Movies and Booze: Wheat beers with a twist

Explore the bitterness in your beers

Bitterness (the flavour, not the emotion) is a key characteristic flavour of beer. Beers can be characterised in terms of the amount of bitterness that makes up the balance of the beers flavour. Two distinct families of beer styles sit on either side of the scale of bitterness potential in beer – IPA’s are typically on the ‘lots of bitterness’ end and wheat beers are on the ‘low bitterness’ end.

To-day, we are taking the bitterness out of Movies and Booze. We are going to focus on two wheat beer styles – a Witbier from County Mayo, Ireland (Mescan White) and a crystal wheat beer from Yorkshire in England (Moose Jaw). We will look at the flavours associated with wheat beers, and how balance can still be achieved in beer without relying on bitterness as a balancing factor.

Why Wheat?

There are two sides to this question – firstly, why would a brewer choose to brew a wheat beer, and secondly, why would a beer drinker choose to drink one. While the having a solid answer to the second question is the ultimate answer to the first, the beer geek in me can’t resist looking into how wheat beer styles have come to be a core element of craft beer styles. We’ll deal with this first, and then look into classic flavours in wheat beers.

The Evolution of Wheat Beer Styles

Craft brewing grew out of home-brewers getting frustrated with the blandness of mainstream beers. To solve the problem, they started to brew their own (initially as ‘pure’ home-brewers, and ultimately some of them became the craft brewers of to-day). For this, they needed inspiration. Some of this inspiration came from quirky and off-the-wall ideas. However, the most prevailing inspiration for new beers brewed by craft brewers were beer styles that were popular historically, and that had died off, or not found popularity among mainstream brewers.

If we go back four to five hundred years, every region or locality had its own brewery (or breweries), and each brewery brewed its own beer. Lack of communication technology and infrastructure for travel meant that it was difficult for brewers to establish common standards. While Brewing Guilds would have facilitated this – and this is reflected in certain beer styles being associated with specific countries – it would be more true to say that beers of that time were more characterised by distinctiveness from one brewery to another.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, travel improved, communication improved, and technology improved. While brewers might not have consciously realised it at the time, the types of beers brewed divided into two types – the historic beers that brewers had always brewed, and evolving beer styles, where one brewery was influenced by the success and popularity of a type of beer brewed by another brewery.

As craft brewers looked back in time, it makes sense that the beer styles that stood out were (a) beer styles that had found particular popularity at a point in time in history, and (b) beer styles that were more talked about. In both cases, the beers that were drunk by the better-off members of society were more likely to fit the bill. People with above average income could afford to be more discerning in their choice of beers, and (by charging more for the beer) brewers could afford to invest more in quality and also (later) in publicity about their beer. As homebrewers looked back into history, the beer styles that had found favour with the aristocracy of times past stood out more than others in books that talked about beer – no surprise that these beer styles were the first to be seized upon by brewers looking for inspiration.

In the U.K., India Pale Ale is the beer style that has most ‘come to the top’ in terms of attention paid by brewers looking for historic inspiration. This beer style was one that found favour with the aristocracy of England when first it came to be. In Germany, wheat beers were the prevue of the aristocracy. The German Purity Laws forebade the use of wheat in brewing, but made exception for beers brewed for the aristocracy.

No surprise, then, that these two families of beer styles shine through as the more popular (or at least most prevalent) families of styles among both traditional and new aged craft beers. IPAs and Wheat beers occupy two ends of a spectrum of beer flavour when one considers bitterness as a core beer flavour. In next considering why people might choose to drink a wheat beer, we will explore the flavours that are most associated with different wheat beer styles.

Flavours in Wheat Beers

IPA’s are characterised by the use of large amounts of hops. Hops are the primary source of bitterness in beers. No surprise, then, that IPA’s tend to be more bitter than your average beer.

Wheat beers are characterised by the use of wheat in brewing the beer. This wheat gives a crisp, slightly drier grain character than would be the case with an all-malt beer. However, wheat as an ingredient and source of flavour is not something that stands out. It does provide a crisp refreshing backdrop to the flavour of beer, but it doesn’t necessarily form the cornerstone of the flavour of the beer – this has to come from somewhere else.

Classic German wheat beers (such as a hefeweiss) are characterised by flavours from their fermentation. Ripe banana and clove are the two flavours that are considered to be cornerstones of the style. The fruit flavour can extend beyond banana into citrus (lemon, lime, grapefruit), stone fruit (apricot, peach) or other fruits, depending on the course of the fermentation. Clove – which comes through as a slightly spicy flavour – provides the counterbalance. Indeed, brewers consider that the clove in a German hefeweiss provides sufficient counterbalance that bitterness at any discernible level is not really required in the style. The essence of the style becomes one of a fruit-spice balance as compared to the fruit-bitter balance that is characteristic of many IPA’s.

In Belgium, a second style of wheat beer was revived by Pierre Celis in the 1950’s. Belgian witbier (white beer) had all but died out. This beer style was destined to become lost in history if not for the efforts of this milkman, turned brewer. By reviving the witbier style, Celis popularised the use of gruut (herbs and spices) as an alternative to hops as a balancing factor in beers. While gruit was used historically in many other beer styles historically, its use in a wheat beer in one way paralleled the flavour profile associated with German wheat beers – Belgian wits were characterised by a fruit – herb/spice balance instead of a fruit – clove balance as is the case with hefeweiss.

Our first beer that we are tasting (with tasting notes below) belongs to this Belgian witbier style, and demonstrates the balance of fruit and herb/gruut flavours that are associated with this style.

