Much of its advertising has been so macho over the years that beer has simply seemed to many women to be a drink not meant for them. There are honorable exceptions (fewer among advertisers than among womenfolk), but these are merely gaps in a wall. Whenever I present a public beer tasting, I am confronted by couples with the man keen to sample new beers but the woman in bored and grudging attendance.
My successful remedy on these occasions is to present the woman with a wine glass, preferably a champagne tulip, containing a drink variously known as weisse or weizen. In bouquet and palate, this drink resembles a sparkling wine as much as a beer. When Napoleon's troops occupied Germany, they described this beverage as "the Champagne of the North." In fact, it is a beer, but of an unusual and distinctive varietal style. It dates from the time before barley had emerged as the principal raw material of brewing, perhaps even to the days when farmers harvested from fields of mixed grains, and it contains a substantial proportion of wheat.
Weisse means "white," and the name originates from the very pale color of many wheat beers. Weizen means simply "wheat." The comparison with champagne is apt, since these beers are noted for a refreshing, fruity acidity and a long-sustained sparkle. The fruitiness is a characteristic of the wheat, the acidity from the type of yeast used, and the sparkle from a secondary fermentation in the bottle, as in methode champenoise.
Just as champagne is an aristocrat among wines, so weisse and weizen are noble styles of beer. Their antiquity wins them respect, and in their homelands they are ritually served as refreshing summer specialties. They are principally German styles, though they can also be found in some adjoining countries.
The north of Germany takes a pride in the wheat beers of Berlin. That version is very low in alcohol (around 2.5 per cent by weight), with a view to its being consumed in quenching qualities. It has a tart, lactic acidity, which is usually cut in Germany by the addition of a dash of raspberry syrup or the essence of the herb woodruff. The beer has a slight haze when served au naturel, but is no less delicious for that. In Germany, it is usually presented in an over-sized version of the saucer type of champagne glass. Its two principal producers, Kindl and Schultheiss, both export to the United States. Look for their products with the designation weisse, since both breweries also make other, more conventional, styles of beer.
The south German version of wheat beer, primarily associated with the state of Bavaria and the region around and to the east of the city of Munich, is available in several variations: crystal-clear or sedimented with yeast (mit hefe); pale or dark (dunkel); at a fairly conventional strength (around 4.0 per cent) or more potent (weizenbock). It has a more intense fruitiness, reminiscent of green apples or plums, and a clove-like spiciness. It is usually served in a tall, vase-shaped glass, sometimes with a slice of lemon as a garnish. Look for examples from Ayinger, Erdinger, Spaten, Paulaner and others, labeled as weisse, weissbier, weizen or weizenbier.
Belgium also has "white" wheat beers, identified as witte, witbier or biere blanche. Examples from the Hoegaarden and Dentergems breweries are available in the U.S. These beers variously have notes of apple, orange and honey. Although they are refreshing, they are more reminiscent of an orange muscat dessert wine than a champagne. I have used them very successfully as dessert beers. Some of the wheat-based Belgian cherry beers are equally versatile, serving as either an aperitif (like pink champagne) or an accompaniment to dessert.
Although these are all very old styles of beer, they are currently enjoying a great revival among the young in their home countries. What had been fading as an old, and somewhat rustic, tradition has now been rediscovered with conservationist zeal. This is especially true in Germany, where the heavily sedimented mit hefe type is de rigeur among yup-persons.
Even the keenest devotees of specialty brews are surprised by the sudden emergence of American-made wheat beers and their fashionability in some parts of this country.
Before Prohibition, there were scores of specialty breweries producing wheat beers in the German towns and neighborhoods of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. When Prohibition was repealed, wheat beers never reemerged and this type of brew has been virtually unknown in the U.S. for the worst part of half a century. Suddenly, with the renaissance of interest in specialty beers and the burgeoning of boutique breweries, the style has been reborn. The first of the new American wheat beers emerged in the summer of 1984 and in the intervening three years, more than a dozen further examples have been introduced.
