By Jim Clarke
If, like me, you developed an appreciation for beer while living in the Pacific Northwest in the early 90s, you probably have an inclination to prefer ales to lagers. Ales – ambers, pales, porters, or anything in between – stood out as visibly different from the mass-produced pale, blond lagers that many microbrewers were reacting against. Sure, a few guys made lagers, but ales were easier to make, more flavorful, and showed more variety.
But come summer, those malty ales can fall down in the face of lager. Ales, even today’s drier, super-hoppy brews, tend toward a weightiness that can be too rich for the summer sun, whereas lagers tend to be more refreshing. It’s a bit like the red wine drinker’s dilemma: how do you find a red that really stays lively and enjoyable under the hot sun?
If Belgium’s beers provided the model for many of those rich ales, they also provided an ale with the answer: wheat. White ale – beer brewed with wheat and gently spiced – had long been a tradition in the Brabant area of Belgium, centered on the town of Hoegaarden. By the middle of the 20th Century, however, the last of these breweries had closed. And the cause is proof that lagers and wheaten ales are fighting for the same part of the beer market: it was lager production – including Belgium’s most famous lager today, Stella Artois – that drove the wheat ales of Hoegaarden out of business.
Then, in the 60s, a man named Pierre Celis struck back and began brewing a new, but traditional, wheat ale, unfiltered, a cloudy, whitish blond, and spiced with Curacao orange peel and coriander. Named Hoegaarden after the town, the beers became popular in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, and by 1985, Pierre was ready for the next step, and was about to begin exporting to the U.S. Then, tragedy struck: a fire demolished the brewery. Underinsured, he was able to save the brand by selling a large share to his local competitor, Stella Artois. Conflicts with his new investors, who wanted to change the recipe, eventually led him to sell off his remaining share and retire.
Celis’s difficulties coincided with revived interested in wheat beers elsewhere in the world. In the 1980s, younger beer drinkers in Europe embraced the cloudy brews, and many considered them to be healthier than the lagers that dominated the market. In Germany, Bavaria and Berlin were centers of wheat beer production. Bavarian nobility had kept the use of wheat in brewing to themselves until 1850 – in theory, because it was too important for making bread and feeding the populace to be “wasted” making beer. Schneider was the first Bavarian brewer to receive a license to produce a wheat beer, but eventually a number of other brewers added a wheat beer to their portfolio alongside the more usual lagers. Bavarian wheat beers have the same unfiltered, cloudy appearance as those of Belgium, but tend to be fuller-bodied, with a broader fruit character. Lacking the colonial connections that brought all those spices to the Low Countries, Bavarian brewers never developed the tradition of throwing that bit of additional flavoring into the vat
Berlin’s wheat beer tradition has all but expired. There are two breweries left, Schultheiss and Kindl (marketed as ‘Berliner Kindl’). Both are hard to find, and I don’t believe Schultheiss is even imported into the U.S.; the last time I had it was when I lived in Germany. Two centuries ago Napoleon’s troops called Berlin’s wheat beers the “Champagne of the North,” in appreciation of both the quality and the style: tart – so much that they need the carbonation to soften them on the palate, much like Champagne – and lactic, a characteristic brought on by some unusual local yeast cultures. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, low on hops, citrusy, and rather sour, but refreshing and complex once you develop a taste for it.
In 1986, a year after Celis’s disastrous fire, Kurt and Rob Widmer were introducing the Pacific Northwest to their own take on wheat beers – one that looked more to Bavaria than to Belgium. Several other brewers in Portland and Seattle added wheat beers to their portfolio, including Pyramid, Red Hook, and McTarnahan’s. Widmer has set the standard, but the Belgian style was not about to be left out; in fact, even without his Hoegaarden brewery, Pierre Celis still managed to bring his beers to America.
After his retirement from Hoegaarden, Celis had moved to Austin, Texas; it wasn’t long before he realized that he hadn’t gotten wheat beer out of his system. He began brewing again, and his new brand, Celis White, took off quickly. Unfortunately, history was doomed to repeat: after some disputes with his initial investors, Pierre ended up selling Celis White to Miller. He retired a second time; Miller eventually gave up on the brand and today Celis Brewing is no longer with us.
However, the Belgian-style wheat beers have found a place in the heart of America’s brewers. While there is no legally-differentiated difference, most brewers use the ‘White Ale’ designation for their Belgian-inspired concoctions, whereas ‘Hefeweizen’ indicates more Germanic roots. In their eclectic, experimental way, American brewers can be more aggressive about adding spice and even fruit to their wheat beers than their European counterparts. Boysenberry, raspberry, apricot…all these additions go well beyond any original mandate to take advantage of colonial imports. Even though they lack tradition, these fruity brews can be fun and refreshing; their most common flaw is a sweetness that makes for a balance more suited to Kool-Aid than beer.
One other fruity touch, a slice of lemon or orange on the rime of the glass, tends to ignite controversy among wheat beer fans. While often assumed to be a Stateside innovation, I’ve seen it on both sides of the Atlantic, and heard beer drinkers on both sides defend or fault the practice. Most purists decry the garnish – it destroys the head and, of course, affects the flavor; others say that it brings out some of the refreshment inherent in the style I tend to fall in with the former group – after all, I’d never do that to a wine – but, viewing it generously, I guess I’d say it’s like squeezing a lime into a margarita, and so gives the drinker the chance to customize the sweetness-acidity balance to their own taste. To my mind, nevertheless, the best wheat beers cut the summer heat perfectly well without any citrusy assistance.
- Belgium and American White Ales: lighter–bodied, with more spice (especially coriander, but often ginger and clove) and citrus aromas
- Hoegaarden Original White Ale, Hoegaarden Speciale — Hoegaarden, Belgium
- St. Bernardus Witbier — Brouwerij St. Bernardus, Belgium
- Gulpener Korenwolf — Gulpener Bierbrouwerij, The Netherlands
- Shiner Honey Wheat — Spoetzl Brewery, Texas
- Allagash White — Allagash Brewing Company, Maine
- German and American Hefewiezens: generally a bit fuller, with more fruit (banana, apple) and a touch of clove
- Schneider Weisse Weizenhell — Schneider and Sohn, Germany
- Paulaner Hefe–Weissbier Naturtrüb — Paulaner Salvator, Germany
- Franziskaner Hefe–Weisse — Spaten–Franziskaner, Germany
- Widmer Hefeweizen — Widmer Brothers Brewing, Oregon
- Smuttynose Summer Weizen — Smuttynose Brewing, New Hampshire
- Pyramid Wheaten Ale — Pyramid Brewing, Seattle
- Riffing on Wheat Beers — some less traditional additions:
- Red & White — Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Maryland. (Fermented with some Pinot
Noir juice, and partially aged in Pinot Noir barrels)
- Apricot Weizen — Pyramid Brewing, Washington
- Saranac Pomegranate Wheat — New York
- Dark Wheaten Ales: Okay, truth be told, not all wheat beers are light. If you’re facing some cool summer evenings in the mountains and want something darker and maltier, the “dunkel” style of German wheaten ales may be just the thing
- Hacker–Pschorr Dunkle Weisse — Hacker–Pschorr, Germany
- Paulaner Hefe–Weissbier Dunkel — Paulaner Salvator, Germany
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