Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 18- Belgian Strong Ales

15 06 2010

Today, we finish the wild and wacky world of Belgians. We took you through the farmhouse styles of Saisons, Biere de Garde and Witbiers. Then we took you through the funky and exotic world of sour ales. Now we are going to the world of Belgian Strong Ales. Quite possibly the most straight forward and accessible of Belgian beers, strong ales have to do with one thing, mainly, and that is alcohol. Afterall, it says it right there in name: “strong ales.”

Similar to the Scottish style of grading their beer according to strength, Belgian abbeys will classify their beer according to strength. Belgian abbey styles come most commonly in Double (Dubble) or Triple (Trippel) with the Triple being stronger than the Double. They would accomplish this bigger beer by adding sugar (kandi) to their wort in the boil. In the German and English traditions, this technique is frowned upon. And for homebrewers, the addition of table sugar to their beer is not only seen as cheating, it is ill advised as it results in unpredictable fermentation and a slight cider-like quality. But buying high quality kandi sugar is more and more easy these days. Some beers these days will be labeled a “single” or even “quadruple” but these beers are largely foreign extrapolations on the Belgian style. Some abbeys will actually make a “single” (or “table strength”) beer. But these are primarily made for the monks who live there and are rarely distributed out of the abbey.

What’s the difference between “Abbey Style” and “Trappist Style”?

Abbey styles are prepared in the traditional Belgian strong ale from an Abbey recipe. They are usually named “Double” or “Triple” and are refermented in the bottle for a secondary conditioning. The term “Trappist” or “Trapiste” is an appellation. Much like the term “Champagne” or “Kolsch”, only beers brewed by actual Trappist monks may be referred to as “Trappist.” They must be brewed on the grounds of the monastery and the proceeds must be given to charity. There are only seven Trappist beers left in the world. The most popular would probably be Chimay while Rochefort, Westmalle and Orval are very popular as well.

As for the secular versions of Belgian strong ales, this is resulting in an archaic and strange taxing system. Randy Mosher goes into detail on this with James Spenser at Basic Brewing Radio. But in short, the government taxed the brewers according the amount of liquid that their mashtuns could hold, and not on what came out of them. So, the brewers would jam their mash tuns with the most grains they could in order to pull the most sugar out of the mash tun as possible. The result were these big, sticky, heavy beers that fermented into a big, boozy beer.

Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 18- Belgian Strong Ales

Photo Credit: Erik Cleves Kristensen CC

Subcategories: Belgian Blonde, Dubble, Tripel, Golden Strong Ale, Dark Strong Ale

Aroma: The Blonde ale will have a earthy and complex hop nose with a sweet pils quality and a sharp, phenolic booziness. Highlights could include a sweet orange and vanilla note. The Dubble will be earthy and roasty with notes of chocolate, cherries, caramel and toast. It should never have burnt or coffee notes. Spicy phenolic qualities are not usually common and the alcohol should not be solvent or hot. Tripels should be spicy and citrusy (pepper, clove, orange rind, or maybe even banana) with low to now hop quality. No heat or solvent alcohol notes. Golden Strong ale should be light with core fruit (pears, apples) or fresh oranges. Hops should be spicy and floral. Malt character is low. Dark strong ales should be rich with malt. Caramel, toffee, and toasted bread. Phenols should be spicy with peppercorn and all spice. Alcohol should be well rounded and warming.

Appearance: Blondes are very clear with bright to dark gold and big, firm, white head and excellent lacing. Dubbels are dark brown with ruby highlights and big, firm, off-white head and excellent lacing. Tripels are dark yellow to deep gold and firm, dense white head and superb lacing. Golden Strong Ales are dark yellow to light gold with a massive, explosion of dense, sustaining head and perfect lacing. Dark Strong Ales are dark amber to copper-brown with creamy, moussy tan head.

Flavor: Blondes have a slight pils sweetness but ends very dry with a balancing hop spiciness and a slight warming alcohol note. Yeast may give a slight spicy phenolic quality. A dubbel will have similar flavor components to aroma with hints of chocolate, cherry and toffee. Leaning toward malt with a slight balancing effect from noble hops. Tripels are a balance between fruit and booze. With soft, rounded alcohol and sweet, fresh citrus and core fruit and balancing hops. Very clean and dry on the back end. The BJCP calls them “sneaky”, they are strong in alcohol but don’t taste like it. Golden Strongs are similar to Tripels but with a drier back end. Dark Strong Ales are similar to Dubbels but with higher alcohol content. Very warming and smooth with deep malt character.

