I started to write about wheat beers a couple of weeks ago during our fake summer. Ma Nature came along and blew snow down my open collar just to piss me off and keep me off outdoor decks where wheat beer drinking is at its finest.
I don’t have an exclusive agreement with the old bird, but I’m hoping winter’s behind us and we can now get to the business of spring and summer beer drinking that begs for suds that are lighter on the palate.
I write about wheat beers every year because I look forward to them with fondness even through they’re available year around. Because I have to budget my liver and palate, I focus on header stuff when I’m more sedentary in the winter and the lighter stuff when I’m more active on days like these.
I’ll be up front with my bias. I’m not a huge fan of American style wheat beers. No, I’m not saying I don’t care for wheat beers made by American brewers, but there is a difference between the full-on Euro wheat beers and what I consider a more pedestrian, market-driven approach in examples like Pyramid Hefewisen. I know I’m probably pissing some people off out there; undeniably, Pyramid Wheat is the most popular and recognizable brand in the style and probably the only reason neophyte imbibers can pronounce the word and know what it means.
Arguably there are good American style wheat beers out there and most of our American craft brewers can make a damned fine Bavarian style wheat – my favorite – so I guess good wheat beer is where you find it. I find mine in a tall wheat beer glass — hold the lemon wedge, thank you very much — with my face turned toward a warming sun.
Bavarian style wheat beers are characterized by a signature “clove and banana” essence discernible in both the aroma and flavor. Don’t expect real fruit and spice; the effect comes from the yeast strain used in fermentation. A slight tart edge rounds things out. American style wheat beers are typically missing these elements, aren’t as pillow-y and are typically clearer as the yeast and other compounds are usually mechanically filtered out.
I’m not focusing exclusively on Bavarian styles; I only pulled a few. I want to present a loose representation of well over 50 different wheat beers I found on a recent spring foray to a couple of local liquor stores. There are so many out there — and more to come as the mercury climbs — I’d never be able to cover them all.
I had to start with a classic from Munich. Franziskaner Weissbier is an all time favorite for me. This one hits the highest of marks for me. I get my respected clove and banana essence in the aroma and right off the bat in the sip. It’s slightly hazy, and it would have been better presented if I wouldn’t have forgotten to roll the bottle on the counter to mix in the settled yeast before pouring. The malt pushes through, a perfect balance of sweet and dry sensations bait my palate and the carbonation is perfect in this hazy gold wonder.
Locally, King Street Brewing Company’s Hefeweizen is a great example of a great brewery making a great Bavarian style wheat beer right here at home. Along with Glacier Brewhouse’s Hefeweizen and 49th State’s version of the predecessor Sleeping Lady Brewing Company’s Susitna Hefeweizen, this one’s an example of how well our American breweries can represent a traditional style. Again, expect the clove and banana, ample carbonation, a frothy topper when properly poured in a traditional wheat beer glass. This beer is just slightly sweeter than I get when dabbling in the classics, although the style allows wide interpretation. Odd Man Rush’s Mile Hi Hefe is another German style Hef that’s right in the pocket for style.
Want something a little bigger? Here’s a twist: King Street’s Imperial Hefweizen is a modernized, big version of a good wheat beer. Crystal clear, burnished gold in the glass under a frothy white topper. Despite a strong-ish 8.0 percent alcohol by volume the traditional clove and banana elements shine through with the distinct twist of “citrusy New World hops” that lend an American signature to this noteworthy beer.
Kassik’s Whaler’s Wheat is a noteworthy American-style Hefeweizen. Kenai River’s Honeymoon Hefe is a great light German and American hybrid. Kodiak Island Brewing Company’s Wheat Wine is a serious but important nod to nuances in a very popular style. Wheat “wine” is a bigger, stronger version of a classic wheat; the alcohol by volume exceeds that of an imperial wheat. Kodiak’s Island Trails – for example – weighs in at 9.2 percent alcohol by volume and is accented with spruce tips for a delightful, juicy version of a very drinkable beer.
I’m not a huge wit (white) beer fan, but this style is light, bright and typically spiced with coriander and is refreshing and imminently drinkable, so it’s popular around the state. Alaskan’s White is a great example.
All of Turnagain Brewing Company’s beers contain unmalted wheat from VanderWeele Farms in Palmer. Visit the Anchorage brewery to get a sample of Blanca, a Belgian Style wit.
Glacier Brewhouse’s, and Denali Brewing Company’s Raspberry Wheat Beers and Silver Gulch Brewing Company’s Iliamna Raspberry Ale are good pulls if you want a sweeter balanced brew with a light fruit tartness and berry flavor.
Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s Hop Dog is a “double wheat IPA.” Wheat beers are traditionally lower in hop character including aroma, flavor and bitterness, but Hop Dog is a good example of what good old American experimentation can do. Big hop wheat beers are not as uncommon as one might think. What I really miss from Midnight Sun is the long retired Old Whiskers Hefeweizen. This classic was an all time favorite of mine when it was around. Not only was it an artfully produced Bavarian style, it lived up to it’s description of “spunky and chunky” and came across the palate as refreshing and playful and with some serious in your face clove and banana essence.
I finished out my wheat tour with another Classic. I’d had a Schneider Weisse Original German Hefe Weizen in the mix, but wrapped things up with Weihenstephaner’s Kristall, Weissbier. Weihenstephaner is the oldest continuously operating brewery in the world, having been founded in 1040. Their line of wheat beers is defining and legendary including the classic Wheat Beer, Hefe Weissbier and Hefeweissbier Dunkel (I didn’t even get to dark wheat beers) are a few of the over a dozen in the lineup, but the Kristall is the lightest and highest carbonated of the bunch.
Kristall Weizen is characterized by intense clarity, an almost prickly carbonation and a more delicate flavor profile with floral and fruity aromas rather than the spicy complexity associated with the fuller examples in the Bavarian lineup. This is an excellent warm spring day deck beer, so grab one of these for your next “facing the sun” moment.
If you delve into this style, you’ll quickly learn it’s arguably more nuanced than most other styles of beer on the globe, and that’s what makes it fun to explore. With a little work, you could probably pick and enjoy a different one every day between now and September there are so many of them on the market.