Good selections of these are available at specialty beer stores like Berose Liquors or Eagle Wine and Liquor in Washington, and similar establishments in other towns, but the style is thus far less well established in the East than in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
The least likely location for a Germanic-style wheat beer would seem to be Louisiana, but that is the home of one of the newest entrants. Abita Wheat Beer is made in a new boutique brewery near New Orleans. It is not the wheat beer with the most character, but it is pleasantly refreshing. America's "Big Six" nationwide breweries have been taking an interest in the style, too. Miller, a company hitherto associated only with mass-market products, put a toe in the wheatfield with a brew called Dakota. Although the company emphasized the use of wheat, it held back from producing a specialty beer. Predictably, this ambivalence confused the consumer, and Dakota was withdrawn from test marketing -- an ironic turn for a company whose flagship product is meant to be "the Champagne of bottled beers."
Another member of the Big Six, Heileman, has done better. It recently introduced a wheat beer, called Edelweiss, made by its new subsidiary small brewery, Val Blatz, in Milwaukee. This wheat beer -- dry, light and very clean, but with a definitively South German note -- finished first in its category at the recent Great American Beer Festival in Denver. This is the premier national judging of exclusively American beers.
Milwaukee also has a boutique brewery, called Sprecher, that includes a wheat beer in its range. Sprecher Milwaukee Weiss is a hearty, yeasty beer, with a bronze color and a rather sweet palate for the style. Yet another boutique, Lake Front, is about to open in Milwaukee and may have a wheat beer by this time next year.
Another new boutique in Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin, launched a wheat beer in late June. This brewery, called Capital, is producing a medium-bodied example of the style, with a nice South German accent.
Since this is a summer style, some breweries make their wheat beers available only in the months of June through early September. One example is Hibernia, in Eau Claire, Wis. This brewery's dark, but not heavy, dunkelweizen has a spicy, almost chocolatey, character and is one of my favorites. It was the first dark wheat beer in the new generation and the first of these various versions to be available on draft.
Another summer-only wheat beer is being produced by a new boutique called Mill Stream, in the Amana colonies of Iowa. This wheat brew was actually launched on the first day of summer, as part of a policy that seasonal specialties should be introduced on equinoxes or days of similar significance. It is a clean-tasting beer, with a pale bronze color and a light wheat character.
The August Schell Brewery, of New Ulm, Minn., produces one of the most widely available American wheat beers. August Schell Weiss is marketed nationally by Merchant du Vin, of Lenox, Mass., and Seattle. This is a delightfully refreshing, fruity, wheat beer, with peachy notes, especially in its bouquet. It is often served with a slice of lemon, in the traditional South German style.
In Helena, the state capital of Montana, the new Kessler boutique produces a well made wheat beer in the South German style. In Yakima, the hop-growing capital of Washington state, the Grant's boutique and brew-pub makes a honeyish, Belgian-tasting wheat beer among a range of specialties with character. Also in Washington, but close to the Oregon state line, the Hart Brewing Co., of Kalama, makes a splendidly tasty wheaten ale. In Portland, Ore., the excellent Widmer Brewery has an unusually hoppy weizenbier among a range of German-accented specialties.
The West might seem an odd location for such a profusion of wheat beers, but the movement started there. The Anchor brewery, of San Francisco, produced the first post-Prohibition wheat beer in America. Its Anchor Wheat Beer is very pale, with a big, dense, white head. It is notably dry, with a delicate but very definite wheat-beer fruitiness.
"We had our Anchor Steam Beer, Porter, Liberty and Christmas Ales and Barley wine ... a wheat beer seemed a stylistic gap in our range," a spokesman said. "The only trouble was that, at first, the only place in America where we could find malted wheat was a whole-food baker." Three years later, it is no problem to obtain wheat from a brewers' maltster. Anchor certainly started something.