Wheat the heck is going on?

It’s summertime here in southern Germany, and though the thermometer has gone up and down like a schizophrenic yo-yo so far, we’ve had a few nice days. This is a great thing for beer lovers, since it provides yet another excuse to drink beer. Today's a really nasty, cold and rainy day, which is also a nice excuse to drink a beer. The only thing you have to worry about at this time of year is what style of beer you should choose.

A few weeks ago, a smallish group consisting of two family members, whose genes I have been fortunate to inherit, came to visit. As we went out for a drink after a nice dinner I suddenly fancied a wheat beer (known either as "weizen" meaning "wheat" or "weisse" meaning "white" in German). I have to admit that wheat beers are not near the top of my favourite beer style list, so this was somewhat unusual. However, they had Schneider Weisse on tap, and I thought that was an opportunity too good to avoid not missing. A few minutes later, as I was merrily sipping away, one of the two visitors asked if he could try a sip, and fearing that he would refuse to pay the bill otherwise, I reluctantly let him. Anyway, the comment afterwards was very typical: “This doesn’t taste like beer”.

Now let’s look at this comment in more detail. First of all, there’s no doubt that the beverage in the glass was beer – and a very good one at that, brewed according to the Bavarian purity law and celebrated by connoisseurs and popes of all ages. So how can it be that a beer doesn’t taste like beer? The answer, most definitely, is: probably because it doesn’t taste like pils. Would anyone, ever, have a sip of white wine and complain that it doesn’t taste of wine, meaning that it doesn’t taste of red? Unlikely. Why, then, are such comments so common when it comes to beer?

A fancy glass of Dunkelweizen
I shan’t speculate on the answer to this, except that I have a vague suspicion that pils may be to blame, as always. Instead, I’ll write a little bit about the beer in question, namely the Schneider. As mentioned, I am not a great fan of wheat beers. I drink them now and again, but most often I find them a bit predictable and boring. Not so with the Schneider on tap: this was a true taste sensation, fantastically fruity and tantalizingly tart on the palate. It had plenty of grapefruit on the nose and about half a litre's worth of enjoyment in the glass. It was simply superb. It was also very unlike the other wheat beer I tried recently, which was the standard variety of the very substandard (but for some reason very famous) Erdinger: a beverage which lacks everything Schneider has in abundance, namely taste, character, beauty and balls. Erdinger is for kids, Schneider for grown-ups.

The other great thing about wheat beer is that, at least in Germany, they are always served in half-litre glasses. I have no idea why this is the only beer to be allowed this great honour, but the fact is that the half litre is the second finest amount of beer that can fit inside a single glass, narrowly beaten by its big brother, the classic British pint (not to be confused with its American namesake which is actually smaller than a half litre).

The German wheat beers originated in the southern state of Bavaria, where it remained popular for hundreds of years. Then, suddenly, its popularity sank dramatically in the first half of the 20th century, mainly because of the popularity of pils, and by the time the 1960s came around it was allegedly brewed by only a handful of breweries and drunk mostly by elderly ladies. Luckily, just as the elderly ladies were about to become too old or dead to drink more beer, the style was rescued by a new generation which took to drinking it with both hands, often with a slice of lemon gently floating in the glass. Since then the style has gone from strength to strength, and nowadays most Bavarian breweries have at least one, and often several, wheat beers on the menu.

Three Hefeweizen ganging up on one pils.
There are several varieties: Kristallweizen is filtered and therefore clear, Hefeweizen is unfiltered and cloudy with yeast sediments, Dunkelweizen is the darker variety, and Weizenbock gets you drunk quicker. The taste is often described as fruity and spicy, with hints of banana, clove and bubble gum. In Berlin they brew another variety called Berliner Weisse which is one of the sourest beers you’re ever likely to taste, unless you drink it like the Germans do – with a shot of green or red syrup stirred in. For some unfathomable reason, the Germans seem to love mixing various sweet rubbish into their world-class beers, such as lemonade, banana juice, cherries or coca-cola. Such concoctions should be avoided at all cost. Actually, since these diabolical mixtures cost nothing when you don’t order them you could easily avoid them at no cost! That’s the tip of the day, folks.

My lovely wife and I have decided to go to Norway for the summer holiday this year, travelling down the coast on some kind of cruise ship called "Hurtigruten". I am not expecting this to be a great experience from a beer drinking point of view, but hopefully more rewarding from a "looking for the pretty landscape through the thick fog" point of view. However, should we stumble upon some good brews whilst trying to figure out how to turn the daylight off, I'll be sure to report back. Until then, have a nice summer and please consider not having a pils now and again.


