MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer

‘Why aren’t more British breweries tackling German-style wheat beers?’ Adrian Tierney-Jones has asked more than once. Intrigued by that question, we rounded up a few and gave it some thought.

Now, clearly, this isn’t one of our full-on, semi-comprehensive taste-offs — we didn’t have the time, inclination or, frankly, budget to get hold of a bottle of every Weizen currently being made by a UK brewery. One notable omission, for example, is Top Out Schmankerl, recommended to us by Dave S, which we couldn’t easily get hold of.

But we reckon, for starters, six is enough to get a bit of a handle on what’s going on, and perhaps to make a recommendation. We say ‘perhaps’ because the underlying question is this: why would anyone ever buy a British Weizen when the real thing can be picked up almost anywhere for two or three quid a bottle? The most exciting German wheat beer we’ve tasted recently was a bottle of Tucher in our local branch of Wetherspoon — perfectly engineered, bright and lemony, and £2.49 to drink in. How does anyone compete with that?

We drank the following in no particular order over a couple of nights, using proper German wheat beer vases of the appropriate size. What we were looking for was cloudiness, banana and/or bubblegum and/or cloves, a huge fluffy head and, finally, a certain chewiness of texture. That and basic likeability, of course.

1. Moor Claudia | 4.5% ABV | 330ml can | £1.88 from Ales by Mail
What a confusing beer to start with. The can has gothic lettering and Bavarian colours but, in small print, is described as ‘A Hoppy Wheat Beer’. There’s some irony in the fact that it was almost impossible to pour cloudy given Moor’s role as pioneers of unfined beer — the best we managed was haze, which meant that it immediately looked wrong. We thought there was a hint of banana in the aroma but then decided we were kidding ourselves — it was a trick played on us by the packaging. It really just tasted to us like a slightly off-kilter pale ale — citrus, that trendy onion character, and some coconut. It was great, actually — not too dry, a bit of background funk, like the Magic Rock/Lervig Farmhouse IPA we loved a couple of years back. But why burden it with Bavarian national costume if that doesn’t reflect the beer? As a Weizen, it’s a miss for us.

2. Meantime Wheat | 5% | 330ml bottle | £1.75 from Ales by Mail
This is a beer we once knew well — enough to observe its constant changes, its ups and downs. In the days before blogging, c.2005, we once lugged an entire case from The Union back to our house in Walthamstow, on public transport, so smitten were we. It looked and smelled the part as we poured it, chucking up a cloud of foam and pumping out banana aroma. It was properly cloudy, too, and on the toffee-coloured Schneider side rather than glowing yellow like Erdinger. But the head disappeared almost immediately and the lack of carbonation became apparent in the thin body. Where was the Champagne creaminess? Most disastrously, it also had a dose of acidity which we’re sure should not have been there: ‘It’s like somebody’s squeezed a bleedin’ lemon in it!’ Aren’t big brewery takeovers supposed to improve quality and consistency? It’s almost there but not quite and is therefore a miss.

3. Thornbridge Versa | 5% | 500ml bottle | £2.67 from Ales by Mail
We had high expectations of this beer — there’s a clear sense that German styles are Thornbridge head-brewer Rob Lovatt’s first love and, in general, Thornbridge is a slick operation that makes at the very least clean, technically correct beers. It got off to a good start with a huge, almost comical bubblegum and banana aroma. If we didn’t know better, we’d suspect it was artificially enhanced. The head gave a perfect imitation of the real thing, like a scoop of some impossibly light vanilla mousse. The body of the beer was cloudy and a darker shade of gold, hinting again at the highly regarded Schneider as the key influence. It tasted somewhat sweet, milkshake thick, full of pop art exclamation marks. We’d buy this over several of the blander German wheat beers and it is enough its own thing to warrant further inspection. A solid hit.

