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A pint of cloudy, please

British brewers take to making wheat beers

Customers of high street wine merchants and supermarkets have long known that there is more to beer than bitter and lager but this is a new discovery for most brewers, landlords and pub-goers. True, some of our brewers have rediscovered porters and stouts, but what of the wheat beers that are made with such flair and find such popularity in the great brewing nations of Germany and Belgium? On that subject, it seems that the pfennig and franc may finally have dropped.

Britain's oldest continuously operated brewers, Shepherd Neame (founded 1698, in Faversham, Kent), make an excellent bitter -- the outstanding Spitfire Ale -- a fine porter, and pleasant enough lagers: now they have added a faintly clove-y, spicy, fruity, hazy, whitish-yellow, German-style wheat beer, made to a recipe provided by the chateau brewery of Bavaria's Prince Luitpold.

Another great British brewer, Young's (also founded in the 17th century, in Wandsworth, south London) have gone one better. Young's, whose bottled Export Ale is one of the world's great beers, and whose award-winning lager ("brewed for bulldogs, not dachshunds") is underrated, has created its own Belgian-style. hazy, yellow-orange wheat beer.

While Shepherd Neame's German-style wheat beer gains its spiciness and fruitiness from the Bavarian yeast used, Young's Belgian-accented interpretation employs coriander and orange peel, in the manner of Flemish specialities such as the fashionable Hoegaarden. This is perhaps fortuitous, at a time when coriander and citrus are modish flavours in the kitchen.

Both Shepherd Neame's Prinzregent Luitpold and Young's Wheat Beer are very sparkly, with a big, white head - characteristics typical of wheat beers.

Wheat which gives a fruity, tart, quenching, summery character to beer has been used since the Sumerians offered their brews to the high priestesses.

Wheat which gives a fruity, tart, quenching, summery character to beer has been used since the Sumerians offered their brews to the high priestesses. It is, however, a difficult grain from which to brew; barley is much easier Wheat lacks the husks which create a natural filter. For this reason, wheat beer has seemed at times set to vanish in favour of barley brews, but it has survived in heartlands such as Bavaria and the Flemish part of Brabant, Belgium, and in recent years has enjoyed a revival. (In Britain, wheat in beer has, on occasion, been banned to protect supplies for bakers.)

Perhaps because wheat beer is an old style, dating from the days before filtration, it is most often served with a sediment. The same antiquity may account for the use of spices and fruit. The Sumerians are believed to have flavoured their wheaty brews with dates, and it was many centuries before fruit, spices and herbs were largely supplanted by the blossoms of the hop vine.

Coriander and orange peel are still widely used in Belgium, which, as a part of The Netherlands, has a colonial history of trade in the Caribbean. There is a Belgian connection at Young's, too. Chairman John Young married a Belgian and has brewed beers for that discerning market. His half-Belgian son James has been the campaigner within the company for the new Young's Wheat Beer; not every board member was convinced that something so radical should be essayed.

Belgian brews such as Hoegaarden are typically made from 50 per cent raw wheat and 50 per cent malted barley. Young's use 45 per cent wheat, and the grain is malted (sprouted and kilned), which perhaps has the effect of making the beer softer and fluffier in texture. As in Hoegaarden and its Belgian contemporaries, ground coriander seeds and dried orange peel are added with the hops to Young's brew-kettle. About half the normal dose of hops is used, leaving the spice and fruit to dominate the flavour.

Young's has its own extra process: more orange peel is added to the hop strainer. As the brew is sieved to remove the hop blossoms, it has to find its way through this bed of orange peel. A second unusual element is that whereas breweries such as Hoegaarden normally use an ale yeast, Young's is in this instance employing its lager strain. Why would a brewery famous for its ales use a lager yeast for a new speciality? While Young's ale yeast does impart fruity flavours, such as that of banana, its lager strain of yeast is thought to have more harmonious notes, reminiscent of lemon grass.

Yet a third feature is that, despite the use of a lager yeast, Young's Wheat Beer is cask-conditioned like an ale. Take the double use of orange peel, the lemon grass notes from the yeast, and the fruity complexity that develops during cask-conditioning and you have a quite citric-tasting beer. It is perilously drinkable and very refreshing, with a soft acidity to balance the sweetness.

Such a traditional style of beer, brewed by this complex process, can hardly be compared with the recent wave of alcoholic lemonades - but it may tempt some of their devotees. Though flavoursome, it also offers a more refreshing brew than most of the most lagers that are available in Britain.

By the beginning of next month, Wheat Beer will be in many of Young's 180 pubs in the southeast. James Young is convinced that it should be served cloudy "for the sake of authenticity." The pump clip will indicate that it is "naturally cloudy," but this feature will still require explanation. When I sampled a glass at the brewery, a visiting publican suggested that the beer was "off". In Germany and Belgium, on the other hand, drinkers, especially the young, prefer the hazy versions of wheat beer. They have an image akin to that of whole-grain bread, and there is some justification for this: the wheat sediment contains protein and the yeast has vitamin B2.

Doubt about the willingness of British drinkers to accept cloudy beer remains the biggest worry of brewers making this style.

Doubt about the willingness of British drinkers to accept cloudy beer remains the biggest worry of brewers making this style. Earlier British brewers of wheat beer variations, such as Hop Back, Salisbury, and nearby Bunce's, have allowed theirs to settle bright before serving them. Hop Back's coriander-tinged example has been a great commercial success for the brewery.The pioneer of the style in Britain, the Vaux brewery, Sunderland, made an opalescent version a few years ago. This was ahead of its time, and was dropped, but it could reappeared perhaps as a late-summer special.

Shepherd Neame's Prinzregent Luitpold wheat beer will be marketed nationally, but the company sees it succeeding in pubs favoured by beer connoisseurs, well-travelled people, and, especially, the young.

"Specialities like wheat beer seem to do especially well in pubs and cafe bars in university towns," brewer Ian Dixon told me. "Some young drinkers may fight shy of really hoppy bitterness, but they still want a reasonable complexity of flavour in their glass."

Published Online: FEB 24, 2000
Published in Print: MAY 25, 1996
In: The Independent

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