If “whales”—those ultra-rare, ultra-tasty beers—reside on top of the modern beer geek’s perceived quality spectrum, then “shelf turds” would sit at the other end. While whales can only be purchased after trekking to some brewery in the middle of nowhere, lining up overnight and swapping your kidney for a case, shelf turds are widely distributed offerings that can actually be found on store shelves—the kinds of beers that the most snobby of beer geeks wouldn’t deign to drink. But lack of availability does not always translate to quality, and vice versa. Some of the best brews in the world are currently sitting at your local Whole Foods.
This, it turns out, is particularly true of wheat beers, a category that is itself commonly dismissed by your classic beer snob. It’s the beer suburban dads sip on at “date night” at Applebee’s, or tank top-clad bros look to pound glass boots of at their local bierhaus. But it’s actually more than the sum of its more unfortunate fans.
I spent a few days this past winter in Munich, a city where it is nearly impossible to drink modern. There, great Bavarian breweries like Augustiner, Paulaner and Hofbräu make beers with literally the only four ingredients needed to make beer: water, hops, malt and yeast. Yet these seemingly simple beers exhibit such complexity, such precision, such flavor, that they are truly some of the most extraordinary offerings the world has ever seen. I had gone to Munich wanting to recalibrate my palate, to return to appreciating subtlety in brewing and to quit chasing the latest beer trends on my side of the pond. I’d fallen in far too deep with the brashness—and hype—of American beer today.
German wheat beers represent that counterpoint for me; they’ve been around so long, they’re already yesterday’s news—several centuries-worth of yesterdays, in fact. Still, a perfectly crafted German wheat beer is a transformative experience—an explosion of banana-y esters and sweet graininess, backed up by the balancing bite of hops and that hallmark yeastiness. There’s a reason Germans typically serve these beers in liter-sized steins—they are inherently designed to keep you drinking. And yet, ipso facto, that’s why they are considered mundane.
“Beginning with the extreme beer craze and a shift towards bolder, more aggressively flavored beers, modern beer geeks are always on the hunt for what’s new and crazy,” says Jeremy Danner, ambassador brewer for Boulevard Brewing Co. Nowadays, this long-time Kansas City brewery is busy delighting the geeks with extreme bottlings like Love Child, a boozy, oak-aged wild ale. Remarkably, though, they made their bones with a simple wheat beer. In fact, Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat, an early bellwether in the craft beer movement when it was first released in 1994, still accounts for around 50 percent of the company’s sales.
“We, as brewers, can’t really blame anyone but ourselves and certainly can’t fault beer geeks for that as it’s been something we’ve created and fostered,” says Danner of the push toward more bombastic styles of beer. “In doing so, we’ve made very approachable, drinkable beers somewhat less attractive to the vocal, whale-seeking minority.”
Case in point: Last week, The Boston Globe sent a self-proclaimed “beer snob” to Germany with the hopes he would finally get over his long-held notion that pilsners, dunkels and, yes, wheat beers are dull. He spent his whole time bemoaning the country’s lack of IPAs and calling the local beer “fine to drink after lawn mowing or during an all-day music festival, but it’s nothing close to an American craft beer.” I’m sure many American readers nodded their head in agreement, even if they’ve never fully explored Germany’s beer scene themselves.
That why I think it’s important to revisit what we’ve all neglected in the process of seeking the Next Great American Beer. What can be learned from beers like Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier or Schneider Aventinus, widely considered the best hefeweizen and weizenbock on planet Earth? Or, their new-age American counterparts, which offer a kaleidoscope of deviations, even if they aren’t always improvements on the genuine thing?
“We’re going to see growing interest in a return to more sessionable styles if we want craft beer’s market share to continue to grow,” says Danner, revealing that Unfiltered Wheat sales are actually starting to go up again. “Sure, it’s possible that we’re going to hook a few new folks with a crazy double IPA, but it’s far more likely we’re going to get new craft beer drinkers with approachable styles like wheat beers.”
Five Wheat Beers to Try
I’ve been a part of many epic beer tastings in my life, but I certainly have never devoted an entire afternoon to focusing on wheat beer. I’m guessing few people ever have.
We tasted a dozen iconic German wheat beers alongside American attempts at the classic styles. The panel examined everything from lower-ABV German hefeweizens and new-age American wheats up to the boozier dunkelweizens (darker wheats), weizenbocks (boozier wheats) and even one iconic eisbock (ice-brewed, super concentrated).
For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Contributing Editor, Megan Krigbaum; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Associate Editor, Lizzie Munro; Editorial Assistant, Chloe Frechette; and my buddy Michael Pomranz of Food & Wine magazine.
Out of 20 beers tasted, here are five standouts:
Andechser Weissbier Hell | 5.5 percent ABV
While Weihenstephaner—the world’s oldest brewery (since 1040!)—makes a more famous and archetypal hefeweizen, we preferred this offering from a Benedictine monastery. It was fizzier and brighter, with a little more complexity.
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen | 4.8 percent ABV
Flavor-wise, we found this California hefeweizen equal to the best German offerings, but texturally, it was quite different—silkier, even oily. It was perhaps a tad more hop-forward than you’d expect from Bavaria, too, with a hint of mustard seed on the finish.
New Glarus Dancing Man Wheat | 7.2 percent ABV
This Wisconsin wheat was liquidized Bubblicious. Called a hefeweizen by the brewery, the ABV and intensely fruity esters are actually more befitting of a weizenbock. Talia was stunned that it wasn’t too “blowsy,” all things considered. Whatever the case, it was a sparkling outlier.
Schneider Weisse Tap 6 Unser Aventinus | 8.2 percent ABV
This is a real classic that still delivers every time, despite its acclaim. The standard of style for a double wheat, it was hard to find much fault with this one, even in the slight soy sauce note on the nose. And, at 8.2 percent ABV, it felt “light on its feet,” thought Megan, probably due to its soy-sauce tang and the higher pressure of its carbonation.
Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen | 5.2 percent ABV
The only smoked wheat beer we tasted—the final beer of the day, befitting its status as a potential palate-wrecker—this was a total surprise. It offered strong scents of smoked meat on the nose and a pleasant, biting finish to balance things out.