Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

July 4, 2007

Beer Diary:

American Wheat What What

Eddie Glick runs down a panoply of Midwest wheat beers and which ones will best suit your personality.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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The calendars say it’s July, which means,—most years, at least—that summer has arrived in the Midwest. Summer being—again, most years, at least—hot and, if not dry as a desert, then humid as the tropics, it demands a special type of beer to combat such unpleasantness. And the de facto summer style is, of course, the wheat beer.

For centuries—Hell, a millennium—this meant what we call stylistically the Bavarian wheat. These beers are, obviously, made with a significant amount of wheat, sometimes as much as 60 percent. All this wheat makes the beers lighter in body and color than typical ales. The beers, however, tend to be cloudy, partly due to the high amount of protein found in most strains of wheat, but mostly because the style is usually served unfiltered, meaning some of the yeast is still in the bottle (hence the moniker hefeweizen, hefe being German for yeast, weizen being German for wheat).

And, yes, you are supposed to drink that brown yeasty sediment caking the bottom of the bottle. If the brewers didn’t want you to drink it, they wouldn’t have put it in the beer. In fact, when I was last in Bavaria (Munich, to be exact) my waitress poured all but an ounce or so of my bottle of wheat beer in my glass, set the bottle on its side on the table, rolled it back and forth to get the last of the sediment, and poured those yeasty remnants into my glass. The Bavarians, apparently, love two things in life: leather clothes and yeasty beers. I’ll gladly drink to both.

But the real secret ingredient that sets the Bavarian wheat beer apart is not just the unfiltered yeast, but the unique type of yeast used to ferment the beer. It is a very aggressive strain of ale yeast developed over centuries that imparts an aroma and taste strongly reminiscent of bananas and cloves. (The Beer Dorks’ own Franz Mueller goes into technical detail on this subject, if you’re interested.) This fruitiness in nose and palate, paired with the light color and body, make this beer style the classic summer brew.

But this is the Fourth of July, the date that marks the independence of America’s #1 rated country, the United States. So we’re going to talk about the American craft brewers’ take on this world style. This hybrid is called, quite cleverly, the American wheat.

American wheats usually appear similar to hefeweizens, although some are actually filtered so are not cloudy. They’re also devoid of the strong bananas-and-cloves notes found in Bavarian wheats, although many have some citrusy flavors and aromas lurking around the outskirts, if not right up front. While hefes have no hop profile to speak of, some American wheats can have some moderate hoppiness. Most are clean, sharp, refreshing brews, making them just as ideal for summer sipping as their Bavarian counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, the Midwest is awash with craft-brewed American wheats. The only problem is choosing which one to slake your thirst. The following is a semi-incomplete rundown of more than a few Midwestern wheats.

Arcadia Ales Whitsun (2 mugs)
Barrel-aging is all the rage right now in craft brewing circles. The prevailing belief almost seems like if a beer is good, it’ll be that much better aged in whiskey, bourbon, or wine barrels. If done right, barrel-aging can really enhance a beer’s complexity, but your more delicate styles, like, say, a wheat beer, aren’t going to be able to hack it. The sourness and secondary flavors coming from the barrel’s previous occupant can easily overwhem lighter beers, and that is what we get with Arcadia’s Whitsun: sourness and … that’s it. From the nose through to almost the very end (there is just the tiniest note of citrus at the last possible second) lambic-style sourness dominates everything. If you can only taste one flavor, it’s not really complex, is it?

Who’s it for? If you just have to barrel-age everything, Whitsun is for you.

Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat (2 mugs)
God almighty this beer actually poured a little bit cloudy. Insanity. I would have expected something as clear as glass, but Sons of Miller actually did something more toward the authentic side in this outing. The aroma is citrusy with a very healthy dose of lemon in the nose. Could this be a redemptive entry from Leinie’s? Nope. Things fall apart directly after the first sip, a light, clean body finishes with a chemically, almost metallic taste of lemon. Makes you rub your tongue around inside your mouth in an attempt to scrub away an unpleasant coating in there. This would be a fairly drinkable American wheat if not for that offputting taint of lemon-flavored cough drops permeating every mouthful.

Who’s it for? Anyone who’s taken a sip of beer and said, “This could really use a shot of Lemon Pledge.”

New Holland Zoomer (3 mugs)
I, Eddie Glick, proclaim New Holland’s Zoomer the stylistic polestar for the American wheat. What, exactly, does that mean? It’s not the best, it’s not the worst, but it’s probably very close to what most craft brewers are aiming for when they’re making a refreshing summer thirst quencher. It pours light but extremely cloudy, with a towering, airy stack of foam. That lightness carries on through the palate, with very little body but a refreshing shot of citrus and lemon. Light, decidedly uncomplex, with a very clean finish. No, it won’t blow your mind, or even exercise it, but it will wash away the dust in the back of your throat after putting in that load of hay.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants a refreshing beer that won’t make them think too hard.

