The First British Attempt at German-style Wheat Beer

Vaux Brewery logo

In 1988 a new German-style wheat beer was launched on the British market — the first, its brewers claimed, brewed in the UK.

This post follows on from our contribution to the Session back at the start of July in which we were frustrated in our attempts to pin down when Samuel Smith started brewing Ayinger wheat beer under licence.

As it happens, the August 1988 edition of CAMRA’s monthly newspaper What’s Brewing contains two articles useful for pinning this down:

  1. A double-page profile of Samuel Smith and its head brewer by Brian Glover.
  2. A back-page splash headlined FIRST BRITISH WHEAT BEER!

The former lists all of the Ayinger-branded beers then in production at Smith’s from D Pils to VSL (very strong lager, we think, at about 8% ABV) but does not mention a wheat beer.

The latter tells us that Britain’s first German-style wheat beer was brewed in… Sheffield. It was branded as Vaux Weizenbier but brewed at a Vaux subsidiary, Ward’s.

Vaux beermat.

The operations director at Sunderland, Stuart Wilson, explained the thinking behind this remarkable first:

We have noted the popularity of wheat beers in West Germany and in the USA. Wheat beers are 15% of the Bavarian beer market. So with the increasing interest in speciality beers, we have decided to brew this classic style.

The article tells us that the beer had an ABV of 5% and was served on draught from “ornate ceramic founts” in elaborate branded glasses, with slices of lemon available “for those who prefer to complete the Bavarian picture”. Oddly, perhaps, it was filtered and presented clear — cloudy beer being perhaps a step too far for British drinkers in 1988?

Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson blurbed the new product: “[It has] a clean, lightly fruity palate.”

In a follow-up piece for The Times on 11 May 1991 Mr Glover was still crediting Vaux with launching the first UK-brewed German wheat beer (meaning nobody came forward to prove otherwise) and stated that there had been no others since.

But by 1994 Roger Protz was reporting in the Observer (29 May) that Vaux had begun importing Spaten wheat beers, with no mention of their own-label product.

So, there you go: Sam Smith didn’t get into the wheat beer game until the 1990s, and anyone Googling ‘first British wheat beer’ now has a plausible answer. (Unless anyone out there knows otherwise.)

Timeline

  • 1988 Vaux brews the first British take on German-style wheat beer
  • 1988 Hoegaarden hits UK market
  • 1991 Taylor Walker begins selling Löwenbräu across its estate
  • 1993 Hoegaarden in Whitbread pubs
  • 1994 Alastair Hook begins importing German wheat beers to the UK
  • 1994 wheat beer festival at the White Horse organised by Hook and Mark Dorber
  • 1994 continental wheat beers in UK supermarkets

Session #137: “Banana Beer”

This is our contribution to Session #137 hosted by Roger at Roger’s Beers.

Our introduction to German wheat beer happened long before we were interested in beer and before we’d ever thought of going to Bavaria.

It was at the Fitzroy, a Samuel Smith pub in central London, in about 2001, where the house draught wheat beer was a version of Ayinger brewed under licence in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.

We had encountered Hoegaarden by this point — it was ubiquitous in London at around the turn of the century — but hadn’t considered ordering any other wheat beer until a friend urged us to try Ayinger. “I call it banana beer,” they said, “because it tastes like puréed banana.”

At first we didn’t quite get it. To us, it tasted like beer. Weird, soupy, sweet beer. So we had a few until we understood what he meant. And yes, there it was — the stink of blackened bananas left too long in the bowl. “It gives you terrible hangovers, though,” he added, a little too late to save us. We couldn’t think of it for a year or two after that session without feeling a little overripe ourselves.

Pinning down anything relating to the history of Samuel Smith beers is trickier than it ought to be but, in the absence of firm evidence, we reckon it’s a safe guess that they started brewing Weizen in the 1990s, during or after the brief craze for wheat beer among the British beer cognoscenti (Hook, Dorber et al) during 1994-95. (As always, solid intel proving otherwise is very welcome.)

Sam Smith’s take might not have had the cool of a genuine import — the hip kids raved about Schneider — but it had the advantage of being both accessible and accessibly priced, and we can’t help but wonder how many other British beer geeks were first introduced to German wheat beer this way.

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.

Continue reading “MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer”

Does it Work and is it Worth a Tenner?