Mouthfeel: All Belgian strong ales will have medium body with medium to high carbonation and warming alcohol. The result is a very smooth and clean feeling beer.

Ingredients: All will use Continental gain and hops. Usually a base of pils with some specialty malts for darker styles. Styerian Goldings from England are the most common type of hops although Noble hops are common as well. Belgian yeast is used to create a fragrant and phenolic quality as well as increased alcohol quality. Some will use sugar to increase alcohol without darkening (tripel and golden strong).

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
Final Gravity: 1.005-1.024
SRM (Malt Color): 3-22
IBUs: 14-40
ABV: 6-11%

Commercial Examples:
Belgian Blonde:
Leffe Blond, Affligem Blond, La Trappe (Koningshoeven) Blond, Grimbergen Blond, Val-Dieu Blond, Straffe Hendrik Blonde, Brugse Zot, Pater Lieven Blond Abbey Ale, Troubadour Blond Ale
Dubbel: Westmalle Dubbel, St. Bernardus Pater 6, La Trappe Dubbel, Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale, Grimbergen Double, Affligem Dubbel, Chimay Premiere (Red), Pater Lieven Bruin, Duinen Dubbel, St. Feuillien Brune, New Belgium Abbey Belgian Style Ale, Stoudts Abbey Double Ale, Russian River Benediction, Flying Fish Dubbel, Lost Abbey Lost and Found Abbey Ale, Allagash Double
Tripel: Westmalle Tripel, La Rulles Tripel, St. Bernardus Tripel, Chimay Cinq Cents (White), Watou Tripel, Val-Dieu Triple, Affligem Tripel, Grimbergen Tripel, La Trappe Tripel, Witkap Pater Tripel, Corsendonk Abbey Pale Ale, St. Feuillien Tripel, Bink Tripel, Tripel Karmeliet, New Belgium Trippel, Unibroue La Fin du Monde, Dragonmead Final Absolution, Allagash Tripel Reserve, Victory Golden Monkey
Golden Strong Ale: Duvel, Russian River Damnation, Hapkin, Lucifer, Brigand, Judas, Delirium Tremens, Dulle Teve, Piraat, Great Divide Hades, Avery Salvation, North Coast Pranqster, Unibroue Eau Benite, AleSmith Horny Devil
Dark Strong Ale: Westvleteren 12 (yellow cap), Rochefort 10 (blue cap), St. Bernardus Abt 12, Gouden Carolus Grand Cru of the Emperor, Achel Extra Brune, Rochefort 8 (green cap), Southampton Abbot 12, Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue), Brasserie des Rocs Grand Cru, Gulden Draak, Kasteelbier Biere du Chateau Donker, Lost Abbey Judgment Day, Russian River Salvation


Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 17- Sour Ale

8 06 2010

It never ceases to amaze us. Forty years ago, American beer was essentially dead. Only a handful of breweries existed in the country. People drank mass-produced-dead-in-the-can industrial product. And now look how far we have come. People are racing for the most flavor, most character, most life to their beers. They are getting big beers and laying them down to age, just as one would do with a fine wine. People will line up for hours for a special release of beer. People are taking beer seriously. And just as people are exploring unusual beers from all over the world, including Belgium and France, they are exploring quite possibly the most unusual of unusual beers: sour ales.

Five years ago, sour ales were a tough sale. Ten years earlier than that, it would have been an impossible sale. Giving some one a beer that tastes of sour lemon, green apple, lime, fresh berries, or even yogurt, horse, hay, and vinegar is still a tough sale. Afterall, those are not the flavors we usually associate with beer. But now, as more and more people are trying Berliner Weisses, Flanders Ales, Lambics and Guezes, the demand is growing.

Just as hop heads five years ago were lusting after the newest strain of hop or able to identify a Warrior bitterness to a Amarillo fruitiness in the IPA, people are now looking for beers inoculated with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus.

The first time a person drinks a sour ale, one or two things could go through their minds: “I think this beer is spoiled” or “Is this beer? This cannot be beer!” The answer to the first question is simple: no, the beer is not spoiled.¬† It is designed to be that way. The brewer will often ferment in large, open tanks. This allows for any and all wild yeast, bacteria and mold to fall into the beer. In older breweries, such as in Belgium or Germany, the fermenting cellars are carefully conditioned with centuries of experience. The air is rich with the perfect blend of critters to make the beer taste the way it does. The result is a sense of place, also known as terrior. In newer breweries, such as those in the United States: like New Belgium, Russian River and Allagash, the brewers carefully inoculate their beers with cultures in order to make sure the right critters go in and the wrong ones stay out.

