Saturday, September 22, 2012

Which Wheat Will Win?

One of my absolute favorite styles has to be the traditional Southern German wheat beer with its distinctive fruitiness and spicy notes. Unfortunately, my first encounter with the style was in the form of the “American Hefeweizen,” similar in almost no way to its Bavarian brethren, save for a grist of wheat and a stolen and abused name.  My first real Hefeweizen came many years later—I remember the deep, cloudy, golden colored beer with its lively white head of foam clinging gently to the sides of the glass.  The lightly tart and fruity flavors mingling with sweet clove-like notes pulled me in and didn’t let me go.

I don’t quite remember what brand I was drinking then, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was Weihenstephan. I year or two later I drank my first draught of Weihenstephan at a Cambridge, Massachusetts bar, and a day later with a bottle in my fridge and a vase-shaped glass in hand, I found myself properly dissecting the style. Over the ensuing years I’ve tried many others, but have never found the quality to be as satisfactory as that of my beloved Weihenstephan.  That’s why when I decided to do a blind taste test of four Bavarian Hefeweizen I was a little scared.  I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between what I considered to be the best and just another Bavarian Wheat beer, what if I liked another one better?

Putting my fear aside, I picked out four pretty common Hefeweizen to compare: Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, König Ludwig and, of course, Weihenstephan.  I asked Amanda to label each cap with a number and pour them each into a corresponding stemmed tulip glass—I didn’t have enough Weizen glasses :^(

I assessed each beer on several criteria that I thought crucial to the perfect Hefeweizen. The color could range from light golden to dark golden orange. The head had to be white, light and fluffy, like frothy milk on a cappuccino. The aroma had to balance fruitiness and spice. Mild hints of noble hops where okay, and some smoke and/or bubblegum could be present as well.  The flavor had to have the same balance as the aroma with a light body, and a slight tartness that leads to overall refreshment.

Okay, go!

As you can see from the photos, number one and number two were the darkest with the other two on the lighter side of the color spectrum. Three clearly had the liveliest head and nice retention; it was also the most effervescent.  Number three was in the lead as far as appearance was concerned.

The first three all presented slightly varying degrees of fruit and spice in aroma; number four had a mild fruitiness with little spice. I was struck by number one’s almost banana-toffee aroma and assertive (for a Hefeweizen) hoppiness with some detectable caramel malt. Number three, however, outperformed the others in aroma with a fantastic balance of banana, clove, and a whiff of smoke.  You can probably see where this is going, with number three leading in both appearance and aroma, the flavor naturally followed suit and we had ourselves a winner.

I guess it was a foregone conclusion as to what the best Hefeweizen would be, after all, the criteria was based upon my all-time favorite, Sacred Stephan’s own and my ideal. With its intricate balance of flavor, aroma and appearance, Weihenstephan Hefeweizen wins hands down.  As the self-proclaimed “Oldest Brewery in the World,” I suspect they’ve had some time to perfect the recipe.  I’ll continue to explore potential successors, a number of domestic Hefeweizen have piqued my interest. I’ve tasted notable versions of the style from Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweiss to Tröegs Dreamweaver Wheat to a local favorite, Cambridge Brewing Company’s Hefe Weizen. But for now, with Weihenstephan plentiful on shelves almost everywhere, I’ll more often than not just reach for the best.

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