introducing the heroes of beer
I love a good story. And I love world that’s filled with questions that lead a curious traveler down the shadowy path to answers that lead to more questions. There are stories everywhere.
Yes, stories are everywhere, and often in places you’d least expect. Say you went out with your friends last weekend. Some good-hearted person handed you a beautiful yellow glass of fizzy beer that slaked your thirst and intrigued you with the slight taste of nutmeg you noted. Or orange peel and spice?What was happening in that glass? Why the spicy taste? Why the golden color? What was going on? What secrets did this beer hold?
And why, oh why, when I drink a stout, I am taken down a dark river of molasses, coffee, and chocolate, and I am hopelessly lost and recklessly in love with it? And why the bitter twang on my tongue? What is happening in that glass? Where does that bitterness come from, and why is it so damn beguiling?
All this is to say that craft beer tells a story, and what a story it is! It’s playing out before our eyes and getting more exciting by the day. There are key players, protagonists, to this story. These protagonists serve as the heroes of beer. Without them, there would be nothing.
the oldest hero
And the oldest hero is Wheat.
Travel back in time with me, to an era of kings and monks and forests where arrows flew as quickly as birds, and as frequently, to a time when maidens were fair and the earth was still new. In Germany, in the Middle Ages, the people grew sturdy and resourceful, and used the most common crop they had to brew their beer: wheat. The early brewers prepared beer with wheat and barley, and these ingredients together (with the inclusion of yeast and water; essential elements to the brewing process) created wheat beer. The result of their efforts was a drink so pale in color, they gave it the name “white beer”. Let it be known that I think it’s a great coincidence that ‘white’ and ‘wheat’ sound so similar.
Pour yourself a hefeweizen. Did you pour it? Don’t drink it yet, we’re learning here! Wheat beer is crafted with up to 50-65% malted wheat, with the remainder made from malted barley. Take a sip, just a sip! Do you taste its crispness? It’s refreshing, light, and sparkling on the tongue. Perfect for a hot day on a beach, or in front of a fire, and certainly perfect to pair with just about any food. The bright and non-aggressive taste comes from the wheat. Wheat is the friendly crop, and creates good, accessible beers. If you’re new to craft beer, or if you don’t think you like beer, try a wheat brew. You won’t be repulsed.
Look at the beer in your glass and hold it up to the light. It’s not a crystal clear beer we have here. It’s cloudy. No, your buddy did not sabotage it while you were in the bathroom. The cloudiness is the result of the high proteins in wheat malt. Take another sip, a hearty one. What do you think? Ah, you clever beast, you’re right! Banana and cloves! Now where does that come from? The wheat malt is responsible for this as well. Who would have thought?
Wheat has something of a badass history and is at the heart of stories of rebellion, the ancient Bavarian judicial system, and greed. Back in the 1500’s, wheat crops in Bavaria were unreliable and brittle. The authorities, fearing that the people would not have bread to eat, decided to outlaw the use of wheat in beer brewing and limit it only to bread making. Brewers would have to make do on only barley. This was dubbed the Beer Purity Law in 1516. They felt this law was necessary, as it was assumed that their subjects would rather go without bread than go without beer. I recall days in college when I was met with a similar conundrum.
But! The Beer Purity Law was quickly revised in 1520. The rulers of Bavaria, the Dukes of Wittelsbach revealed an intriguing bit of clever corruption, selfish gain, and an inexplicable selection process. They allowed a remote village hidden deeply in the Bavarian forest the golden opportunity to brew wheat beer again, for a hefty fee, of course. All others remained punished with the beer’s continued absence.
It’s not quite clear to me why the Dukes chose the little village of Schwarzach, and its ruler, Sigismund von Denenberg, the sole loophole in the law. Old college buddies, perhaps? Either way, the privilege proved costly. The fees escalated and tempers too, I imagine. However, an heirless Denenberg ruler died and power went to the ruler of Bavaria, Duke Maximillian I, and with that power, came the wheat beer privilege.
Duke Maximillian was quick to take advantage of the monopoly, and cashed in on the people’s nostalgia for the delicious, wheaty beverage until the end of the 18th century, when wheat beer fell out of favor.
*Gasp!* Here I’ve been pontificating about how palatable wheat beer is and how any beginner will find it delightful and any seasoned drinker will still find it interesting. But in the 18th century, it lost it’s popularity.
I can’t seem to find any direct reason for the loss of limelight, other than that the natural ebb and flow of existence happened to wheat beer as it happens to all of us. Status and reputation are only so sweet due to the occasional presence of the opposite.
Duke Max, the ambivalent wanker, was all too eager to get rid of his flagging wheat beer monopoly, and he sold a dying brewery to George Schneider the First.
I’m sure you can envision the scene. The Duke is dusting out his cash register, and sees the humble Ol’ George sipping a wheat beer alone in an empty bar and thinks, “Now there’s a sucker. Let me dump this veritable millstone on his back and relieve myself of it so that I can go drink dark beer on the beaches of Italy with Greta.”
Ol’ George Schneider may have been a humble sap, but he was patient and he waited out the dry season until wheat beer got popular again. In fact, G. Schnieder and Sohn became the most popular Weisbier brewery in the world and is family-owned to this day.
More stories as numerous as the refreshing bubbles in your glass exist inside the life of wheat beer, but I hope you get the idea. Beer is a story, and wheat is a hero.
wheat beers you will love
You can carry on the story by enjoying some of the best wheat beer the craft beer scene has to offer, and there are many. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong with any craft beer. It will always be good, always be complex, always be made with a special kind of sensibility that sees beer as an art and science and not just a way to make fat cash.
But you can start with Belgian Whites. The most common Belgian white in America is Blue Moon Belgian White from Miller-Coors, but Miller-Coors is the end of all that is craft beer, so forget I mentioned it. If you want a quick idea of a Belgian, the orange peel zip with coriander spice, before experiencing craft beer, give it a try. It’ll be like kissing a frog before going on to kiss princes. Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, US, has several varieties of Belgian Whites, like the Positive Contact, Namaste, and the Red and White. Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat from the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the States makes a very nice Belgian Wheat as well.
And continue with German-style Hefeweizen . This beer variety will have the banana and clove phenomenon described earlier, very little bitterness, and a pleasant yeasty aroma and flavor (‘hefe’ means ‘yeast’). It will be bright and blonde from the wheat, (‘weizen’ means ‘wheat’) a little cloudy, and can be best paired with sea food. Recommended varieties are Dream Weaver Wheat from Troegs Brewing Company, based out of Pennsylvania, US, and Live Oak Hefeweizen from Live Oak Brewery out of Austin, Texas in the US. Many European breweries also brew great Hefeweizen, just take a look online at the Hoppy Brothers.
So, raise your glass to the light and admire the yeast and the gold and the intrigue that you hold in your hand. You do not hold onto something devoid of history and value. You are a carrier of history, and enjoy what people have strived to keep alive. Wheat, the golden grain, is the hero, and you, you scalawag, ought to enjoy it whenever you can.