The latest in our series of column extracts, marking the 10th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, is from May 1991
When she visited the Rover’s Return in Coronation Street, did Minnie Caldwell drink sweet stout, dark brown ale… or mild?
One really should know these things, but I don’t. I have never quite got a grip on soaps. Had Minnie been a resident not of Salford but of Stuttgart, I do know that she would have undoubtedly have favoured wheat beer.
Old ladies in hats were the sole drinkers of wheat beer when I first visited the South of Germany in the mid 1960s. I had to pluck up the courage to beard one of the ladies (so to speak) to discover the nature of the drinks in the distinctively tall, vase-shaped, glass, garnished with a slice of lemon.
At that time, wheat beer’s market share in the producing region as in single figures and falling fast. That has changed dramatically. Now, wheat beers have a 25 per cent share, and growing, in the heartland.
This is all the more impressive in that their heartland is Bavaria, which has more breweries than any state anywhere in the world (about 800), and drinks more beer per head than any corner of the globe.
Furthermore that 25 per cent of the year-round market is being won by a beer that has traditionally been regarded as a summer speciality. Wheat beers are seen first and foremost as summer refreshers. The reason for this is their sharp, tart, palate, which is imparted by the use of a large proportion of wheat malt.
These beers are identified in German by two similar names. One is Weisse, meaning “white”. In the South of Germany, and especially Bavaria, this is the most often applied to unfiltered, cloudy, versions of the style.
Often, this type of wheat beer is further qualified by the sub-title Mit Hefe (“with yeast”), though the cloudiness may also derive from an intentional precipitation of protein from the malts.
In Germany, this version of wheat beer is generally not served with the traditional slice of lemon. Indeed, the lemon has become less common altogether in Germany. With their famous interest of purity, the Germans are beginning to wonder whether the rind of the fruit may be polluted with insecticides.
I even heard one brewer say that the lemon was in breach of the Reinheitsegebot. Even as a supporter of the law, I fear he was policing it too far.
Why did they add the lemon in the first placed? I have never elicited a definitive answer to this question. One school holds that the lemon was used to restrain form on this style, which has a powerful natural carbonation. I am more inclined to believe that it was intended to accentuate the fruity, spicy (sometimes clove-like) qualities of the drink as a refresher.
The lemon is still sometimes served with the filtered version of wheat beer. This is often identified by the other name, Weizenbier. That means simply “what beer”. Under German regulations on beer-labelling, a product identified as a wheat beer must have at least 50 per cent of that grain in its mash.
There are other versions A Dunkelweizen is dark beer made with wheat. A Wingback in an extra strong version.
The everyday wheat beers in Southern Germany are brewed from an original gravity in the 1048-54 degree range, and emerge with an alcohol content of 5.0-5.6 per cent by volume.
That gravity band is not especially high in Germany, and these beers are clearly very well attenuated. Because of this thorough attenuation, they are relatively light in body and that might be part of the new appeal.
Wheat beers are still popular among women, but they have equally been taken up by men. In both instances, the new consumers are young people, in their late teens and twenties. By far the most popular wheat beers in Southern Germany are the cloudy type, and that might offer a further clue to their new success. I suspect that the cloudiness, far from rendering these beers unattractive (or unsophisticated and rustic) gives them the appeal of “bread with nowt taken out”. They are the beer world’s answer to whole food.
I am not sure that this appeal has yet extended to the less obviously cloudy, and eve more tart, style of wheat beer made in Berlin, but I hope it does.
The last time I was in Berlin, I had to battle to visit the small and traditional brewery where Schultheiss made their Berliner Weisse. The company’s marketing man was full of derision for this “old fashioned” style and wanted me to spend all my time at the larger Schultheiss brewery where they made a very ordinary pilsner.
Berliner Weisse has a gravity of 1030-32°, and an alcohol content of around 3.0 per cent. Its tartness is enhanced by a lactic fermentation, and this is often balanced by the addition of raspberry syrup or an essence of the herb woodruff (in German. Administer). The waiter may ask: “Would you like it red or green?” I prefer it au natural myself.
The current popularity of tart, cloudy, and sometimes fruity, wheat beers extends across the German border into what we used to call the Low Countries. There, by far the most popular wheat beer is Hoegarrden Wit (or if you prefer, Bière Blanche), which now has more imitators that you can throw an orange at. Some of the copies are very good, too.
This type of beer is spiced at the brewery with Curacao, orange peels and coriander. It was originally brewed in Hoegaarden, to the east of Brussels; completely ceased to exist in the 1950s; was revived in the 1960s; and is now produced all over Belgium and in the Netherlands.
I would like to see such a surge of popularity visited upon the Lambic family of beers, which are also made with wheat. In their case, a more widespread popularity is being enjoyed only by the sweetest (and least authentic) examples of the fruit-primed variants.
The Belgians, who rightly feel that Lambic should be regarded as an appellation of origin are exercised over the suggestion that a French brewer might introduce his own example.
With German and Belgian wheat and fruit beers becoming more widely available in Britain, I have long wondered when an established British brewer would take up any of these styles.
The Liefmans brewery, which makes a fine cherry beer in Belgium, was owned for a time by Vaux of Sunderland. Vaux also had a brief essay into the American market, where several micros are making wheat beers. These cosmopolitan ventures have influenced at least some of Vaux’s management, and the company has for a year or two been quietly making a Weizenbier at the Ward’s brewery, which it owns, in Sheffield.
This is a relatively light-tasting filtered, interpretation of the style, but the very notion of a British Weizenbier deserved bonus points for adventurousness.
Most (though by no means all) of the wheat and/or fruit beers are light in body and alcohol content, full in flavour, and notably mild in hop character. If those characteristics add up to a popular beer, perhaps we British should have a style that combines them. Perhaps we already do.
Move over, Minnie Caldwell… Pass me that glass of Mild. Notice the distinct shape of the glass. A slice of lemon, perhaps? Or would you prefer a stick of liquorice?
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