Warmer days and cool nights. April showers on the horizon. The occasional spring frost following upon a stretch of summer-like days.
Time to lay those warming Russian Stouts and barley wines down to rest for another season.
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The quintessential beer for your rites of spring, be they seeding the garden or cleaning the cobwebs out of the grill, is one that’ll quench your thirst on a sunny afternoon yet stand up to an evening chill. You won’t go wrong with a hoppy and refreshing American brown ale, and nor would a porter be out of place on a cooler day. For this Saturday’s six-pack, though, I’m going to suggest a selection of beers that stays within one (admittedly broad) family, a family of beers that hits all the registers of spring in its arc between winter and summer: wheat beers.
Weizenbock: Vitus, Weihenstephan (Germany)
Weihenstephan has been making beer in Freising near Munich since 1040, so they’ve had a few years more than most brewers to perfect their recipes. And this Weizenbock (wheat bock) recipe comes as close to perfection as you’ll get among a stable of beers that also includes Weihenstephan’s sublime Hefeweissbier.
Vitus is the epitome of unctuous, and makes for an ideal transition between seasons. Aromas of honeyed light brown sugar, wheat, clove, allspice, and white pepper cascade out from underneath the epic pearl-white mountain of foam, with the slightest trace of butterscotch and a suggestion of saline minerality lurking in the depths. Swiss milk caramel shines through on the palate along with spiced honey, all exquisitely balanced by ripe banana, clove, and cinnamon en route to a velvet finish of marzipan and pear-banana-allspice.
At a honeyed, aromatic, and richly textured 7.7%, Vitus hides its potency well. But fear not if you overindulge your inner entertainer after drinking a few of these, for Vitus just so happens to be the patron saint of dancers, actors, and comedians.
Witbier/Bière Blanche: Blanche de Namur, Brasserie du Bocq (Belgium)
Wheat has deep roots in Wallonia and Flanders. Records of wheat grown for beer brewing date back to the time of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Established in 1858, the Brasserie du Bocq in the heart of the Condroz is a family operation that adheres to the traditional process of secondary fermentation in the bottle. The name of their witbier, Blanche de Namur, also evokes local tradition. In August 1335, Blanche de Namur was married off by her father, the Count of Namur, to Magnus IV Eriksson. When she embarked on her trip to Scandinavia to become a queen, it would be the last time she saw the banks of the Meuse. Brasserie du Bocq dedicates their beer to Blanche de Namur’s “beauty, sweetness and delicacy.”
Sweet and delicate this ochre-complexioned beer is. Dreamy aromas of lemony coriander, mild grapefruit zest, and spicy-floral hops set the stage for a rich, mouth-filling showcase of creamy wheat and citrus-spice that finishes up with a flinty dryness. Many a North American craft beer drinker tends to conflate richness of flavour and a high percentage of alcohol. At 4.5% ABV, this is just the beer to puncture such myths.
Hefeweizen: Bräuweisse, Ayinger Privatbrauerei (Germany)
To me, nothing says spring or summer more than a Hefeweizen, but the signature clove and banana aromatics along with the periodic hint of vanilla and honeyed light brown sugar are at home in just about any season. Ayinger’s Bräuweisse is a hazy honey-golden Hefeweizen crowned by a towering, meringue-like foam cap, and is one of the most compelling examples of this southern German style of beer that is nothing if not unique.
Pushing one-hundred-and-thirty years young, Ayinger isn’t quite as storied as Weihenstephaner, but the brewery is no less respected in Germany and beyond for its array of lagers and wheat beers. The Bräuweisse exudes a panoply of aromas ranging from creamed ripe banana and apple to lemon curd and light milky caramel. The spicing is subtle, more like a blend of baking spices that encompasses clove, cinnamon, and allspice. Creamy and mouthfilling yet still effervescent, the palate presents a harmonious mix of graham cracker, vanilla-banana, and a touch of tingly pepper and hop spiciness. For best results, drink in a beer garden, preferably in sight of the Alps.
American Wheat: American Wheat Beer, Choc (U.S.A.)
Brown beers may well get no luvin’ on the sites that gauge the barometric pressure of the North American craft beer scene. For American wheat beers, though, the fate is even worse: silence. One of the longer-standing indigenous American beer styles, American wheat beer doesn’t even merit a mention in Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont’s recent World Atlas of Beer. For my part, I have to admit that if I were to list my favourite beer styles, American wheat beer would not make it too high up the ladder. That’s no reason to pass on this typically effervescent and easy-drinking beer style in the springtime, though. The style is fairly ubiquitous across North America, and you can find the occasional intriguing example like 3 Floyds’ Gumballhead, but for this Saturday’s sixer, I’m going to go with a solid example from Oklahoma’s quiet powerhouse, Choc Beer Company.
Choc traces its roots back to a time when Pete Prichard (né Pietro Piegari) served up beer to the English, Irish, Welsh, and Italian immigrants who flocked to the area in search of jobs in the nearby coal mines. Prichard operated through Prohibition out of Pete’s Place, his family-style Italian eatery that fast became an institution in southeastern Oklahoma. Today, Choc brews a slate of solid and affordable beers alongside a small roster of respectable specialty releases.