The taste can be a bit disconcerting at first. These yeast and bacteria cells are often associated with spoilage and so our experience with them in the past have taught us to recognize these smells and taste with spoiled or rotten food. But do not worry, these beers will not make you ill.

As to whether or not this is beer, the answer is simply: “yes.” If we return to one of our original posts where we asked “What is Beer?” we will recall that beer is water, malted grain, hops and yeast. These beers all contain these ingredients at their core. While a sour ale may resemble a wine, yogurt, or some other item entirely, it remains essentially beer.

As more and more American breweries, bars, and stores carry sour ales, it becomes easier to pick apart the the finer details of the sour ale genre. But for the uninitiated drinker, it can be a bit of a confusing world.

The BJCP offers six subcategories. Berliner Weisse is sour wheat ale from Germany. It is often drank with a shot of fruit syrup: often berry or essence of woodruff–an herb. The Flanders region of Belgium is known for its sour red and brown ales. The red ales from the region are often a blend of vintages and have a sharp, acidic character. Flemish reds are known as the “Burgundies of Belgium” and resemble wine. Flemish browns have a more malt forward character and less of an acidic note. They will often be a blend of vintages as well. Lambics are the most popular of the sour ales in the United States. They can either come in a straight (unblended) vintage; a blended vintage known as a “Gueze”(Garret Oliver says that one should practice saying “Goose” while clearing the throat and adding a few random “r”s and that is a close approximation on how to pronounce the name); and a lambic can be sweetened with fruit or sugar (a technique known as “faro”).

Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 17- Sour Ales

Photo Credit: Bernt Rostad CC

Aroma: A sharp sourness should be present for a Berliner Weisse with no hop aroma. The sourness may mellow with age into a citrus, fruity character. Some Brettanomyces (“Brett”) character can be present- namely an earthy, “damp” character. In Flemish Red and Browns a complex fruitiness should be present: plums, prunes, oranges, black cherries and possibly some spicy phenols including pepper, vanilla, oak and chocolate. Browns should have a hint of caramel or other malt. Lambics should have a sharp sour note that mellows with age. Brett qualities should be present including barnyard, horse, blanket, hay, and mildew. Fruit lambics should be sweet and sour that has an apparent resemblance of the fruit used to sweeten it.

Appearance: Berliner Weisses are very pale straw in color and hazy. Pour head retention due to acidity. Flemish reds should have a bright red quality with white head of medium retention. Flemish browns should be earthy brown with a tan/off white head of medium retention. Straight lambics should be pale yellow to deep golden with the beer darkening with age. Young lambics tend to be hazy while the older ones tend to be clear. Poor head retention. Guezes are bright clear and have a thick, mousse-like head that has excellent, near perfect head retention. Sweetened lambics will take on the color of the fruit sweetening it and will have a thick, near perfect head retention.

Flavor: All sour ales will (obviously) be sour. Berliner Weisse will be the least sour though. The Lactobacillus delbruckii will give a “yogurt” or “sour milk” like quality. Flanders Reds will resemble a red wine with notes of plum, orange, cherries, pepper, vanilla, oak, and chocolate. A long dry finish with no hops present. Flanders Browns will also resemble a red wine with similar notes to the Flanders Reds but will be more malt forward with notes of caramel, toffee and tobacco. There should be no vinegar qualities as it ages. Lambics should be quite sour when they are young but balance better as they age. The Brett qualities should balance with age as well. There should be no smoky quality. Fruit lambics should take on the character of the fruit that is blended with them. There should be more acidic quality rather than sour.

Mouthfeel: There should be a tart, puckering character to all of them. Straight lambic is served flat while Berliner Weisse, Gueze and fruit lambic should be effervescent. Flanders styles should have medium carbonation with no astringency.

Ingredients: Berliner Weisse should have at least 50% wheat and is often paired with pils. Top fermenting yeast works with Lactobacillus delbruckii to create sourness. Flanders Red and Browns are made with base of Vienna and Munich malts with medium to dark specialty malts including Caras and Special-B. Low alpha-acid hops are used. A blend of “wild” yeasts including Saccharomyces, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces (and acetobacter). Lambics are made with wheat, pils and aged hops. The hops are for preservative effect rather than bitterness. Wild yeasts, including but limited to Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus are found in the breweries of lambics.

