After my recent fall down the mostly sweet rabbit hole of artificially flavoured coolers and beers, I needed something crisp, fresh and flavourful to cleanse the palate.
And with today being the first day of summer, it's tough to resist turning back to beer -- and there are few drinks I associate as closely with hot weather and summer as I do wheat beer.
True, a crisp Czech pilsner or modestly hoppy IPA can cut through the heat of a summer day, but wheat beer combines freshness and intense flavour like no other style of beer can.
The heart of wheat beer -- or, as it's often called in the region, weisse or weissbier -- is Bavaria in southern Germany. German brewers making wheat beer in that area typically replace some of the malted barley they'd otherwise use to make beer with malted wheat.
When a wheat beer is labelled witbier, chances are it's from Belgium. Belgian witbier is often intensified with spice -- in many cases some combination of orange peel, coriander and anise. Think of the last time you ordered a Hoegaarden -- there's a reason it's garnished with an orange slice. (Aside: garnishing a German wheat beer would likely be frowned upon in Bavaria.)
There are plenty of North American craft breweries doing good work with wheat beer, and the big guys such as Molson, Rickard's and Anheuser-Busch (via Shock Top) have been jumping on board as well. Many bigger brewers have started including wheat beer in their mixed summer packs, exposing more people to the style of beer -- even if they're not always the best examples.
Wheat beer is often considered a beer for those who don't normally drink beer: It doesn't taste like your typical brew, it's sometimes a bit sweet, and is often flavoured with spices and/or fruit (orange and raspberry seem to be the fruit flavours of choice for North American brewers).
Yet it's also a fave among beer geeks looking for a break from heavier brews in the summer months.
When chilled right down, wheat beer make for perfect summer sipping.
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FORT GARRY BREWING CO. RASPBERRY QUENCHER (Winnipeg -- $2.96/473 ml can)
Deep pink in colour and hazy, the Raspberry Quencher smells like actual mashed-up ripe raspberries. It's dry, light-bodied and quite crisp, with delicious fresh raspberry flavours, some crisp hops and a hint of fresh oats, wheat and a very light banana candy note. One of Fort Garry's best new brews -- the label says it's "100% summer in a can," and I'm not inclined to disagree. 4 1/2 stars.
AMSTERDAM BREWING ORANJE WEISSE (Toronto -- $5.23/500 ml bottle)
Gold in colour and slightly hazy, the Oranje Weisse is a wheat beer flavoured with orange peel, anise and coriander -- more Belgian in style than German. The three flavourings come through aromatically, as does a bright wheat/yeasty component. It's light, very slightly off-dry and fresh. The spices in here pick up the ball and run with it. Very refreshing, and easy to spot -- it's in a tall, bright orange bottle. 4 stars.
SHOCK TOP RASPBERRY WHITE (St. Louis -- $2.79/473 ml can)
Pale gold in colour, the Shock Top is a "Belgian-style white ale with natural raspberry flavour." A raspberry candy note comes through on the nose -- so much so that typical wheat beer aromas aren't as discernable. Medium-sweet on the light-bodied palate, the raspberry notes and sweetness combine to bring an Imperial cookie-type flavour -- in other words, not exactly fresh/authentic fruit. 2 1/2 stars.
KRONENBOURG 1664 BLANC (Strasbourg, France -- $2.26/330 ml bottle)
Pale lemon yellow in colour and hazy, there's a decidedly sweeter orange candy and spice component on the nose to go with milder wheat notes. It's light, off-dry and extremely fruity -- think grapefruit candy and orange peel -- thanks to the addition of ingredients such as glucose syrup, aromatic caramel and sweet orange peel. Still, it's a good quaffer to beat the heat. Garnish with an orange slice. 3 stars.
ERDINGER WEISSBIER (Erding, Germany -- $3.36/500 ml bottle)
Pale straw and hazy in colour, the nose on this Bavarian brew delivers wheat, yeast, anise and banana aromas. It's a dry, lighter wheat beer, with creamy effervescence adding some body to what are otherwise simple wheat, yeast, and modest orange peel notes. Best served chilled right down on a hot day. 3 stars.
HACKER-PSCHORR WEISSE (Munich, Germany -- $3.92/500 ml bottle)
Amber in colour and quite hazy, the Hacker-Pschorr brings aromas of dried apricot, light grains, floral, clove and yeast notes. There's some decent depth and intensity to the flavours here, especially in the pronounced spice/herbal notes that take over from the milder yeast/wheat component. A creamy texture and a pleasant, malty finish close things out. 3 1/2 stars.