As wheat beers found favour with craft brewers, so too did the styles within this family evolve, develop, morph and alter. American wheat ale is probably the most noteworthy example of this evolution. Not having access to the characteristic German hefeweiss yeast, some American brewers sought to brew something similar to a hefeweiss with the ingredients that they had to hand. Using classic American ale yeast, they achieved desireable fruit flavours, but this American ale yeast lacked a particular genetic characteristic – the POF gene – that allowed for the development of flavours such as clove in their beer. They needed to find an alternative source of balance, and turned to hops to find this balance. While American wheat ales do have more significantly notable levels of bitterness than German hefeweiss, the bitterness in American wheat ale is notably lower than that in IPA’s – with bitterness units of 15 to 30 in American Wheat Ales as compared to 50 to 70 in IPA’s. American brewers used hops more for their flavouring potential than for their bitterness potential. The full smorgasboard of hop flavour – fruit, pine, spice, herbal, earthy, etc. etc. – are all available to the brewer of American wheat ale.

Our second beer today is brewed to the American Wheat Ale style, with influence from the use of an English ale yeast instead of an American ale yeast.

Mescan White

Beer Style - Belgian Witbier
Alcohol by Volume - 5.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Mescan Brewery
Brewed in - Westport, County Mayo, Ireland.

Mescan Brewery is based in the foothills of Croagh Patrick near Westport, County Mayo. Brewers Cillian and Bart fuse their Irish location with their strong love for Belgian beers. Bart’s Belgian heritage puts him in the perfect position to brew beers that are true to Belgian styles. In fact, given that Belgian styles are characterised by a strong desire by brewers not to conform, one has to wonder whether being ‘true’ to a Belgian style is a bit of a paradox. More often the goal is to be within the broad guidelines for the style, but to instill the brewers’ own sense of identity into the style’s interpretation. Whichever approach you feel is valid, Mescan do a great job!

Mescan White pours with a slightly richer golden colour that one might associate with Belgian witbier – it is towards straw gold as opposed to the ghostly white-gold that one might associate with the style. The head that forms is full and bright white as the beer is poured – in fact the carbonation of the beer could be heard in the pour as the head formed in the beer. On the basis of the bottle that we tasted in this instance, if one is looking to achieve a hazy appearance in the beer, a rousing of the lees (the yeast in the bottom of the bottle) is a helpful way to ensure that this yeast is in suspension in the beer after the pour.

Aromas on Mescan White combine light fruit flavours with Belgian spice. This follows through in the flavour, with delicate strawberry juice merging with spice that starts out delicately (white pepper with a suggestion of clove and cinnamon), and develops into hotter spices (red chilli pepper) as the beer is swallowed. Coriander and curacao (orange peel) develop in secondary aromas and flavours in the beer as the complexity of the beer develops. Significant and notable carbonation provides a zing on the palate which itself provides its own counterbalance in the overall flavour of the beer.

Belgian witbier is a style of beer that does not rely on intensity of flavour to establish its presence. Complexity is what one hopes for, and Mescan White provides this in abundance. The beer is deliciously refreshing – initially with a juicy mouthful of fruit flavour, but the spice and herb character, together with the carbonation, further enhance this refreshing quality as the complexity of the beer develops.

Moose Jaw

Beer Style - American (Crystal) Wheat Beer
Alcohol by Volume - 5.2% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Black Sheep Brewery
Brewed in - Masham, Yorkshire, England.

Moose Jaw is part of Black Sheep Brewery’s craft beer range. This range of beers is brewed to establish the passing of the baton in this brewery from fifth generation Paul Theakston to the sixth generation – Jo and Rob Theakston. This beer provides both a nod to the heritage of the brewery and a view into the future, with influence from classic Black Sheep Brewery flavour characteristics fusing with a modern and distinctive interpretation of a recently evolved wheat beer style.

The story on the label tells of Paul Theakston meeting his future wife during time while he was stationed in Canada with the RAF. A cute story which highlights the importance of family to this breweries identity, this story also parallels the story of a beer style. The idea of the American wheat ale style is that it is brought/inspired by a beer style from another country (German Hefeweiss), and interpreted and influenced by the country to which it was brought. So too has the North American influence in the Theakston family been brought back to this English brewery in the choice of this beer style.

The wheat in wheat beers is often evident as the foundation of the beer. This is true of Moose Jaw – wheat bread or cracker bread forms the foundation for this beer, and is the base on which the other flavours are built. True to Black Sheep Brewery’s inherent character (and also to what is appropriate for the style), Moose Jaw has understated complexity and does not rely on intensity of flavour to establish its presence.

Fruit flavour – strawberry, blueberry and blue raspberry (which fuses blueberry with bubblegum flavour) provide the initial, mouth watering flavour in the beer. Spicy character – black pepper and chilli pepper, with a suggestion of cinnamon in the background – provide the balance. Carbonation is in evidence, but not overpoweringly so.

The flavour in this beer develops in a most interesting way. Black Sheep Beers are characterised by a dry bitter finish, and also by English hop character. The initial burst of fruit gives way to this dry finish – reminiscent of a dry chardonnay – and earthy, herbal hop character develops in secondary flavours. However, again this is an illustration of the complexity in the beer. Moose Jaw is an immensely drinkable beer – enjoyable as a beer that does not have to be dissected and analysed. However, if one is of a mind to take the trouble to analyse it, this is a beer that brings the drinker on a beer drinking journey. The initial burst of fruit flavour is balanced by hot spice. As these flavours dissipate, the next wave of complexity brings a contrasting dryness in the finish that is matched with the development of classic English hop flavour.

Moose Jaw is a most interesting interpretation of the American Wheat Ale style – superbly drinkable, immensely complex and a demonstration that the new world of craft beer can be interpreted and executed with finesse and skill by a brewery that has built its initial reputation on traditional English beer styles.