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
Final Gravity: 1.000-1.012
SRM (Grain Color): 3-22
IBUs: 0-10
ABV: 2.8-8%

Commercial Examples:
Berliner Weisse:
Schultheiss Berliner Weisse, Berliner Kindl Weisse, Nodding Head Berliner Weisse, Weihenstephan 1809 (unusual in its 5% ABV), Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Southampton Berliner Weisse, Bethlehem Berliner Weisse, Three Floyds Deesko
Flanders Red Ale: Rodenbach Klassiek, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Bellegems Bruin, Duchesse de Bourgogne, New Belgium La Folie, Petrus Oud Bruin, Southampton Flanders Red Ale, Verhaege Vichtenaar, Monk’s Cafe Flanders Red Ale, New Glarus Enigma, Panil Barrique, Mestreechs Aajt
Flanders Brown Ale: Liefman’s Goudenband, Liefman’s Odnar, Liefman’s Oud Bruin, Ichtegem Old Brown, Riva Vondel
Straight Lambic: Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella
Gueze: Boon Oude Gueuze, Boon Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait, De Cam Gueuze, De Cam/Drei Fonteinen Millennium Gueuze, Drie Fonteinen Oud Gueuze, Cantillon Gueuze, Hanssens Oude Gueuze, Lindemans Gueuze Cuvee Renee, Girardin Gueuze (Black Label), Mort Subite (Unfiltered) Gueuze, Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze
Fruit Lambic: Boon Framboise Marriage Parfait, Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait, Boon Oude Kriek, Cantillon Fouee Foune (apricot), Cantillon Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Cantillon St. Lamvinus (merlot grape), Cantillon Vigneronne (Muscat grape), De Cam Oude Kriek, Drie Fonteinen Kriek, Girardin Kriek, Hanssens Oude Kriek, Oud Beersel Kriek, Mort Subite Kriek

Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 16- Belgian and French Ales

1 06 2010

Belgium has gained a lot of attention from beer drinkers these days. With its sour, tart or spicy farmhouse ales; monks brewing double, triple or even quadruple strength beers; and its exotic sounding names Belgium is full of mystery and intrigue. All of this is made more exciting by the deliciousness of the beers.

We have mentioned before that there are times when the BCJP falls down on the job. This is none more evident than when the BJCP takes on Belgium. Germany has no fewer than four style categories dedicated to their region. The British Isles have seven! But Belgium only has three categories with fifteen subcategories.

This could be because, as we mentioned before, the Belgian’s don’t really care for beer styles. Their beers are more of an expression ingredients, location, and personality. They are beers steeped in tradition that are passed down from brewer to brewer in a system of apprenticeship. In very real ways, the BJCP is an attempt of people to put guidelines on a tradition that eschews guidelines. While I was never at a meeting where the BJCP guidelines were designed, I can imagine that unable to find a way to connect witbier and saison and pale ales and all those weird Belgo-American or Belgo-Anglo styles, they just gave up and grouped them all into one big generic “Belgian Ale” category.

So we will try to go a little bit slower in this category and try to unpack a bit more about the history and over all “vibe” of each subcategory as technical notes and overreaching generalizations do little here to help make these beers any less mysterious.

If I do say so myself, we did a pretty good job with the history of Belgian Witbiers here. The important thing to remember with Belgian Wits is that they nearly went extinct last century. It was the work of Pierre Celis and Hoegaarden that ensured we still have them today. With a wheat base and spiced with orange peel and coriander, these beers are extremely refreshing. It is important to note here, just like they did in the style guidelines that Belgian Witbiers are very fragile and do not age well. Don’t sit on one for a while expecting it to improve with age. Drink them young and fresh.

Belgium began picking up the Pale Ale trend shortly after England invented the style. While it is a currently innocuous country now, it once was a major world super power with trading colonies around the world (how else would they get the orange peel and spices for witbier?). Belgian Pale Ales resembled English Pale Ales but with a noticeably more malt forward palate. Belgians tend to shy away from hops and their local strains of hops are subdued, even compared to other Continental varieties. It wasn’t until the 1930’s when British troops were stationed in Belgium that the style really took hold. As the English looked for beers that resembled what they were used to, many Belgian brewers began brewing stronger, English-style pale ales using English hops and Continental malts. They even went as far as importing English yeast strains. The result is a very sweet, round and fruity beer with subtle, yet crisp hop back end.