4. Brodie’s Whitechapel Weizen | 4.5% | 330ml can | £2.33 from Ales by Mail
This was the first Brodie’s packaged beer we’d had in a while and the very first of their cans we’ve tried. We were concerned it might be a bit dirty-tasting the way some canned craft beer (def. 2) can be but it wasn’t at all. Pale yellow, barely hazy, thin, light, dry and bitter — all desirable characteristics in a session IPA, of which this struck us as a good example. So why call it a Weizen? Again, in itself, a hit, but for the purposes of this exercise, a big fat (or rather small, light) miss.

5. Bristol Beer Factory Bristol Hefe | 4.8% | 500ml bottle | £3.08 from Beer Ritz
This is a brewery whose beers we invariably enjoy and often really love. We have had this before and vaguely recalled having been rather impressed it. This time, however, disaster struck: it had abandoned its roots, headed into Belgium, and transformed itself into some sort of gueuze in the bottle. The sourness was mild but distinct — apples, a slight burn, even a touch of cider vinegar about it. In its own way, it was rather wonderful, but we can’t believe it was meant to taste this way, and it certainly didn’t bring Bavaria to mind. When we finally managed to rouse some yeast from the bottle, it did get better, balancing the acidity a little and bringing out a bit of the expected banana and bubblegum, but not enough to save the day. Which makes this a miss, sadly.

6. Sam Smith Organic Wheat Beer | 5% | 550ml bottle | £3.29 from Beer Ritz
We’re not certain but we think this, or rather a previous incarnation, was the first German-style wheat beer we ever tasted, c.2001. Back then Sam Smith was brewing Ayinger under licence and this would seem to be, if not exactly the same, then similar enough that it would take lab analysis to tell them apart. It is certainly absolutely convincingly German, both cosmetically (pale gold, un-moving meringue head) and in its flavour (soft, grainy, balanced, restrained). It’s sweet rather than spicy and it won’t cause anyone to swoon but you could serve it up to an elderly Bavarian with breakfast in Munich and no-one would complain. It’s probably just about better — that is, more exciting — than Erdinger, putting it into Paulaner territory, but short of Weihenstephan. It’s a hit but a low-key one.

* * *

What have we gathered from this small scale exploration of the territory?

First, that German wheat beer is more subtle than we had realised — an end-of-level-boss technical challenge for brewers. Too much of those characteristic aromas and flavours and it tips over into caricature, or just becomes sickly. Despite looking dirty, it actually needs to be really clean to work: acidity knocks it right off course, and there’s no room for funk or earthiness. The carbonation has to be exactly calibrated, too, or the beer simply flops: bubbles are body.

Secondly, we suspect that classical Weizen is fundamentally too polite a style for the post-2005 double IPA crowd. If we do start to see more beers ostensibly in this style (as with saison and gose) many are likely to be subversions: hoppier, flavoured with fruit, and otherwise mucked about with.

Perhaps that answers Adrian’s question: it’s too difficult, and not worth the bother.

12 thoughts on “MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer”

  1. Thanks, an interesting post.

    It would be interesting to know if you could tell the difference between German and English styles in a blind taste test.

    I know its unfashionable, but I quite like the banana milkshake that is Franziskaner.

    1. Franziskaner’s fine although the fact that’s it’s all hop extract, no hops, is a bit off-putting to some people. The only two here that would have fooled us were the Thornbridge and the Sam Smith’s and we *might* have spotted something odd about the Thornbridge beer.

      1. By “some people”, you mean beer snobs, right?

        “The only two here that would have fooled us”

        Of course, a lot of people say things like that ahead of blind tastings 🙂

  2. There’s also a lot of rubbish Weizens in Germany, mind you. Fortunately, there’s a few excellent new takes on the subject too – have you tried Schneider Tap5 Hopfenweisse, originally developed with Brooklyn’s Garret Oliver, for example?

    (I just realised I don’t even know which non-big-brand German Weizens are readily available here…)

    1. Not sure I can recall having a *rubbish* one though some are bland, I’ll give you that. (Loads of dodgy Witbiers in Belgium, though.)

