Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

November 5, 2010

Beer Diary:

An Ode To Wheat

Mourning the seasonal passing of the ideal summer brew.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
Contact Eddie»
There’s a lot of ways people arbitrarily decide when summer ends. Labor Day. The fall equinox. August 31. Opening day kickoff. But one definitive occurrence you can’t argue with is when you wake up in the morning and there’s frost on the ground. That is a sure sign that summer is in the rearview mirror.

Although I’ve never been the biggest fan of summer (especially this past one), I do like the beer that comes with it, and I mourn the seasonal passing of not only my favorite summer thirst quencher, but also one of my favorite beer styles: Bavarian wheats. German hefeweizens. You know, those cloudy brews sporting giant piles of rocky foam, throwing off spicy clove and juicy banana aromas, and finishing tart and refreshing. The banana notes keep things light and fruity, while clove nips and acidic bites prevent it from getting too sweet. A finely crafted hefe keeps those two flavors in perfect balance. But, I must admit I’m a bit partial to wheats that go a little overboard with the banana. Why, you ask? Interesting story …

While at present I am indeed a cellar dweller, I didn’t always have the basement to myself. In fact, for a while there I didn’t have access to it at all. Which meant I had to do my brewing up on the main floor of the house, where sunlight could just stream in willy-nilly, and the temperature could get a little out of whack. Especially in summer. And extra especially because Ma and Slick refuse to install air conditioning—not even a cheap-o window unit.

That sucks for just plain-old existing on muggy August days, but when it comes to brewing, even mildly warm days can be a pain in the hoo-haw. See, every spring I’d brew up a batch of wheat homebrew in anticipation (blind, foundless hope) of a summer filled with lazy days sipping refreshing beer from the lidded stein. For those that don’t live in the Midwest, spring is wet and shitty, with seemingly endlessly revoloving spates of first-it’s-hot, now-it’s-cold, no-wait-it’s-hot-again March and April weather. And each year I’d brew during what I thought was the “now it’s cold” phase, but, like goddamn clockwork, about two days after I pitched my yeast and tucked the fermenter into the corner, we’d get a hot spell, rocketing the temperature in the house to the upper 80s for the next week straight.

Before I go further, a couple of things about yeast and temperature. First, higher fermentation temperatures lead to estery beers—and in the case of Bavarian wheat yeast, that means (generally) jacked up banana/bubble gum notes and muted, if not completely buried, spicy clove aspects. Second, higher temperatures make the yeast ferment more vigorously (which leads to the first, aforementioned issue). And in the case of Bavarian wheat yeast, that’s putting it mildly. Temps in the 80s turn this already aggressive yeast into a wild, ravenous monster.

(And, yes, I tried everything to keep things cool, short of taking all the food out of the fridge and cramming the fermenter in there.)

So I’d watch with a mix of awe and horror as my plastic fermenter shuddered and shifted and jumped off the floor in the most violent display of fermentation I’ve ever seen. The krausen rose to the top of the fermenter (even when I’d brew a smaller batch, trying, in vain, to compensate) and blasted out through the fermentation lock, forcing out the cheap vodka I put in there to keep out the bad microscopic beasties. (At least I assume it was cheap vodka—I just grabbed whatever was in the folks’ liquor cabinet. Frïs is cheap, isn’t it?)

After I cleaned up the fermenter and replaced the airlock with a fresh clean one (you do NOT want the airlock to get crusted closed from the dried-out krausen—trust me), the yeast would eventually settle back down and finish their work in relative quiet. The plus side of such fermentation violence is that the brew was done and ready to bottle in a matter days.

The down side, if you want to call it that, which most wheat beer aficionados would, is that, well, let me put it this way: if the local zoo accidentally left the primate house unlocked, the monkeys would be lining up outside my front door. The homebrew came out tasting like I’d invented fresh-squeezed banana juice. But the thing about brewing your own beer is, you don’t really mind minor (or, as the case may be, relatively major) imperfections in your creations. Sure, as you get more experienced you slap your forehead after that first sip because you realized your strike water was too hot or you shouldn’t have thrown in two whole ounces of Warrior for bittering, but you still love the beer either way.

Which is why, getting back to topic, I have a proclivity for wheat beers on the fruitier side. Sure, I love the dry (in comparison), spicy versions like New Glarus Dancing Man, but every once in a while I’ll take a sip of a beautifully crafted Bavarian wheat beer and for a brief, fleeting second experience a nostalgic longing for those boiling hot summer days above ground and my annual early summer banana beer.

And then on the next sip I realize that those days kind of sucked.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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