Saison’s are a style that have begun gaining more attention in the United States. Originally brewed in the French speaking region of Belgium known as Wallonia, these beers were brewed in the spring season (“Saison” in French) and consumed through the hot summer months. These beers were often brewed by farmers for their families and laborers. It was rare to have these beers brewed by professional breweries, unless they were small and local. The result of these small, localized batches is a sense of terroir or locality. Spicy, crisp and grassy notes are reminiscent of a country meadow on a spring day.

Biere de Garde is a similar style to the Saison from Northern France. Brewed in the spring and stored for consumption in the summer months, the technique is similar to a Saison or even a lager. “Bier de Garde” means “Aged beer” or “Cellared beer.” While saisons are spicy and tart, Bier de Gaard focus more on malt sweetness and may have a more round, mellow, and “aged” taste to them. The come in three varieties: brown, blonde, and amber. The darker types are more sweet and malt forward while the lighter types are more hops and yeast forward but still retain a focus on malt.

Recently, many Belgian brewers have been exploring with English, German, Irish and American styles. And likewise, many American brewers are exploring Belgian styles. The results are a Frankenstein mish-mash of yeast, hops, and malt. Take an IPA and use a Trappist yeast; you have a Belgian IPA. Explore what Lactobaccilous can do with a stout; you have a sour stout. Add Belgian cherries to a cream ale… The BJCP has grouped all these mutant styles into one subcategory (Belgian Specialty Ales). It is a style so vast and open ended that it lacks all technical notes and merely offers a list of some styles that could fit into the category. The World Beer Cup has attempted to standardize this category by bringing it up from a subcategory to a full on category with many subcategories.

Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 16- Belgian and French Ales

Photo Credit: Andrew Turner CC

Aroma: Witbiers are known for their wheaty and spicy notes with hints of citrus, vanilla, and pepper. Pale ales have malty notes with toast, roast, biscuit and caramel notes with subtle, earthy hops. Saisons have grassy, tangy and slightly sour funk notes. Biere de Garde is more malt forward with slight, sweet and sour notes.

Appearance: Milky white to light yellow with firm but rocky head for saisons and witts. Pale ales are copper to toasty brown with bright brown highlights and a tan, consistent head that dissipates quickly. Biere de Garde comes blonde, brown, or amber.

Flavor: Citrusy sweet and peppery spice. Pleasantly sweet with vanilla or honey for witts. Hop notes are earthy and balancing but never get in the way. Yeast forward with bright spritziness. Pale ales are round and fruity with light spiciness. No hop flavor is present but it is very well balanced. Saisons are spicy with notes of white peppercorn, grass, and lemon verbena. Malt is slight but creates a good backbone to balance yeast and hops. Slight funk is present on back end and hops are earthy and spicy. Very dry finish with crisp, clean finish. Biere de Garde is malt forward with toast, caramel, and toffee. Low to no hop flavor to help balance the malt. Yeast is round with some fruit esters.

Mouthfeel: Creamy, clean and refreshing for witts. Smooth and medium bodied with no alcohol warmth and medium carbonation for pale ales. Crisp, dry and strong carbonation for saisons and Biere de Garde.

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
Final Gravity: 1.002-1.012
IBUs: 10-35
SRM: 2-19
ABV: 4.5-8.5%

