The other day I amused myself by watching the bubbles rise in a glass of wheat beer. I was fascinated. It was like sitting in the lobby of a hotel watching the elevators go up and down. I didn't think it would hold my attention, but the more I watched the more I enjoyed it.
This, I should point out, was no ordinary glass or usual beer. The glass was tall, thin and looked somewhat like a giant test tube. Its mission was the same as that of the Wonderbra, to emphasize the gifts nature had bestowed. In this case nature, and the Paulaner brewery in Germany, had turned out some amazing bubbles of carbon dioxide in a Hefe-Weizen, a wheat beer.
The watching became more interesting as I drank more of the wheat beer, a beer that I learned later was true to the classic wheat beer style. Namely it was highly carbonated, with crisp flavors. In short, a good beer for a hot day.
Since Maryland summers usually produce a number of hot days, I will spend other days pouring other wheat beers in my "wonderglass" and watching the bubbles rise. I am not crazy about the flavor of wheat beers, but the beer sure puts on a good bubble show. This effervescence is one of its characteristics. I learned this after talking to a handful of Maryland brewers who make the beers.
I also talked with Jake Leinenkugel, who in cooperation with Miller Brewing Co. is shipping his Honey Weiss, or wheat beer flavored with honey, from Chippewa Falls, Wis., to liquor stores in Maryland. There it will fight for shelf space with a growing number of wheat beers that have been shipped in from breweries in places like San Antonio, Texas; Portland, Ore.; Boston and San Francisco. Budweiser and Coors are also sniffing at wheat beers.
Wheat beer gets its name from the malted wheat that is used, along with other grains, hops and yeast, to make it. The wheat usually goes in the mixture in place of some barley. And because wheat is more mellow than barley, brewers use various techniques to put some zip in wheat beer yet keep it lighter than the winter heavyweights.
The Germans and their followers, like Theo de Groen at Baltimore Brewing Company, use special German yeasts to deliver a classic, more-potent-than-your-average-wheat beer, flavor. The Belgians also have their own yeasts and they aren't afraid of putting a little fruit in their wheat beers. The American wheat beer brewers seem to both borrow from the European tradition and to make up their own rules. For instance, Steve Nordahl of Frederick told me he uses a mixture of German and American styles to make Blue Ridge Wheat, a beer he describes as a "toned down" German wheat that tastes best with a slice of lemon in it.
Marc Tewey of Baltimore's Brimstone brewery puts blueberries in his Blueberry Wheat Beer. In Linthicum, Tom Cizauskas puts raspberries in Oxford Class Raspberry Wheat. And at the Wharf Rat restaurant and pub near Baltimore's Camden Yards stadium, Bill Oliver says his brewer is going to put oranges and coriander in a Belgium-style wheat beer.
Putting fruit in beer raises the hackles of some brewers, who scoff at the practice as a fad, and say the resulting brew is closer to the kind of sweet cocktails that are served with umbrellas in them than to a beer served in a simple glass.
Tewey and Cizauskas dispute such statements. "It is not the same as blueberry soda," Tewey said. The sugar in the fruit virtually disappears as the beer ferments, he added, and the fruit ends up giving the wheat beer tartness.
Oxford's Cizauskas says the Belgians have been putting fruit in their beers for years and Americans shouldn't be afraid to try something different. Beer has flavors other than the traditional lager and ale, he says.
What no one disputes is that wheat beers, especially those with fruit in them, appeal to people who don't ordinarily consider themselves beer drinkers. Many of these converts are women who find the wheat beers aren't as bitter as other so-called "craft beers."
"Wheat beers are reaching out to new market territories," says Hugh Sisson, who once made wheat beers, including ones with fruit in them, for Sisson's, his family's South Baltimore restaurant and brew-pub. Now Sisson is starting up his own brewery, Clipper City, which will, he said, bottle several styles of beer, among them a wheat beer.
A student of brewing, Sisson is also a businessman. And in our conversation about wheat beer I heard both the scholar and the businessman talking.
It bothers Sisson that some American brewers are not using traditional yeasts to make their wheat beers. Instead, he said, they are using the same yeast they use to make ale. They are breaking tradition.
But even if some of the wheat beers aren't made in the classic style, and even if some of them have fruit in them, the wheat beers are selling. And as Sisson reminds himself and other brewers, "There is nothing wrong with cash flow."
I must confess that on a hot summer day when I pour a wheat beer, say a Wild Goose Spring Wheat from Cambridge, into my tall "wonderglass" I won't concern myself with yeast strain or the cash flow. I will simply watch the bubbles and sip the beer.