Beer makers reap a harvest of sweet, light wheat

WAVES OF GRAIN

August 22, 1993|By Rob Kasper

The latest in beer is the wheat beer. It is a hit in Europe, it is being tossed down by the glassfuls in Portland, Ore., taverns, and it is doing right well in Baltimore's emporiums of better suds.

As its name implies, wheat beer is made with a mix of wheat and barley, instead of the traditional all-barley recipe used in most beers.

The wheat and the zesty top-fermenting yeasts that work on the grain, give a wheat beer a distinctive effervescence or zing.

Unlike other beers turned out by specialty brewers, wheat beer is not dark, heavy or complicated. A wheat beer has the thinnest body in the brew pub. Its refreshing flavor makes it especially popular in the summer. It has been called the serious small

brewers' answer to commercial light beer.

Moreover, wheat beer takes well to fruit flavors. Two of the wheat beers made in Baltimore are flavored with raspberries, the "Redweiser" made at Sisson's in Baltimore, and the raspberry wheat made by Oxford Brewing Ltd. in Linthicum.

A third wheat beer, a Weizen Bock made by Baltimore Brewing Co., has a faint flavor of bananas. But that flavor, according to proprietor Theo de Groen, comes from the yeast used in making the brew, not from any added fruit flavoring.

The practice of brewing wheat beers began in Europe and is enjoying a revival there. The Belgian wheat beers are often flavored with fruit, the Bavarian wheat beers have the clove and banana flavors and the Berlin-style wheat beer is tart and lemony.

Wheat beer is also selling very well in American northwest, where small breweries are more established and more numerous.

In Portland, Kurt Widmer said wheat beer accounted for 75 percent of the 35,000 barrels of beer that his family's Widmer Brewing Co. turned out last year.

During the past five years, the popularity of the company's filtered and unfiltered wheat beers has increased dramatically, he said. The brewery is expanding to meet the demand for the draft beer which is sold to about 800 accounts throughout the Pacific Northwest.

American drinkers like wheat beer, Mr. Widmer said, because it has a flavor that is different from traditional American beers, yet is not overwhelming.

"Wheat beer has struck the fancy of those who like to drink well, but don't like heavy flavors," he said.

Back in Maryland there is more wheat waving on the horizon. Mr. de Groen said he plans to make more Weizen next summer. The Frederick Brewing Co. also plans to make wheat beer next summer.

South Baltimore brewer Hugh Sisson smiles as he thinks about the potential market for this sweet, light beer.

Comparing the beer to a simple wine that America embraced a few years ago, Mr. Sisson says, "Wheat beer could be the white zinfandel of the beer world."

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