Commercial Examples:
Hoegaarden Wit, St. Bernardus Blanche, Celis White, Vuuve 5, Brugs Tarwebier (Blanche de Bruges), Wittekerke, Allagash White, Blanche de Bruxelles, Ommegang Witte, Avery White Rascal, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, Sterkens White Ale, Bell’s Winter White Ale, Victory Whirlwind Witbier, Hitachino Nest White Ale
Pale Ale: De Koninck, Speciale Palm, Dobble Palm, Russian River Perdition, Ginder Ale, Op-Ale, St. Pieters Zinnebir, Brewer’s Art House Pale Ale, Avery Karma, Eisenbahn Pale Ale, Ommegang Rare Vos
Saison: Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, Saison de Pipaix, Saison Regal, Saison Voisin, Lefebvre Saison 1900, Ellezelloise Saison 2000, Saison Silly, Southampton Saison, New Belgium Saison, Pizza Port SPF 45, Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale, Ommegang Hennepin
Biere de Garde: Jenlain (amber), Jenlain Biere de Printemps (blond), St. Amand (brown), La Choulette (all 3 versions), La Choulette Biere des Sans Culottes (blond), Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts (blond), Biere Nouvelle (brown), Castelain (blond), Jade (amber), Brasseurs Biere de Garde (amber), Southampton Biere de Garde (amber), Lost Abbey Avante Garde (blond)
Specialty Ale:Orval; De Dolle’s Arabier, Oerbier, Boskeun and Stille Nacht; La Chouffe, McChouffe, Chouffe Bok and Nice Chouffe; Ellezelloise Hercule Stout and Quintine Amber; Unibroue Ephemere, Maudite, Don de Dieu, etc.; Minty; Zatte Bie; Caracole Amber, Saxo and Nostradamus; Silenrieu Sara and Joseph; Fanteme Black Ghost and Speciale Noel; Dupont Moinette, Moinette Brune, and Avec Les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont; St. Fullien Noel; Gouden Carolus Noel; Affligem Npel; Guldenburg and Pere Noel; De Ranke XX Bitter and Guldenberg; Poperings Hommelbier; Bush (Scaldis); Moinette Brune; Grottenbier; La Trappe Quadrupel; Weyerbacher QUAD; Biere de Miel; Verboden Vrucht; New Belgium 1554 Black Ale; Cantillon Iris; Russian River Temptation; Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme and Devotion, Lindemans Kriek and Framboise, and many more

‘Tis The Season: Wheat Beers

28 04 2010

Photo Credit: Wikicommons CC

It’s springtime in the Northern Hemisphere and here in the United States, the unofficial beginning of Summer (Memorial Day) is just a month away. One of my favorite parts of Spring and Summer is drinking outside. And in my opinion, there is no finer beer for drinking outside as a good wheat beer. Although wheat beers can be consumed year round, I believe it is the perfect warm weather beer. The slight spiciness of the nose, the way the haze catches the sunlight, the refreshing nature of the beer; all make it all the more better out doors.

Traditionally, a wheat beer is made of about 50% wheat and barley. There are some difficulties of using wheat in brewing. For one, it is rich in non-fermentable starches and it is low in starch converting enzymes. For that reason, the wheat must be matched with barley in order to get a complete fermentation. Those unfermented wheat starches and proteins are not filtered out. As a result, the starches and yeast create a lovely haze as well as increased fruit and spice esters. Wheat beers are rich in notes of banana, clove, all spice, pineapple and smoke. Depending on the region of the beer, different characteristics are enhanced (more on that a bit).

Wheat proteins are good at another thing: head formation and retention. Wheat beers create lovely, rich, foamy heads that are persistent. A properly poured wheat beer can be a thing of beauty; a graceful, light, hazy body with a cloud of meringue-like head floating on top. There are few things like it in this world.

The Three Traditional Wheat Regions-
Traditionally, there are three countries that brew wheat beers: Germany, Belgium, and the United States. While all wheat beers have the same haziness, spicy notes and beautiful head, the different regions have their own different characteristics.


In Germany, wheat beers are known as “Weissbier” or “White Beer.” The most popular of the Weissbiers is Hefeweizen which translates to “Yeasted Wheat.” Hefeweizen began in the state of Bavaria. Because Bavaria had the strict beer purity law known as Reinheitsgabot (which only allowed barley, water and hops in the beer), only the King’s Brewery, Hofbrauhaus, was allowed to brew it. Having a monopoly on the style, the Hofbrauhaus made a fortune on the very popular style. As Mel Brooks would say, “Its good to be King!”

The Reinheitsgabot was later amended to recognize two things: the inclusion of yeast and generalizing malted grain. Thus, allowing other breweries to use malted wheat in their beers. Schneider & Sohn was the first brewery to begin brewing Hefeweizens in the 18th Century. And by far, their beers are some of the best. Even though the Reinheitsgabot has been lifted decades ago, Germans still hold true to their sense of purity. Only barley, wheat, hops, yeast and water are used in their beer. Any aromas of spice, citrus, fruit or smoke come from the yeast and nothing else.

Hefeweizens are served in long, slender glasses which help accentuate the head and haze of the beer. Below, I show you how to pour a Hefeweizen.

There is some controversy on whether or not the pour above is appropriate. Garret Oliver argues in The Brewmaster’s Table that it is very rude to pour a hefeweizen in that style. Although Randy Mosher argues equally as much in Tasting Beer that he has seen people in Germany serve the beers that way. I have asked some Germans and they say that they have never seen any one pour a beer that way and they were quite impressed with the technique. So, either way, just have fun!

