Summer is a thirsty season, and the way I see it, July means three B's: baseball, barbecue and beer. Baseball and barbecue assume their summer roles, but when it comes to the many styles of beer, wheat beer demands the role of quintessential summer quencher.
In the summer of 2008, I had my first taste of Bavarian wheat beer in a sunny beer garden in Los Angeles. I was surrounded by the charming dilapidation of Venice Beach, but the beer garden was a bit of Eden. Groups of smiling drinkers with unusually tall glasses filled a hazy orange with a fluffy white head. I had to try it, and when I did, the unexpected flavors of banana and clove teased my palate.
Of course, I later learned that these are typical flavors of a German weissbier, along with things like bubble gum, green apples and smoke. They smell like a summer breeze and are tremendously refreshing and brisk on the palate, just like the other three main styles of weissbier.
More wheat for the heat
Named weissbier, or “white beer,” for the hazy glow and pillowy wheat head from the proteins in the wheat, here are five wheat beers to try that are fairly easy to find around town:
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis: One of the best American takes on the Hefeweizen style, with the classic banana, bubblegum and clove flavors.
Ballast Point Wahoo Wheat: Inspired by Belgian witbiers, this citrus-forward wheat has a fresh and racy quench.
Brooklyn Brewery Brooklyner Weiss: Brewed in homage to the Bavarian weizen style, it is refreshing and crisp with clove and smoke shining through the subtle banana flavor.
Wittekerke: Another classic Belgian witbier, along with Hoegaarden, this one is creamy, clean and fruity.
Franziskaner: This beer is so fresh, yet full, with that omnipresent banana and bubblegum, it’s perfect for breakfast, lunch, brunch, dinner and all the food in between.
In northern Germany, there is a variant called Berliner weiss, which is tart and acidic and often sweetened with fruit syrups. In Belgium, you'll find witbier or bière blanche, which are paler than the German varietals and often enhanced with Curacao orange peel and coriander. Finally, there are American wheat beers, and Americans brew all styles. But what ties these styles of beer together, leaving a light, tart, fruity, hazy, orange beer behind, is the wheat.
We know it by the names of Paulaner, Erdinger, Hoegaarden or Blue Moon, but why did we ever put wheat in beer?
Throughout history, many grains have been used to make beer, but brewers settled on barley. Its characteristic hard husk keeps brewers from clogging their equipment, and its high starch content breaks down easily into sugars for the yeast to make into alcohol. The gums and gluten in wheat, by comparison, made for a challenging beer in the brew house. But when German brewers first started using wheat, they found it worth the trouble for its aforementioned flavors and its refreshing acidity.
They settled on a proportion of 50 percent to 60 percent wheat, with barley making up the rest. Belgian brewers of witbier adhere to the same proportions, but the addition of spices and citrus give it its own distinct style.
One of the best things about all wheat beers for summer is their relatively low alcohol content, with many of them sitting around 5 percent — an alcohol by volume level on par with Budweiser, but a ludicrously more flavorful and refreshing brew.
While wheat beers are perfect for baseball, barbecue, boats and the beach, you can also enjoy them at several Southwest Florida bars. South Street City Oven, 1410 Pine Ridge Road, Naples, offers the best selection for the wheat beer enthusiast and virgin, and all on draft.
Pick from Widmer Hefeweizen for a clean citrus taste, or have a Hoegaarden, the classic Belgian witbier, for oranges, lemons and coriander with a hoppy, acidic finish.
They also offer a couple of interesting American takes on the style: the dark amber weizenbock, Victory Moonglow, from Pennsylvania that tastes like overripe banana, vanilla and clove; and Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat from Northern California, which smells like an orange grove and leaves a brisk, acidic, fresh orange tickle on the palate. Or try them all in an "It's Wheat You Want" flight.
If it's a classic German Hefeweizen you crave, come see me at Avenue Wine Café, 483 Fifth Ave S, Naples, for a Paulaner, Julius Echter or Franziskaner on tap. The banana and clove flavor jump from the glass, and remind me of my first sip of weissbier in the summer sun.
Ashley Stites tends bar at Avenue Wine Cafe in Naples, but likes to sample the best of beverages all over Southwest Florida.