Beer of Character, or Alcopop?

Farny beer advertisement, Lindau, Bavaria.

On our recent trip to Lindau on Lake Constance, we found wheat beers to be some of the most satisfying on offer, which led us to consider Weizen’s status.

Meckatzer, the big local brewer, produce both a golden straight-up Weizen and a darker, amberish Ur-Weizen (both 5.2% ABV). The latter reminded us of Schneider’s unusually dark standard wheat beer, with a similar cinnamon and baked-apple character, while the former had the lemony, pineapple quality we first noticed in Distelhäuser’s Weizen in Würzburg.

Another brewery whose logo is ubiquitous in the Lindau-Friedrichshafen area is ‘Farny‘ (snigger), specialising in wheat beer (standard, ‘crystal’, ‘old style’, and light). Unfortunately, we only managed to drink one — Kristalweizen (5.3%) — in a restaurant where we ate out of desperation having missed a train. It seemed to us almost indistinguishable from many of the pilsners from the same region, with only some concentration revealing a hint of cheap banana-flavoured penny sweets in the aroma.

SchussenriederweizenSchussenrieder, Simmerberg and Postbier all produced similar light-coloured, zingy, refreshing wheat beers, the latter being particularly common in Lindau.

These beers, on the whole, made a change from barely-hopped, sweetish lagers (e.g. Meckatzer’s perfectly pleasant but unexciting Weiss-Gold Export), offering more, and more unusual, flavours and aromas. They were, to some extent, the Connoisseur’s Choice.

But, despite their exotic perfume, they are also sweet, highly carbonated, and by no means challenging: not quite alcopops, but certainly popular, with people in every age group, in every situation, at any time of day.

Perhaps Weizen is that rare thing: a beer which is completely accessible, but also complex enough to maintain the interest of those who feel compelled to think and talk about what they’re drinking? As complicated as you want to make it.

Two American Wheat Beers

Two American wheat beers from Fordham and Widmer Bros.

‘I’m such a huge obsessive enthusiast for American wheat beers,’ said no-one, ever.

After our recent experience with a Japanese wheat beer that brought nothing to the table, we had low expectations for these two specimens from Widmer Brothers and Fordham. We were pleasantly surprised by both, at least in terms of their difference from other wheat beers on the UK market.

The Original American Weizen

Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen (4.9% ABV, £2.19 330ml from Noble Green Wines) has been around long enough to have earned an ‘oral history’, being first brewed in 1984. Its claim to fame is that it invented a new ‘style’, American Wheat: despite its otherwise German-inspired recipe, it is not fermented with the famous yeast strain that makes Bavarian wheat beer smell like bananas.

Or, to put it another way, it is German wheat beer without the very thing that makes it so distinctive. Curry without all those stupid spices. Opera without all the singing.

We expected something like Erdinger Alkoholfrei, especially given its journey across the Atlantic, and it had the same dirty, dusty look about it. But — phew! — it was actually bright and fruity — a wholesome multi-grain health food of a beer. (The Portman Group can’t tell off bloggers, can they?) In lieu of bananas, we were reminded of pineapple cubes. There was a spot of spiciness, too, that brought to mind Chimay Gold.

One complaint: we’d have liked a bigger bottle, as this is a beer to be drunk by the pint without too much pondering or pontificating.

Too orangey for crows

Fordham Wisteria (4% ABV) was one of a case of samples we were sent by the brewery’s UK distributor last month. Though it is an American wheat beer, it is not an American Wheat, if you see what we mean, being fermented with the ‘authentic’ Bavarian yeast.

It needed more carbonation and sparkle — not something that can be said of most German wheat beers — and its semi-flatness made it look unappealing in the glass, and taste somewhat sickly.

As well as the expected banana, we also thought we detected orange oil, and a spot of rose-water. It had a dry chalkiness, presumably from the suspended yeast that made it cloudy, which helped to counteract some of the toffeeish malt and fruitiness.

That malt might be this beer’s other problem: it is dark orange in colour, exactly like wheat beers we’ve bodged together at home using English pale ale malt rather than the prescribed super-pale pilsner malt. We would probably prefer it if it had been made with a paler base malt, and with more wheat in the mix.

After all those complaints, on the whole, we liked it, and would drink it again.

Pointlessly Imported Wheat Beer

Hitachino's Nest wheat beer.

This wheat beer might be pretentious, it might be obscure, but you can’t say it was expensive. It is certainly, however, pointless.

We don’t get much opportunity to pick up exotic bottled beer these days but, at the National Brewery Centre in Burton the other week, we couldn’t resist raiding the ‘bin ends’ in the gift shop, and came away with a 720ml bottle of Japanese brewery Hitachino Nest’s 5.5.% German-style wheat beer, for a mere £2.50.

Just on its ‘best before’ date (we think), it fizzed on pouring, hissing and foaming itself to death, leaving us with glasses of something that looked like cloudy apple juice. Despite the lack of condition, it was a tasty enough beer, falling somewhere between the sticky-toffee-banana character of Schneider and the pineapple-pear drop character of Hopf. As we find is often the case with German-style wheat beers from anywhere other than Germany, there was also a touch of spiciness (from the yeast?) which suggested the coriander of the Belgian style.

So, it was fine, but… why bother? This beer makes sense in Japan, we’re sure, where it is a local version of something from the other side of the world, but what is the point of importing it to the UK? It’s been made with such reverence for the almighty style guidelines that there’s nothing distinctively Japanese or in any way ‘different’ about it; and, though better than Erdinger, isn’t worth buying over, say, Franziskaner.

Hitachino Nest owl mascot.We think it all comes down their mascot — a beautifully illustrated owl which deserves its own 8-bit computer game — and to the same impulse that leads what seems like 90 per cent of British men under the age of forty to dress head-to-toe in clothes from faux-Japanese brand Super Dry: that is, fashion, and a very understandable fascination with other cultures.

Brooklyn/Schneider Hopfen Weisse

Both variants of the Brooklyn/Schneider Hopfen Weisse in their beautifully designed bottles
Both variants of the Brooklyn/Schneider Hopfen Weisse in their beautifully designed bottles

We’ve been wanting to try this ever since we first read about it. We’ve often wondered what a hoppier Weizen would be like, and we were also intrigued by the collaboration idea. Brooklyn and Schneider worked together to produce “a blend of Bavarian craftmanship and American ingenuity”. We managed to get our paws on both the Brooklyn variant and the Schneider version, and thought it would be fun to compare the two.

Unfortunately, the Brooklyn version exploded all over our carpet. What we managed to catch looked pretty odd. It was extremely yeasty, and an odd green-yellow colour, possibly from the dry hopping. It tasted… well, pretty foul, actually. Like hop tea. We’re assuming that we got an off bottle. It was all hefe, with maybe a bit of hop dust floating around in it for good measure.

We turned back to better-behaved Schneider variant, hoping it would taste as good as it looked. It didn’t really work either, sadly. The hop flavours clash with the banana-yeast and make it quite difficult to drink — we found it rather soapy and harsh.

Nonetheless, we’d encourage people who haven’t tried it to give it a go, especially if you’ve a high tolerance for bitterness. It’s the kind of beer people will either love or hate.

Update: Boak has decided it ‘tastes like rhubarb — it makes your teeth go funny’. Make of that what you will.