In Berlin, they drink a sour style of Weiss called Berlinerweiss. Berlinerweiss lost its popularity in post-war Germany. And for many years in the late 20th Century, it was seen as an “old man’s beer” and a relic of drearier times. Lately, some breweries have picked up the style again and it has begun catching the attention of some beer programs on this side of the Atlantic. It is often sold with a shot of raspberry syrup or essence of Woodruff, a bitter, green herb.


Whereas the Germans base their beers in the strict confines of styles and a tradition of simplicity, Belgians see their beer as an opportunity for freedom of expression. While German’s have a “paint by numbers” view toward beer, Belgians have a more “watercolor” view to their beer. In Belgium, wheat beers are known as “Witt” and their beers are spiced with adjuncts: traditionally coriander and curacao (bitter orange peel).

If it weren’t for one man, Pierre Celis, the world would be without Belgian wheat beers. Lovingly brought back from near extinction, Celis, painstakingly recreated the style with the archetypal witt, Hoegaarden. In 1955, the last wittbier brewery in Belgium closed. Celis, only a milk man at the time, decided to brew his own to sell to his customers. As demand increased, he gave up on his milk delivery and began exclusively brewing witts. In the 1980’s ImBev (owners of Heinekin and now Anheuser-Busch) put up the funds to help Celis expand. Feeling pressure from the larger brewery to change, he sold the brewery to ImBev and moved to the United States where he could have more freedom. While Hoegaarden is now part of a multinational company, the love for Belgian style witts has stuck. Several breweries in both Belgium and the United States are brewing witts with corriander and orange peel.

Belgian witts are often served in short, multifaceted tumblers. These help accentuate the haze as they act like a gemstone’s cuts and refract the sunlight.

The United States

In the United States, wheat beers got a lift from the craft beer community, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. While many American wheat beers call themselves “Hefeweiezen,” it is a pretty big misnomer. The BJCP considers them “Hybrid” beers as they really have no resemblance to German or Belgian style wheats. Too hoppy and spicy for German weissbier and absent of spices and adjuncts for wittbier, American wheat beers are a horse of a different color.

Using citrusy American hops from the Pacific Northwest, American wheat beers are crisp and refreshing with notes of lemon, orange and grapefruit. They have very clean and smooth back ends that don’t linger as much as their European counterpoints. They don’t hold a lot of complexity but they are darn tasty.

The Elephant in the Room
Talking about wheat beers brings up a big debate: whether or not to wedge a wheat beer. By that, I mean, does a wheat beer get a wedge of citrus on the rim? It is difficult to tell. Traditionally, wheat beers do not get a citrus wedge. It is hard to trace back where this phenomenon came from. Some beer historians believe it began with the Widmer Brothers–the first brewery in America to offer a wheat beer. They thought a lemon wedge on the rim of the glass would help accentuate the citrus of the hops and yeast. Whereas, others believe the adding of a wedge of orange to a wheat beer began with Blue Moon, thinking the wedge would accentuated the orange peel in their Belgian Witt. Regardless of who did it first, it has caught on. There is no doubt that a wedge of citrus can help pick up some of those notes. However, squeezing a lemon into a beer can also cover up some of the more delicate notes. Some places, including my work, won’t volunteer a lemon wedge for any beer (including an American wheat). I won’t begrudge some one of one if they ask for it, either.

Garret Oliver, Randy Mosher and I all agree- there is a time and a place for a wedge. At a picnic, drinking an simple American wheat is fine. But why would you want to ruin a perfectly balanced, creamy, spicy $12 hefeweizen? It would be like going to a fancy steak house, getting you prime rib medium rare and then covering it with A-1 sauce. It just does not compute. Please, be discerning of your citrus, and when in doubt, ask your bartender.

Next week, we will pick our top 5 favorite wheat beers of 2010 and add some honorable mentions. In the meantime, below are some wheat beers to try.

Some Wheat Beers to Try:
Dirt Cheap
: Pyramid Haywire, Widmer Bros. Hefeweizen, Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss, Harpoon UFO, Shiner Hefeweizen, Spaten Franziskanner
Mid-Range: Bell’s Oberon (Seasonal), Paulaner Hefewiezen, Hoegaarden, Omegang Witt, Ayinger Brau-weiss
A Pretty Penny: Allagash White, Schneider Hefeweizen, St. Bernardus Blanche Witt, Sterkins White Ale, Kaputziner Hefeweizen

2009 Beers in Review-Best Beer #6

13 12 2009

The rest of our countdown will be good ol’ American beers. Yesterday, we suggested a good beginner’s Belgian. Today is a more advanced Belgian inspired beer.

