Memorial Day signifies the start of the outdoor craft beer drinking season in Northeast Ohio. Stouts, barleywines and strong ales have been tucked away until autumn; this is the time of the year when beer needs to be quaffable and refreshing. What selections are perfectly suited for a session in the summer sunshine? While any craft product is a better choice than a pale, fizzy macro-lager or a wine cooler posing as a shandy, German and Belgian wheat beers beat the heat better than just about anything.
Like many classic styles, the wheat beer was born out of necessity rather than intent. Some historians believe that Babylonians added wheat to primitive beer as early as 2000 BC. More agree that Germanic tribes brewed with wheat in the early centuries of the modern calendar era. These "barbarian" brewers incorporated whatever ingredients were available instead of relying on recipes. Wheat was abundant, and when added to the ubiquitous cereal grain barley, the resulting liquid was light, refreshing and delicious. In fact, the word actually translates to "white," a reference to the uniquely bright color created by the suspended yeast and wheat proteins.
German Weissbier originated in Southern Bavaria and is referred to as or (white beer with yeast). The cloudy concoction is unfiltered, top-fermented and bottle-conditioned. Characteristic tastes of banana, bubblegum and clove are actually esters produced by suspended yeast. Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Schneider Weisse and Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse all are classics that are easily obtainable, but not every great German weissbier is imported. Local brewers craft quite a few great alternatives. Fat Heads Goggle Fogger brings a ton of bubblegum to the forefront, while Thirsty Dog Whippet Wheat features subtle spice and banana hints. Market Garden Pearl Street Wheat and Willoughby Hazy Days both take a straightforward, authentic approach.
What makes Belgian wheat beer different from its German counterpart? The biggest variations come from the addition of spices and the use of unmalted wheat. Belgian beer evolved without the shackles of the Bavarian purity law, which banned the use of fruit, spice and adjuncts. Early utilized coriander seeds, orange peel and chamomile flowers in lieu of hops. The spicy, fruity flavor lacks the bubblegum and banana notes found in hefeweizen. A bit of tartness in the finish refreshes and cleans the palate with every sip. Skip Blue Moon and Hoegaarden and reach for Unibroue Blanche De Chambly, Dogfish Head Namaste, or Ommegang Witte. Great Lakes isn't bottling Holy Moses this year, but Brew Kettle's Sunset Solstice is another good local alternative. Sunset Solstice is dry spiced with hibiscus for added flavor and a deep red, almost purple color.
Berliner Weisse – the wildcard of wheat beers – is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, primarily driven by American brewers and craft drinkers. This take on the German weisse is fermented with both traditional yeast and lactobacillus. The result is a tart (but not abrasively sour) beer with lemon and citrus notes. The addition of raspberry or woodruff syrup produces balancing sweetness, but many Americans prefer the beer (without syrup). Bayerischer Bahnhof and Professor Fritz Briem 1809 are outstanding imports on Ohio shelves. Dogfish Head Festina Peche and Bell's Oarsman are great domestic alternatives. Part of the appeal of a Berliner weisse is the typically low ABV; Bruery Hottenroth is a 3.1% delight that you can drink all day. Locally, Thirsty Dog has been experimenting with a Berliner weiss, and hopefully more breweries will follow suit.
No matter what German or Belgian wheat beer you choose this summer, total refreshment is sure to follow each sip. Santé!