Here I am back from a week and a half roaming New England and eastern New York State and I have been struck how this is the year of wheat - everyone is brewing a wheat beer and calling it that or "summer ale" or some such thing. Time was a summer ale was just a crappy light beer. Now it means flavour and here are four examples - posing in front of my gift to me, a case of Thousand Islands Pale Ale - from right across the USA: Partly Sunny from central NY; Celis White from Michigan; Summer Breeze from Massachusetts; and Sweaty Betty from Colorado. But are they a style or a trend? I'll be up all night trying to figure that one out.
- Partly Sunny, Ithaca Beer Co.: I am a big fan of most of the beers from Ithaca Beer Co., especially the Flower Power IPA and this one is up there. It bills itself as "Wheat Beer Brewed with Spices!" on the label. It pours a light golden-ish straw and gives off a strong smell of passionfruit. There is only a thin whisp of a white rim. In the mouth, there is plenty of lemon and passionfruit but not in the syrupy sense as there is a good cutting handful of bright hops in each beer as well as well as that tell-tale grassiness of wheat...and I am going to say malted wheat rather than raw wheat. I can't come to call this a Belgian white-style beer (aka witbier) as it is too light and not cloudy from rolled raw wheat so it is like "an American wheat into which the brewer has plunked the sorts of fruit additions you would expect from a Belgian white". But try to stick that on an inch-by-inch spot label.
20% of BAers say this is not their thing and I am not surprised by that at all. They categorize it as a Belgian witbier and if I was drinking it as such I would be saying the same thing. This is a candidate for not winning the tiara as it is a long way from Hoegaarden. In itself, however...and not unlike me, it is quite fine in its own way and, quite unlike me, gets better the more stinkingly hot it gets outside.
- Wachusett Summer Breeze: I have had two of of the beers - their IPA and brown - from this north-central Massachusetts brewer and liked them both. Neither is an extreme example of their style and neither is this wheat beer. It pours a slightly lighter straw than the beer from Ithaca above again with the thin white rim of foam. And there isn't any fruit flavour added - though there is a citrus tang which I would think was from the wheat and hop selection. This is a straight up US wheat: slightly grassy, clean and bright in the mouth. There is some malt richness and that note of graininess to it as well so you know you are dealing with a real beer and not some additive jacked-up macro.
A lot of BAers are unhappy noting mainly it is too light in flavour. I have a hard time finding fault with this as lightness is clearly the brewer's intention. I would think that when you have the word "breeze" on the label, lightness is one quality you might be expecting. On a day with as much stinkingosity as today, I am not wanting sweet crystal malt, heavy roast barley or heady hops. I am looking for light with flavour and this is one I would reach for.
- Celis White: cloudy mid-straw with white foam, rim and lace. Quite a creamy Belgian witbier from the savior of the style or at least the brewery that bears the name. The nose has tropical aromas of passionfruit and nutmeg. In the mouth there is porridge from the raw grain, green grass, lemony citrus, passionfuit, vanilla and a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. A slightly drying note in the finish.
This compared to Summer Breeze above makes for a great example of why the label "wheat beer" is too broad to convey much meaning as it covers too many styles. 94% of BAers give the thumbs up. For me, the raw grain is more pronounced that other witbiers reviewed in these parts. It is a quarter notch thicker than Hoegaarden. Maybe an autumnal wit.
- Sweaty Betty: another wheat beer, another style as this beer from the Boulder Beer Company of Colorado calls itsef a "wheat blonde" - and it tastes like it with both the grassiness of wheat and round richness of a Belgian blonde...though the brewery call is a "Bavarian wheat"...which I think means a hefeweizen...which this beer is not. Hmmm. Whatever style it is, this beer pours a bright burnished straw gold with white rim and foam. The taste includes plenty of light summer fruit freshness - pear and peach - with some perspective thrown in with the grass of the wheat and some slight graininess. This is quite a juicey and more-ish brew.
10% of BAers say no to this beer, with plenty of complaint about its distance from a hefe. Again, the tragedy of style undermines focus on the fluid itself.