Thursday, September 2, 2010

Weiss City

With the last days of summer coming to an end, Canadians from coast to coast are valiantly trying to enjoy the hot weather and sunshine before hockey season winter begins.   Drink 'em on the patio while you can, because except for the few obnoxious stalwarts who insist "it's not that cold; it's nice out", we'll soon be shuffling our lot indoors for several months.  A terrible thought.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope.  As the seasons change, so to will my drinking schedule.  Rotating beer types is not only a good idea weather-wise (stouts and bocks taste lousy outside in the summer heat, while pilsners do a terrible job of warming you up from winter's chill), it also allows one to look forward to new styles and seasonal favorites. 

Before the Great Pumpkin Beer season begins, I think this blog is due for a salute to that most glorious of summer brews - the wheat beer.  Whether it be a hefeweizen, a flavoured wheat ale or kristalweizen, wheat beers are just the ticket for beating the heat.  When it comes down to it, nothing tastes better when you're outside in the dog days of summer than a cold bucket of Hoegaarden, or a tall glass of Hacker-Pschorr.   Thankfully, wheat beers are becoming a mainstay of North American craft brewers (even some of the big boys are taking a stab at the style), so it's usually not too difficult to find a quality locally-brewed edition.  Ontario boasts some fine hefeweizens, some of which can even rival the flavor and quality of German and Belgian imported fare, like Mill Street's Belgian Wit, Magnotta's Wunder Weisse, Muskoka's Hefeweizen, and Denison's Weissbier, which I'll come to in a minute. 

A word on terminology: You'll sometimes see wheat beers described as: hefeweissbier, dunkelweissbier, weißbier, weizen, or witbier.  They are all similar in that they are all wheat beers, but there are differences between them; knowing these differences can tell you a great deal about what the beer inside is and where they come from.  As far as ingredients are concerned, weizen is German for 'wheat', so any wheat beer brewed in Germany could technically be called a weizen.  Weiss or weiß means 'white', which means that a brew so-named will be cloudy golden-white in appearance.  Not all weizenbiers are white.  Kristalweizens are wheat ales that are filtered or aged to give them a transparent, golden colour - saying Kristalweiss is therefore contradictory.   Clear wheat ales are less common than the hazy, weiss version, however.  This is because wheat does a lousy job of self-filtering, so the brewer would have to add an extra step in the brewing process to clear things up.  

Now for location.  Weizenbier and Weissbier are German brews, and usually conform to the ubiquitous German Purity Law, meaning that the beer contains barley, wheat, water, hops and yeast - nothing else.  Weissbier comes in two major varieties, hefe ("yeast", generally lighter in colour) and dunkel  ("dark").   Witbiers ("white beer") are Belgian and usually contain extra ingredients like orange peel and coriander to add to the flavor profiles.   Hoegaarden is the prime example of this.

Of course, not all brewers conform to this handy guide, but as far as most wheat ales we'd encounter in North America, this is pretty much how wheat beers play out.   Good so far?

Anyone who's had a wheat beer before will know that they taste very different from most other barley-based beers.  This is because wheat, when it is broken down and consumed by yeast, releases unique flavors in the form of chemical esters; precision brewing techniques will elicit different flavors depending on what kind of beer you're trying to make.  Hefeweissbier, for example, will often taste very light and citrussy, with notes of lemon, orange peel, coriander, citrus and other spices.  Sometimes, one will even detect bubble gum.  Such fresh flavors make for great summer drinking, and (as I can attest) can go down really quickly.   Thus I offer to you, a salute to the hefeweissbier!

Here's a mini-roundup of some of the finer wheat brews to be had (all in the hefe style)

Beer: Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier
Type: Hefeweissbier
Brewery: Weiehenstephaner (Germany)
ABV: 5.4%

Weihenstephaner has a strong claim to be the world's oldest brewer, having been granted an official licence to brew in 1040 CE.   This isn't to say the brewery has been brewing the same beer with the same recipes; it just means a brewery has been operating with a continual history at the site for nearly 1000 years.   William the Conqueror hadn't even arrived on the English shores when these guys started brewing.  Amazing.   Their hefeweissbier is their flagship brew, and one of the world's finest examples of the style.  Let's have a look!

