Wheat Beer

Masters Table Autumn 1999

By Adrian Tierney-Jones

What grapes are to wine, malt and hops are to beer - the body and soul.
The choice of malt and hops determines the taste, aroma and finish of an ale. It doesn't always stop there though and there is a long established tradition of adding other ingredients which makes beer such a versatile and intriguing drink.

Up in Scotland Bruce Williams at Heather Ales goes easy on the hops and uses heather in Fraoch Ale and spruce in Scots Pine Ale; in Belgium lambic beers often have raspberries or cherries chucked into the mix to make fruit lambics. Then there's wheat. In the last couple of decades, Germany (more especially Bavaria) and Belgium have seen wheat beers reemerge from historical obscurity to become one of the most exciting, complex tasting and popular beer styles around.

In Bavaria, breweries such as Schneider, Weihenstephaner and Erdinger produce fruity, refreshing and exceptionably delicious weisse beers or weizen. While in Belgium, Hoegaarden's White (see tasting notes) has won many British fans with its nose of banana, citrus and malt and a quenching burst of fruit and spiciness on the palate - thanks to the addition of coriander and dried peel of bitter oranges from Curacao.

Over here, not to be outdone, brewers have attempted their own wheat ales. Some, such as O'Hanlon's award-winning Maltster Weisse (see tasting notes), King & Barnes Wheat Mash, Pilgrim's Bavarian-style Springbock and Quay Brewery's fruity and warming dark wheat beer Silent Knight, have created a whole new real ale style to be drunk alongside the IPAs, winter ales and barley wines that already exist.

These are also beers which co-exist superbly with food: in London Alastair Hook, the master brewer at the Mash brew-restaurant, has created a delicious Raspberry Wheat. Confirmation of its quality came when it took first prize in the Belgian-style class at the Third Wheat Beer Challenge held at that well-known beer connoisseur's palace the White Horse in Parsons Green, London.

'I have a passion for wheat beer,' says Alastair Hook, who was also a brewer at the Spaten Brewery in Munich, 'and wheat beer is extremely popular, as the success of Hoegaarden and Schneider Weisse will testify.

The Belgian and Bavarian beers are all cloudy and there's nothing better for the product. That in itself is interesting because this cloudiness would be considered strange in a lot of beers but young people and people new to beer don't consider it strange. It's also a great thing because it keeps beer fresh, the yeast is good and gives a lot more fruitness and complexity.'

Bavarian and Belgian wheat beers are different beasts from British wheat beers. For a start, the amount of hops used is low as an excess of bitterness would wipe out the soft, fruity and malty flavours which predominate. British wheat beers, apart from several which are brewed Bavarian style, have a higher hop presence. Then there's the cloudiness of Bavarian and Belgian wheat beers. Both styles are cloudy in the glass because they are unfiltered, which leaves sediment in the bottle. But before you say ugh it is a sediment rich in yeast and proteins which continues to work on the beer in the similar way wine matures in the bottle. This is called secondary fermentation. Over in Bavaria brewers produce weisse biers with or without the sediment. The clear versions are labelled Kristall or Ohne Hefe, but most weisse bier fans prefer to get their yeast in the glass. British wheat beers are clear.

'The typical yeast of the Bavarian area gives the weisse bier its flavour,' says Alastair Hook, who regards Schneider Weisse as his favourite. 'Being called wheat beer is a curiosity, it would be better to call it a yeast beer as its character comes from the reaction of the yeast with the wheat.' Besides the yeast, the other magic ingredient of wheat beer is wheat malt, which is mixed in with the normal barley malt mash. This produces a tartness and thirst-quenching zestiness with spices, cloves, fruit and bubblegum some of the flavours to be detected on the palate.

Both weisse biers and Belgian wheat (or white) beers have long histories. In Bavaria, Schneider received royal permission to brew with wheat in the 1850s and other breweries followed suit. But by the early 1980s weisse biers were seen as a pensioners' drink, rather in the way a lot of drinkers in this country view mild. But then weisse bier became fashionable, especially with those who wanted their beers to have a modicum of goodness in them - which is where the sediment comes in.

