. You’re just magnolia paint on unremarkable walls.

And that perversely, is the real benefit of the mega-mergers. Tread warily around the ‘profit-opportunity’ sirens that call. There may be pickings to be had, but they won’t be easily won. But, these mega-companies, with their ever-blander mega-brands, are a constant beacon to remind independent brewers and characterful brands why they exist, and why it’s a future worth scrapping for.

Kellerweiss

Although Beer Tinted Spectacles was not set up with the objective of reviewing beers, there are times when a singular beer warrants that attention; when a beer triggers memories or is so enriching that it creates new ones. And the beauty of this is how subjective, personal that experience is, how evocative of a moment in time.

This was a case in point. We’d arrived at the airport in Florida earlier evening, and after the bright, breezy coolness of the UK in April, the humid heat of the central Florida swamplands slapped me like a warm towel after a particularly energetic Thai massage. The sort of massage necessitated by limbs and bones crushed and twisted from economy seating, and the endless fanning by rank cabin air, recycled through 350 sets of hairy nostrils. It was the bliss of a cavorting into a sauna and throwing water on the coals or skimpily running through the snow, between the pines and jumping into a Turkish bath.

Acculturation isn’t such a major concern when you’re a Brit travelling to the U.S. – so much of our lives and lifestyle is shared, familiar. Yet, there’s still a huge difference actually being there, immersed in it, rather than watching on it on Dave. My orientation is built around two things: geography (“Where the hell am I? Which way is north?) and shopping (“What do the locals eat round here? Oooooo look, Peanut Butter and Honey Oreos!”).   Due to my line of work, I’m pretty familiar with US food retailing; nonetheless, wandering up and down the aisles still gets me excited – product ideas get swiped with careful abandon.

Then there’s the beer. It’s like youthful love: heart fluttering, shallow breathing. I approach the aisle: the options, the choices; unheard of brands, local brands, or rarities in the UK, readily available here. And there’s the way beer is sold: the main fixture was 100% chilled (anathema to some I know, not to Tinted); 6 packs, wide bore large cans, narrow bore small cans – and so much craft (50% of the space) and many, many more craft beers in cans than the last time I was Stateside. And Big Beer was interesting too – no point in being sniffy; nice to see the old school Coors Banquet ‘stubbies’ and gratuitous use of thermochromic ink*. Great too, to see interesting displays and on pack promotions; there’s always room for another koozie or bottle opener in the Tinted House.

One beer stood out for me though: both because it looked tremendous, but also because it’s a beer style I have a particular fondness for. I love Bavarian wheat beers, not just for the unadulterated refreshment they offer, but also for their hidden complexity and their presentation. When I drink a good one, I think of Münich beer gardens or shady terraces gently stepping down to the river. I think of warm Summer evenings; bratwurst cooking over wood; of raucously green fields, readying themselves for harvest. I think of an impromptu disco at The Turf Locks in ’91 where we danced to the Cult at one moment and a Steeleye Span reel the next (Hey! Blame the DJ) fueled by pints of Tanglefoot and Royal Oak. In my mind’s eye, I see the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the rolling fields and away, away in the distance the snow-capped rising spires ascending. Fuse that with the entrepreneurial passion of the New World and the dancing bars on the graphic equalizer go banzai.

IMG_3436This is everything that Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss meant to me: the best of the old world and the new, all swaddled together in a autumnal coat. I was going to buy a six pack but only got two bottles as I was in the market for breadth that day (alas, alas).

And what can I say? It was as well-structured and brewed as any Sierra Nevada beer: the esters like a home-baked banana bread, not full on ripe skins. The body, through its natural carbonation from a healthy slug of yeast was dancing and swirling (this is a Hefe weizen, ‘yeast wheat’ after all); the body was a translucently pale, frosty yellow. As wheat beers go, not as complex as Schneider Weisse, but as drinkable as the lighter styles, such as Erdinger – yet, all the time with a grainy hoppiness that marked it out as just a little different. A beautiful beer. I have spoken to someone at Fullers and with Victorian haughtiness, demanded that they import it. He didn’t say no.

*Given that I pioneered its first application on beer, it warrants a mention, don’tcha think?

© David Preston, http://www.beertintedspectacles.com, June 2015