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Wheat Beers
A Renewed Summer Love

Posted: September 9, 2013

By Thomas Sulinski

Our most recent tasting of the World Beer Championships renewed my love affair with wheat beers. As the shelves of my local bottle shop become more imperialized, and label artwork becomes just that, artwork, wheat beer sometimes gets lost in the shuffle amongst the latest and greatest. Sometimes pale, sometimes flavored, these beers are always one thing – surprisingly refreshing. Whether rooted firmly in tradition, or the spoils of a brewer’s most recent experiment, “refreshing” only begins to describe these amazingly complex beers.

Like many other styles, wheat beers have been at the whim of the comings and goings of fashion, and one has to look no further than witbier for such an example. Originating in Belgium, this pale wheat ale is classically defined by Curaçao orange peel and coriander. Facing almost certain “extinction” towards the end of the 50’s, this style was resurrected by a lone brewer, and in recent years has experienced a resounding resurgence. One of the more surprising witbiers from our recent review was from Texas’ Adelbert’s Brewery. Aged in red wine barrels, Adelbert’s Brewery’s Barrel Aged Naked Nun (95 points) is a perfect marriage of Brettanomyces and oak barrel character and the brewery’s Naked Nun witbier. Eponymously named for when the owner was robbed of everything – including clothes – and was kindly assisted by a group of nuns, this beer may perhaps be the best thing to come from such a frightening situation. Trust me; go against the grain and “mess with Texas” for this limited release. Delight can also be found in beers leaning more on the traditional side of the category. Clear standouts of the style this year include Les Brasseurs du Nord Boréale Blanche (94 points), Belgh Brasse Mons Abbey Witte (92 points), Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams White Lantern (93 points), Ore Dock Brewing Company’s Wit (92 points) and Berghoff Brewery’s Solstice Wit (91 points).

Although witbier originated in Belgium, an exploration of wheat beer styles would certainly be incomplete with out a visit to Germany. Most wheat beer styles find their histories deeply rooted in Germany, and next to pilsner, hefeweizen may perhaps be one of the more identifiable German styles. Although generally brewed year round, hefeweizens typically see their peak during the heat of summer months. Hefeweizens are unfiltered, and are dominated by yeast driven flavors and aromas identified as phenols and esters by some, but described as banana, clove, vanilla and maybe even bubble gum by the rest of us. Typically these beers have a short shelf life and are fairly delicate, but don’t let that stop you from picking up a German brewed hefeweizen from your local bottle shop. Taking top honors this year were Privatbrauerei Hofmühl’s Weissbier (95 points) and Privatbrauerei Aying’s Ayinger Bräuweisse (94 points) – both German brewed examples. Stateside standouts included August Schell Brewing Co.’s Schell’s Hefeweizen (93 points), Urban Chestnut Brewing Company’s Schnickelfritz (92 points) and Sweetwater Brewing Co.’s Waterkeeper Hefeweizen (90 points).

Although the majority of wheat beer styles originated in Europe, many American brewers are logging long hours over their kettles cultivating a noteworthy style of their own. Depending on which brewer is asked, the American-style wheat ale category can describe either a light, clean and crisp beer fermented with a clean American yeast strain, or a hopped-up wheat beer. Taking top honors of the former definition were Mustang Brewing Co.’s Washita Wheat Ale (91 points) and Kassik’s Brewery’s Whaler’s Wheat (91 points), while Elevator Brewing Co.’s “Big Vic” Imperial Mogabi Wheat IPA (91 points) took top honors for the later definition of the style. Although the style is still a moving target for many brewers, I think I can safely say plenty of world-class beers are being produced regardless of where brewers take their aim.

Wheat beers can have an understated eloquence that is unmatched in most other styles. Look through the pages that follow, and perhaps you will join me in renewing your love affair with wheat beer - or at least enjoying a brief vacation from an imperial conquest. Cheers!

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