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beer reviews Beer styles

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.

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American beers beer reviews Beer styles

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.

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beer reviews Beer styles

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.

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beer reviews bottled beer Germany

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’.

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beer reviews Spain

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.