What did the Belgians ever do for us?

Belgium is a strange country. For some reason it seems just the right size to be the basis for a myriad of comparisons such as the commonly seen “An area of rainforest the size of Belgium has been mowed down in the Amazon”, the perhaps not very accurate “The arctic sea ice has shrunk by an area several times the size of Belgium”, and the somewhat exaggerated “That woman has an arse roughly the size of Belgium”. 

Furthermore, its strategic location between the old arch-enemies France and Germany has resulted in the country repeatedly being used as a convenient shortcut for the Germans when they fancied occupying a bit of France for whatever reason. I'm not sure if the ease of travelling through Belgium by tank is related to the fact that it happens to be the country on Earth with the greatest variety of beer styles and the highest concentration of alcohol in its beers, but it sounds kind of plausible.

I’ve been to Belgium a few times, and I always look forward to going there with the anticipation of a child about to enter Disneyland for the first time. There are about 125 breweries dotted around this tiny country (which, incidentally, is roughly the size of Belgium), brewing at least 20 clearly distinguishable styles, from the standard, boring pilsner copies that you get everywhere in the world to the wonderful Lambic style which is only brewed by a handful of producers around Brussels.

The Lambic ales are the most remarkable I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. It is, in fact, something of a miracle that this ale can still be legally made since its fermentation is based on wild yeasts entering the fermentation vat from the air, very unlike the rest of the brewing world which uses strictly controlled yeast strains. For this reason, the vats are usually found in the attic of the brewery, where the air flowing in through the windows and cracks brings in loads of insects, pollen, spiders, perhaps a fortunate parachutist or two, as well as the magical wild yeasts. Everything goes into the beer, and if the conditions are right – as they happen to be in Senne valley where Brussels lies – the brew wort starts to ferment.

A €25 bottle of Geuze in Antwerp
I first came across Lambic when I visited the Cantillon brewery in Brussels more than a decade ago. This is one of just a few breweries that stick to the old-school way of making Lambic, which involves storing it for about three years and then blending the mature beer with some fresh beer to spark a second fermentation in the bottle. The bottles can then be laid down for several more years to mature and mellow. Such Lambics are called “Geuze”, and are highly regarded among connoisseurs. For the uninitiated the taste will probably come as a shock, because it is deliciously dry and will probably remind you more of a lemon than “normal” beer. Note that a number of blasphemic Lambic producers have started adding sugar or fruity mixtures to sweeten the beer. Such beers should be avoided at all cost. You have been warned.

Belgium has much more to offer, though. There’s the ale called “Duvel”, for example, which translates as “devil” and in this case, one in disguise. It’s a tasty, very drinkable ale which you can easily imagine accidentally drinking a six-pack of on a sunny afternoon whilst watching the cricket or some butterflies or something. However, since the beer clocks in at a respectable 8.5%, you may find yourself asleep well before sunset. I had the pleasure of visiting the brewery during my last trip, which is situated in a sleepy village called Breendonk, half an hour’s drive north of the crazy Brussels traffic. It’s a massive site which has expanded rapidly in the last few years, but they claim that they still stick to their old commitments to quality, and based on my own taste tests I chose to believe them. I can be very gullible went I want to.

Beer is served with style in Belgium

Then there are the famous Trappist beers. These much-copied but seldom-bettered beers are brewed – or at least “supervised” – by monks from the Trappist order. These monks must be very happy indeed, because the beers they brew – and presumably enjoy with their meals at regular intervals – are among the very best in the world. There are only seven Trappist breweries, six of which are in Belgium and one just across the border in the Netherlands. Most of their beers are easy enough to get hold of, but if you fancy a bottle or six from the Sint-Sixtusabdij in Westvleteren you have to phone in your order and turn up in person to pick up your allowed crate. The reward is worth it though, as the Westvleteren 12 is recognized as arguably the world’s greatest beer, with a complexity and richness of flavour that most other breweries can only dream of.

Trappist beer ages well - this one was brewed in 2002
Apart from beer drinking, Belgium also has some quirky things on offer such as a fabulous Tintin museum, a really big atom, a magnificent square, a massive all-European government and a complete lack of national government. It’s a must-visit country for any beer lover worth his or her malt, and since it’s conveniently flat and slightly smaller than Moldova, it should be about right for a week’s cycling holiday too. Perhaps I'll go and pump up my tyres. I also have some souvebeers in my fridge. I'm off. See ya!