Number 6 Best Beer of 2009

Orchard White-The Breury Placentia, CA

Photo Credit:

Belgian Witbier

Rate Beer Score: 89 Points

I grew up in Orange County, California, a wasteland whose additions to popular culture include Disneyland, televangelism, and Viagra. As far as California brewing culture went, The OC was a mere blip on the radar. A place where chain brew pubs could expand. Until now. The Bruery opened in Placentia only two years ago but they are already making waves. They are getting rave reviews, awards, and are consistently known as one of the best new breweries in America. Their innovative Belgian-inspired farmhouse ales show a lot of promise and I believe they will only get better. I have had a chance to try two of their beers and have been impressed both times. Of both beers I tried, I was very impressed by the Orchard White.

This beer pours smooth and creamy. A light and fluffy head explodes off the top giving a floral and fragrant nose that has apparent vanilla, gardenia, and lilac notes to it. The beer is spiced in the Belgian style with locally grown oranges and lavender and they stand out without being overpowering.

photo credit:

The unfiltered wheat ale has beautiful cascades of white yeast that gives the golden body a lovely haze. The head dissipates quickly.

The mouthfeel is bloomy but dry, like brie rind. The use of rolled oats gives it a silky smooth back end that cuts the chalkiness of the front. It has a subtle citrusy bite to it from the use of orange peels and a fruity yeast strain. But it is balanced by the sweetness of the malts.

Christine and I had this for our anniversary with an assortment of soft cheeses and a fresh baguette. I would serve this again with a salad of baby spinach, goat chevre, dried cranberries, and a light vinaigrette. It is light and refreshing 5.7% ABV and the slim 15 IBUs. This would be ideal for a late spring or early summer evening.

The Bruery is a young company and their distribution is still growing. They have only been in DC for six months now. So finding them may be a challenge. However, I found their entire line at my local Whole Foods for about 12$ each. And I have since seen them at different  upscale wine and spirits stores. I also had the lucky opportunity to try their autumn maple seasonal. Made with yams and maple syrup, it tastes like Thanksgiving.  If you live in the greater Orange County area, I would recommend checking out the tasting room where they serve the entire line, the seasonals, an special small batches.

2009 Beers in Review-Best Beer #7

12 12 2009

We continue our hit list for 2009 with…

Number 7 Best Beer of 2009

Grimbergen Double- Brasserie Union (Alken-Maes / Heineken) Jumet, Belgium

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Campos

Belgian Double

Rate Beer Score: 81 Points

I am not sure about other cities, but in DC, Belgian beers couldn’t be hotter. It seems like every other month there is a new restaraunt promising the “best pomme frites“, the “freshest moules“, and the “widest selection of beers this side of Brussels”.

And it is easy to see why. As American palates for beer have become more refined, mature and daring; their gaze understandably turns to Belgium–with their abbey style ales brewed by Trapist monks and their exotic farm house styles fermented with wild yeast and bacteria.

Unfortunately, in order to drink honest to goodness Belgian beers, one needs a budget as darring as one’s tongue. To get a Lindeman’s gueze means risking fifteen dollars on a sour beer. Or to get a Rodenbach Grand Cru means spending nearly the same on something with the alltogether uninspiring name of “Flemmish Red”. And is Rochefort really worth a dollar an ounce?

But that is precisely why I love Grimbergen Double. It is an honest to goodness Belgian with a domestic price. And on top of that, it is darn tasty!

Grimbergen pours heavily with a dark brown body and sparkling ruby red highlights. The head is rocky with a pale pink reminiscent of the creme on a cranberry juice. The head collapses fairly quickly but leaves enough to create some descent lacing.

As with all Belgians, this beer is malt forward (Belgians don’t really “do” hops). Caramel, dried fruit (raisins, prunes, apricot), and malt ball give the strongest flavor notes. The hops and the yeast really take a back seat here and let the malt do all the driving. There is a bit of a sparkle on the back end from acid and alcohol.

This is a pretty standard abbey double. Big on sugary malts and relatively low on alcohol (6.5%ABV). It is the perfect beginner’s Belgian–non-threatening and easy on the pocket. I would pair this with a smokey gouda, some stilton, a nice New England cheddar as well as fresh berries. If you do not have a trappiste goblet, use a wine glass to get the full effect of the color, head and aroma.