Appearance is that of a typical hefe: golden and opaque, with a light head encircling the glass.  Sticky lacing, fine retention of the head.

Nose is of wheat, honey, banana and fresh spices.   Banana and malts are predominant here; cloves are present, but only mildly so.

The taste is exceptionally smooth and remarkably easy to drink.  Banana, clove and just a little bit of bitterness to the finish, all very rounded.   Lemon peel provides a fine crisp tartness, making Weihenstephaner a wonderful thirst-quencher. Mouthfeel is slightly, thin, creamy, with tart carbonation.

A classic hefeweisse, with a lovely crisp finish. Great as a sessional at any time of year, but truly tastes best on a summer patio.

Beer: Schneider Weisse
Type: Hefeweisse
Brewery: G. Schneider und Sohn (Germany)
ABV: 5.4%

For those who've followed the blog for a while, you'll know much of my love for Schneider's brews.  This one is a classic, a fine go-to for those looking for a solid hefe. 

Pours surprisingly dark for one that claims to be a hefe.  Even though 'hefe' doesn't necessarily refer to colour, if a wheat ale is this dark, one can safely call it a dunkel.  No matter.  Opaque leather-brown, with about an inch and a half of foamy head. Didn't last very long; it was only a thin ring after about 4 minutes.

The nose, however, more than makes up for this. Surprisingly complex for a hefe; aside from the banana peel and cloves, I also get apple, brown sugar and a few other spices. Very nice.

The taste is very rich for a hefe, quite flavorful.  Surprisingly malty, with the cloves coming through in spades. The banana flavour is almost like a banana chip - slightly roasted, probably melding with the malts - which is quite satisfying. I still think this one tastes and looks more like a dunkel than a hefe, but here we are.

Mouthfeel is a bit on the thin side; not nearly as creamy as Weihenstephan due to the rapidly dissolving head.

All in all, another fine entry from G Schneider (absolutely loved their eisbock). I'd probably rate this one a little lower than Hacker or Weihen, but it's still an impressive, flavorful weisse. Won't go down quite as smooth as the lighter hefe's on a sunny day though.

Now for the Canuck!
Beer: Denison's Weissbier
Brewery: Denisons Brewing Co. (Toronto)
Type: hefeweissbier
ABV: 5.4%
Often cited as Canada's primo hefeweiss, Denisons unfortunately suffers from distribution issues.  By this I mean I can't easily get it, despite living less than an hour from the brewery.  Everyone has a reason to dislike T.O. - mine is their preferred status for getting the better brews in the LCBO.   I picked up a 6er of this at the Jarvis St. LCBO because tt's been ages since I've had it - it used to be on tap in KW but no longer...

Poured into a hefe glass. A slightly opaque golden brew, leaves about a half inch head that receded all too soon. A few flecks of yeast sediment make their way to the bottom of the glass.
Nose is typical hefe: banana, cloves, citrus, wheat.

Tastes like a hefe should; all the proper pieces are in the puzzle box. A slight apple taste and a mild graininess distinguishes Denisons from other major hefes. Cloves take second fiddle to the banana esters. Other than that, it's pretty damned good.  Finishes slightly dry and lemony.

Tart, aggressive carbonation at first, but a more appealing equilibrium is hit after a moment. Medium bodied.
If this were available more outside of T.O., I'd drink this all the time. Good local hefe. Went down incredibly smooth, no strangeness or funky flavors to be found.  Just a good, solid hefe. Would love to have this on tap again.

Other fine examples of the hefe style are Hacker-Pschorr, Konig Ludwig, Franziskaner and Ayinger, but only Hacker is readily available in the LCBO, so we're kinda boned there.  All the more reason to make a trip to Germany and explore all their wonderful hefeweiss options.   Still, lots of good options North America-wise to get some variety.  Pretty much every major craft brewery in the US and Canada  has at least one wheat ale; some have several.
Summer is quickly disappearing - celebrate the sun with a pint of hefeweisse, why don't ya?

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