      We’ve had Tap 5 a few times. First time hated it (both the Brooklyn and Schneider takes); second time, the other half was won over; and I had it in Munich a few years back and thought it was decent enough. But I don’t necessarily drink German wheat beer and think, ‘Oh, this needs more hops!’ It’s all about the yeast, which is why we’ve tended to us that style to demonstrate the influence of yeast on the rare occasions we’ve hosted talks/tastings.

  3. You know what you should do a tasting of next? Black/dark lagers from UK and further afield. Underrated style IMO – the fact its a lager makes it light and easy to drink, and also provides a nice clean canvas against which those chocolatey/coffee/smokey notes can really stand out in a way they don’t in a stout or porter.

  4. I think you hit the nail squarely on the head:

    “we suspect that classical Weizen is fundamentally too polite a style for the post-2005 double IPA crowd. If we do start to see more beers ostensibly in this style (as with saison and goes) many are likely to be subversions: happier, flavoured with fruit, and otherwise mucked about with”

    I’ve only been to Berlin and Vienna but in both cases was impressed at the availability of uncomplicated but refreshing Franziskaner/Gosser, even in the hotel bar. Maybe in a couple of years we’ll see their own takes on their beers suffer a similar fate.

    1. Surely in those cases wheat beer is taking the place of a lager fount on the bar? So the prevalance or not of wheat beer in this country is at least as much to do with the market structure and availability of free-of-tie premium-ish “lager” lines. Some pubs will put it on – my observation is that it has a devoted but small fanbase, so for most of the year they’d be better off putting a premium pilsner on that line, whether a big name like Moretti or something more niche. It does work better in summer – but we have less of that than Europe…

      Funny py mentioning black lager, I wonder if black wheat beer could enjoy a moment in summer 2017 or 2018 like black IPA did. For my money something like Turuma by Otherton (in Crewe-ish), which calls itself a hybrid between oatmeal porter and wheat beer, works a lot better than black IPA. The freshness from the wheat and the complexity of the porteriness work well together, and it’s nice to have a gob-full of flavour that isn’t all about hops.

      And I think that kind of thing is maybe the way to go, when I read that quote from ATJ I thought on the contrary I’ve had a ton of British wheat beers this year, but on reflection most of them were modified wheat beers, with either fruit or spice. Two cracking examples are Titanic’s Raspberry Wheat -beautifully balanced and not sweet, it emphasises the tartness of the raspberries in a way that worked even for this non-fruit beer fan – and the house beer of Bundobust in Leeds, a Northern Monk effort with ginger, cardamom etc. So perhaps wheat beers make a better canvas for other flavours, than as the main attraction?

      1. PS Whilst on the subject of German wheat beers, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the Arcobräu alcohol-free one, which works far better than it should do.

        Heck, if you’re looking for tasting ideas, you could do worse than getting a bunch from The Alcohol Free Shop (no affiliation) or similar – things have moved on since the days of Kaliber, alcohol-free is huge in Spain and Germany in particular and the lagers really aren’t bad. Still struggling a bit on the ale side, but something like Bernard Free Amber is a drinkable substitute.

      2. There was a small window maybe 7-8 years ago when it looked like wheat beer might displace world lagers as the “premium keg option” in pubs and bars, but it was almost immediately overtaken by IPA.

        Personally I like beer that just do a really nice job of showcasing one of two key flavours whilst still retaining a good balance and drinkability, so IPA for that big citrus hop punch, black lager for those coffee/chocolate flavours, wheat beer for banana sweets, witbier for nutmeg, a saison for vanilla and green apple etc etc

  5. Funnily enough, Eyes Brewery recently opened up Leeds and will solely be dedicating it self to making only wheat beers.

    I’ve yet to see any yet but as a bit wheat beer fan I was quite excited when I found out about them earlier today.

  6. Pretty much the thing that finally killed Sam Smiths pubs for me was when they started serving the Wheat Beer (which I agree is lovely) in pint to brim glasses. I mean, ffs…

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