Formerly known as 1919 Choc Beer, the hazy straw-gold American Wheat Beer weaves together malt and hops into a delicate canvas of lemon grass and coconut aromatics reminiscent of Thai cuisine. Malt anchors the beer unobtrusively, with notes of fresh bread, nougat, and toasted toffee. But that’s not all: the hops contribute a pineapple-tangerine quality that melds well with the nougat, along with a subtle spiciness and a breath of spring flowers in bloom. Clean and crisp, the beer finishes with the slightest bitterness that leads into a lingering aftertaste of dried apricot and cinnamon-dusted white raisins. The aromatics and flavours of Choc’s American Wheat Beer are many but subtle, and come together like the individual brush strokes of an Impressionist painting. Indeed, this is both the strength and weakness of this beer that eschews bold gestures in favour of nuance. No show-stopper, Choc’s American Wheat Beer is, nonetheless, a pleasant drink that rewards patience. Drink cool but not cold.
Gose: Original Ritterguts Gose, Brauhaus Hartmannsdorf (Germany)
Even if it took a few decades for the North America craft beer cognoscenti to bestow its seal of approval on this tart and refreshing beer most closely associated with the city of Leipzig, Gose is now one of the hottest summertime beer commodities. Summer aside, Gose is, like Hefeweizen, a versatile beer eminently suited to spring’s capricious weather.
The past few years have witnessed many an intriguing Gose crop up in beer stores across North America, but none of these excellent beers quite matches the peerless Original Ritterguts Gose. Despite how the name may look and sound to English speakers unacquainted with German, Ritterguts Gose traces a rather noble history back to the Rittergut (manor) of Döllnitz, where Gose production started in 1824. As part of the general Gose revival underway in 1990s Leipzig, Tilo Jänichen developed a Gose that was based on this original Döllnitzer manor recipe, but could barely keep up with demand. Production shifted to ever-larger breweries, and in 2007 Brauhaus Hartmannsdorf took on the brewing of Original Ritterguts Gose.
Brauhaus Hartmannsdorf’s iteration of this classic recipe is a deep, burnished golden beer with a luminescent haze. Out of the hazy mist float complex aromas of fresh raw almond, wheat cereal richness, a quinine-like sourness, and a coriander-clove spiciness buffeted by a gentle sea breeze carrying green plum scents not unlike Japanese ume-boshi. Mouth-filling, silky, and with just enough lassi-like saltiness and moderate acidity to whet the appetite, our Döllnitzer classic builds to a mineral-crisp and dry finish of almonds, stone fruit, and spiced apple that made me think, briefly, of chutney. Compared to other examples of the style, the honeyed nougat-like malt depth lends this beer a certain gravitas, and the very low level of hops (with a herbal note suggestive of dill) meshes well with the savoury coriander and brine notes.
A standard bearer. Three Tankards.
Berliner Weisse: Berliner Style Lager (Sour Wheat Lager), Jack’s Abby (U.S.A.)
If the weighty Weizenbock is perfectly suited to those days when you can still hear winter’s echo, the Berliner Weisse is its antipode: crisp, sour, and refreshing. Where Weizenbock makes a fine accompaniment to an evening après-ski, Berliner Weisse is more at home when the late-spring mercury is pointing toward summertime. Like the historic Gose, this northern German beer style is another that has enjoyed a renaissance of late among North American craft beer enthusiasts smitten with sour beers.
In a nod to the traditional practice of using a neutral ale yeast, Jack’s Abby of Framingham, MA, ferments its Berliner Weisse with a lager yeast after souring the mash. The results are an impressive rendition of what Napoleon once called “the Champagne of the north,” and what the ever-pragmatic Berliners dubbed simply “the workers’ sparkling wine.” Jack’s Abby combines aspects of both champagne and white wine with its bread dough-like yeasty character and its zesty green apple-lemon acidity. Aromatic tart-sour notes tend toward Asian pear and crisp peach that lend this light-bodied thirst quencher a steely mineral crispness. Meanwhile, a sherry-like nuttiness and a touch of clean, honeyed wheat holds the balance long enough for cinnamon-spiced apple to make an appearance in the dry finish. The one flaw that keeps this beer merely excellent? An all-too-ephemeral effervescence.
Take your Berliner Weisse straight up, or with a shot of syrup. Traditional choices are green or red: woodruff or raspberry.
What are some of your favourite wheat beers? What are your springtime go-to beers? Let us know in the comments.
Sources and Further Reading
Michael Jackson’s The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988) contextualizes the Weizenbier style within the broader sweep of German brewing, while his Great Beer Guide (New York: DK Publishing, 2000) focuses on particular brands.
On Blanche de Namur: http://www.bocq.be/english/ownbrands/blanche_namur.php
On the pros and cons of various souring methods, see Michael Tonsmeire’s informative American Sours: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2014).
A brief write-up on the Shelton Bros. website, along with an entry on the Ortsteil der Gemeinde Schopau im Saalekreis, help disentangle the production history of Original Ritterguts Gose and its relationship to Döllnitz.
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont’s The World Atlas of Beer: The Essential Guide to the Beers of the World (New York: Sterling Epicure, 2012) offers up a visually-pleasing panorama of regions, styles, and labels.
Related Tempest Articles
Vincent van Gogh, “Wheatfield at Auvers under Clouded Sky” (1890), Oil on Canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art Pittsburgh. Wiki Commons/Public Domain.
Freising and Vitus. http://weihenstephaner.de
Brasserie du Bocq and Blanche de Namur: www.bocq.be
Ayinger Bräuweisse: http://www.ayinger.de/?pid=262
Choc American Wheat: https://www.petes.org/
Leipzig: F.D. Hofer
Salts: F.D. Hofer
Original Ritterguts Gose: www.sheltonbrothers.com
Jack’s Abby Berliner Style Lager: http://jacksabbybrewing.com/beers/
Berliner Weisse in traditional glass with woodruff syrup: German Beer Institute.
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