YOU KNOW IT is wheat beer season when the weather is so hot that your shirt sticks to your back. I do not celebrate this season. I don't like hot, humid weather. While I am not a major fan of wheat beer, I firmly support the philosophy behind it.
Namely, I believe we should fight the oppressive heat and humidity of summertime by drinking cold beer. For me, the flavor of wheat beers takes some getting used to. Beer authority and author Michael Jackson has described this flavor as a "quenching tartness." I simply say it makes my mouth pucker. I have, however, found that the hotter it gets, the more willing I am to drink wheat beers. They aren't as heavy as other beers. They are loaded with bubbles. All this and their tartness enables wheat beers to cut through the summer dust in your throat.
Wheat beers are made, as the name implies, with wheat. It is mixed in with malted barley. A special yeast is used in the brewing process. Usually wheat beers are not filtered. The yeast strain is allowed to remain in the brew, giving it distinct banana aromas and a cloudy appearance. Wheat beers are also more carbonated than most other beers. The idea is to make a refreshing, bubbly sometimes hazy beer. Some brewers add fruit flavors to cut down on the tartness, or pucker power, of their wheat beers.
Experts on beer-drinking etiquette say it is permissible to put a slice of lemon in your glass of wheat beer. If you tried doing this lemon-slice routine with any other beer, you could get banished from your local watering hole.
Recently, on a day when my shirt was sticking to my back, I tasted wheat beers made by various Maryland microbrewers. The tasting was held at Clipper City Brewing Company in Southwest Baltimore. On hand were six wheat beers -- Blue Ridge Wheat, Wild Goose Spring Wheat Ale, Sisson's Orchard Amber Wheat, White Ox Ale, Clipper City Summer Honey Wheat and Baltimore Brewing Company's Weizen. Also on hand were some of the folks who make the beers.
The beer makers mingled, ate the German sausages from Egon Binkert's East Baltimore sausage works and talked shop. I listened in as Clipper City's Hugh Sisson and Baltimore Brewing's Theo DeGroen outlined various world views on how to make wheat beer. The Belgians, I heard, often spice their "wit" beers with coriander seed and orange peel. The Germans have two approaches to wheat beer. Around Berlin, a "weisse" beer is made that is very acidic and rarely found in the United States. In Bavaria, the wheat beer is brewed with the yeasts left in the beer. This beer has a noted banana aroma, and is the more popular type of German wheat beer. Finally, there is the American approach to wheat beer. This seems to consist of borrowing from German and Belgian brewing styles, but adding an American ingredient or two. While wheat beers are popular in the heat of summer, some are made all year round.
The DeGroen and Blue Ridge were two Maryland beers that followed the traditional Bavarian wheat beer model. They had big, fruity aromas, lots of clouds in the body and major mouth feel, which is another way of saying "pucker." These were true-believer beers, aimed at folks who believe in fighting summer heat with beery yeasts. Maura F. Conyngham , for example, an assistant brewer at Blue Ridge, said she never considered filtering the beer. "If you filtered the yeasts you'd lose that banana nose," she said.
I found the Clipper City honey-flavored wheat to be a quieter version of the beers made by DeGroen and Blue Ridge. Sisson said he added honey to his wheat beer to make it summery and quaffable, which, it turned out, was an apt description of the beer.
The Wild Goose Spring Wheat Ale tasted like a wheatier, highly hopped version of their well made Wild Goose Amber Ale. The simple, almost primitive label on this bottle made it look like a beer brewed at home. That, according to Wild Goose regional sales manager Christopher J. Minnick, was exactly the effect the label was supposed to have. Home brewers, he said, are big fans of wheat beers. From Sisson's in South Baltimore came the Orchard Amber Wheat. It had some tartness, and also the faint flavor of cherries. It tasted like a pleasant, light dessert. I expected the wheat beer Oxford Brewing would bring to the tasting would be its best-selling raspberry wheat. Instead, brewer Eric Marzewski and general manager Mike Jaeger brought a small keg of White Ox Ale, a new brew. The beer, which Marzewski described as a combination of Belgium and British brewing styles, was smooth, almost sweet. I'm not sure it falls in any wheat beer tradition, but it was tasty.
I may not be drinking wheat beers on a regular basis this summer. But it is comforting to know that if I need assistance fighting the hot, sticky summer, there is help waiting in the wheat fields. Just chill and add a slice of lemon.
Pub Date: 6/12/96