In Belgium white beer seemed to have died out in its home village of Hoegaarden, until milkman Pierre Celis decided to resurrect a style he'd remembered and enjoyed. This was in the mid-60s. He probably thought it would be a one-off, as the 1960s was the age of clear-looking and clean-tasting Pilsner-style beers. However, this return from the dead went down well with younger drinkers. Nowadays Pierre Celis brews in Texas but Hoegaarden White is thriving as are other reintroduced white beers.

One of the more intriguing wheat beers is the Berliner Weisse, which is an acquired taste. Only two breweries in Berlin now produce the style. Once called the Champagne of the North by Napoleon's troops, it is a low alcohol (2.5-3% ABV), sharp-tasting, slightly sour beer which is traditionally sweetened with raspberry syryp or woodruffe. It is hard to get hold of but the one I tasted was a fruity, pleasingly sharp and refreshing beer which would have served well as an aperitif.

And what about our own wheat beers? These have emerged in the last few years as a style in their own right, more than often brewed with the intention of giving drinkers more choice. There is also the hope, one thinks, of luring lager-drinkers away from their expensive fizz.
According to Thomas Lange, who runs the Breworld Website and represents Schneider in the UK, 'I would call the British style Wheaten Ale. The beers have wheat characteristics coming through because of the use of ale yeast, which gives fruity esters (flavours produced when yeast turns sugar into alcohol).'

Finally, one of the great strengths of wheat beer is its completely relaxed relationship with food. Alastair Hook: 'With food wheat beer is ambidextrous, it has a lovely dry finish and plenty of fruit. It goes with anything sweet and also with hearty traditional German cuts of meat with sauce.' Other matches suggested are Schneider Weisse with fried fish, even fish and chips, while Schneider's delicious, strong and dangerously drinkable dark weisse bier Aventinus is used to make a sabayon to accompany walnut ice cream.

Whether it's the cloudy likes of Schneider and Hoegaarden or clearer and hoppier British newcomers such as Maltster Weisse or Wheat Mash, wheat beers are one of the world's great beer styles and well worth raising a glass to.

Tasting Notes
Hoegaarden White Beer (5%)
Beautiful pale yellow in colour, a cloudy body and a foamy head and usually served in its trademark chunky glass, this has a bouquet of bananas, citrus and soft malt on the nose. On the palate it is soft malt followed by spicy, banana and slight tropical fruit notes. The finish is refreshingly fruity and slightly dry. Bitter-sweet flavours make it a fantastic companion to food, especially summer salads, pizza, fish, mussels and other seafood and even gravadlax. Bottle-conditioned and available in Oddbins, Safeway and good off-licences. Also available in draught

Schneider Weisse (5.4%)
This classic bottle-conditioned weisse bier is usually served in a long tall glass. Amber is its colour, while on the nose there is fruit, cloves and even traces of bubblegum. Tasting is heavenly with more fruit and spices washing over the palate to produce a quenching, light and fruity finish. A fantastic example of the Bavarian weisse bier style and recommended by Thomas Lange with a main course, such as pork in a dark gravy sauce. It has also been known to accompany fish and chips, as it has enough effervescency and maltiness to cut through the blandness of the meal. Available from Safeways, along with Aventinus.

Hop Back Thunderstorm (5%)
Classic British wheat beer style from an excellent award-winning Wiltshire brewery who also produce a Wheat Stout. A meeting place of British and Germanic styles according to Hop Back's Richard Harvey, though I would place it firmly in the British camp. The nose is a light and hoppy aromatic one, which is closer to traditional British ale, than
Bavaria or Belgian wheat beers. It's a delicate straw colour and the palate produces soft malty, citrusy and refreshing flavours to be followed by a bitter mouth-drying finish which leaves you wanting more.
With food the soft citrus and malt work well with seafood, especially fried squid. Bottle-conditioned from several supermarkets and also available in draught.

O'Hanlon's Maltster's Weisse (4%)
Liz O'Hanlon describes this as a German-style white beer with an outstanding lemony taste. Unlike the Bavarian and Belgian styles, the hops are very evident (though not overwhelming), especially on the nose and in the finish. Once again, as is common for wheat beers, there's an initial soft maltiness but then there's a deliciously tangy, citrusy finish which I think owes a lot to the use of cascade and first gold hops, along with challenger which is noted for its fruitiness. Once again, ideal for fish (especially with chips!) and I would also suggest chicken and even partridge. Bottle-conditioned from Safeways and in draught.

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Adrian Tierney-Jones