Schneider’s Meine Porter Weisse is, as the name suggests, a cross-breeding of English porter and Bavarian wheat beer — an idea intriguing enough to convince us to part with £9.99 for 750ml.

Our first guess was that this would have something to do with Brooklyn Brewery but, no: publicity materials suggest that Georg Schneider conceived this beer with his friend ‘Alistair’, a brewer in London. Presumably there are legal reasons for the coyness — this is not a formal collaboration — but there’s only one porter-obsessed global craft beer aristocrat who really fits the bill.

From its wheat beer ancestry it gains high carbonation and opacity, while the porter side gives it a rich red-black colour. It could look muddy (as dark wheat beers often do) but actually pulls off velvety richness.

The aroma is dominated by wheat beer characteristics: some pineapple, a little banana, and vanilla. With the first gulp, porter takes over with a burnt-toast and dark chocolate bitterness which works unsurprisingly well with the creamy texture. Ultimately, as the head dies away, the Dark Side comes to dominate, though a hint of tropical fruit persisted to the end.

We were reminded a little of Schneider’s own Aventinus and also of Anchor’s mouth-coating, chewy Porter, though this isn’t as good as either of those beers. It’s not a clumsy clash as many of these German-US-UK hybrids can be, but nor is it quite in balance, and our final impression was of wateriness — like drinking mild. That’s unforgivable in a 7% beer.

Though Bailey (who’s soft about mild) liked it more than Boak (who hates pineapple) neither of us would rush to drink it again, and certainly not at this price.

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.

Quick review: Schneider Tap 4 ("Mein Grünes")

This wonderful strong wheat beer convinced even Boak, who is not usually a fan of the style.

We were expecting it to be a bit like the Brooklyn/Schneider collaboration but, in fact, this was more Belgian in flavour and aroma, with a  powerful hit of candied orange-peel. Intriguing, that, as it is claims to comply with the purity law.  A skillful use of hops, we think, and we wondered whether it might even be dry-hopped. Of course, it’s just possible that there’s some bending of the ‘law’ going on here.

Even at 6.2%, it’s not heavy going. In fact, we can imagine this being dangerously easy to down on a hot summer’s evening. It’s what more German wheat beers could be with a bit of imagination, without being ‘wacky’ or ‘extreme’.

A Study in Wheat

Almost two years ago, in our 2009 wish list, we mentioned that we were interested in trying Estrella Inedit. On our recent holiday, we finally got round to it, picking up a bottle in a wine shop in San Sebastian.

The first thing to note is the amazing aroma — roses and lemons, like a box of Turkish delight. Unfortunately, the flavour doesn’t quite live up to that fanfare. It has a slightly dry, chalky maltiness with hints of sugar and orange. Not, in fact, a super-complex connoisseur’s beer as the packaging and pretentious label would have you believe, but something of a dumbed down Belgian-style wit.

We tried it with and without food to see if it lived up to its claim of being specially formulated to accompany food. The best we could say is that it is suitably unobtrusive, but it certainly didn’t (with apologies to Garrett Oliver) chat up our chorizo and chick pea stew and take it round to the back alley for a knee trembler.

It cost €4.50  for a 750ml bottle, which is fine, but any more than this (i.e. the £10+ prices people are charging in the UK) and you’d feel quite ripped off.  All in all, if you divorce this from the pretentious marketing and packaging (“serve in white wine glasses no more than half full to appreciate the aroma”) it’s an excellent beer by Spanish standards, and we’d be delighted to find it in our local tapas restaurant in London.

Interestingly, Damm have also brought out a cheaper, less highfalutin, German-style weizen, Weiss Damm. It stands up well in comparison to Paulaner Weiss, which is probably the wheat beer most commonly available in Spain.

Every beer gets a second chance

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

We hated Schneider Hopfenweisse when we tried it a couple of years ago and I almost turned my nose up when offered it on draft at the Devonshire cat, Sheffield. Nonetheless, I got my half (a mere £2.80…) and gave it another go.

It’s always a good idea to give a beer a second chance. Wowzers, Penny. I take it all back. It’s wonderful.

It’s like a turbo charged wheatbeer with crisp, almost tangible hops; bubblegum cut with grapefruit. Truly extreme and fabulous for it. Oddly, the German-American parentage gives this a very Belgian aroma (booze + spice) which really adds to the pleasure.

Boak