Capital Island Wheat (3 mugs)
Capital already brews a fantastic, classical take on the Bavarian wheat, their Klöster Weizen. But the Island wheat is their stab at the American version, and they do it with a twist: it’s brewed only with wheat harvested on Washington Island, located off the tip of Door County in Lake Michigan. A unique environment, to say the least. This little concoction pours pretty light, and only marginally cloudy. But the main aroma in the nose is yeast, with some lemon and orange zest to keep things interesting. It’s got a clean, sharp taste, with this interesting spritzy, almost soda pop-like zip at the end. A product of the Washington Island wheat, perhaps? As they say about the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop (but who would want to—yuck), the world may never know. But I do know that once you let this beer warm up a bit—not too hard to do on a hot July day—you get some definite malt in both the nose and the palate, something not too common in a wheat beer. But, hey, this’s Capital Brewery we’re talking about. Would you expect anything different?

Who’s it for? Malt monkeys with patience and those who want something that is the same but different than everything else.

Sand Creek Woody’s Wheat (4 mugs)
At first blush, Sand Creek’s American wheat comes across as a middle-of-the-road take on the style. It has a little more color than the others, but is marginally less cloudy. The nose is a bit yeasty, with a very tiny hint of bananas. The first couple of sips support my center line thesis, but as the beer warms up, Sand Creek’s secret comes out: relatively strong (for an American wheat) notes of bananas and cloves, like a Bavarian’s weak sibling. The end result is a pretty damn good beer—refreshing with just a hint of complexity—but it’s also a bit of a cheat against the style. Frankly, I wonder how they pulled it off. Did they mix in a little Bavarian wheat ale yeast (risky, at best, disastrous at worst) or did they do a batch blend? Whatever they did, it is a stand-out entry that deserves a four-mug designation. If only I didn’t finish the beer with the feeling that I somehow had the wool pulled over my eyes when I bought the sixer …

Who’s it for? Beer Dorks unable to cut that Bavarian cord; cheaters.

Bell’s Oberon (5 mugs)
I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but this is one amazingly good beer. Absolutely gorgeous in the pour, eminently drinkable, and complex enough to satisfy your inner Dork. Easily the biggest body out of all the sampled wheats (except maybe the Arcadia, if you can decipher anything beyond all that sourness), it finishes with a refreshing shot of citrus, and just makes you want to reach for one more …

Who’s it for? Anyone who likes good beer.

James Page White Ox Wheat Ale (2 mugs)
As Homer Simpson once said: bor-ing! James Page’s yawn-inducing entry looks like a lager, smells like a lager, and tastes like a lager. It does say wheat ale on the label, doesn’t it? There’s a tiny, tiny citrus note at the end of the sip if you let it warm a little, but other than that I really don’t see the point. To quote another famous drunk, Charles Bukowski, who penned while undoubtedly hammered on cheap wine, “If you are going to try, go all the way. Otherwise don’t even start.” I hate poetry, but I know profound wisdom when I read it.

Who’s it for? Those not too sure they’re ready to go all the way. Or even half way.

Goose Island 312 Island Wheat (1 mug)
I was a bit baffled when Goose Island came out with their 312 Urban Wheat (312 is the area code for downtown Chicago, the Goose’s home). They already had a solid summer beer, Summertime, a very nice take on the otherwise obscure kölsch style. And then I tasted this “urban” wheat, and I understood. It was for those people. Lincoln Park gussies and Cubholes who can’t find any Bud Light to suck down like effluvia through a sewer grate. (I’ve been waiting, like, three months to use the word “effluvia.”) Three words can succinctly describe this “beer”: light, tasteless and fucking unpleasant.

Who’s it for? Anyone who thinks Miller Lite is too “dark and heavy.”

Three Floyds Gumballhead (4 mugs)
Although the wack jobs at Three Floyds don’t come out and say it, what we have here is a bona fide wheat IPA. It pours pale and cloudy like any true bottle-conditioned wheat brew should, with a decent head. Now imagine this: a whiff—just a whiff, mind you—of the sweet cloves you’d expect from an American wheat, followed by a torrent of hop aroma. The sippin’ is the same: light, refreshing, with a hint of fruitiness, followed by enough bittering hops to smack your ass and call you Sally. Plus the bottle sports a cig-smoking, bad-ass cat, the titular hero of the Gumballhead the Cat comic series. Here’s to hoping that the gang at Three Floyds keeps oversampling their own wares.

Who’s it for? Hopheads and other adventurous souls.

That’s the list! Go out and sample for yourselves, and let me know if you find any Midwest entries I missed.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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