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.