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…

Comments are closed.