A Tale of Lagers and Weizen, part II
Written by Nick Jurkowski
Filed Under: Beer Tasting
While lagers are dominant in Germans' beer tastes, Germany is also well known for their wheat beer, generally fermented with ale yeast. We can also find a few precious barley ale styles, which are delicious but a bit hard to describe for reasons I will detail below. Let's kick things off with a look at the wheaty side of things.
There are basically two types of German-style wheat ales: Bavarian Weizen (which includes the popular "hefe-weizen"), and the currently-in-decline Berliner Weisse style. Weizen beers are currently in vogue after decades of relative obscurity. They are a Bavarian tradition, and though they are "wheat" beers, malted wheat only makes up around 50% of their grain bill, with the other half made up of pale malted barley (the majority ingredient in most beers). These beers are pale, spicy, and fruity, and are designed for the summer by fun-loving Bavarians. Most weizen will have a slight clove character from phenols, as well as lightly fruity esters (often banana). The malted wheat makes for a light and creamy taste, while hops are used quite sparingly to provide a small bit of bitterness as contrast. Try Penn Weizen for an American example of this style, and Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse for an authentic Bavarian.
Also keep and eye out for Dunkelweizen, which is quite similar to standard weizen except for the darker Munich and Vienna malts that are included, giving a dark color and toasted flavor.
"Hefeweizen" is unfiltered - the yeast and sediment will be mixed in, giving the beer a cloudy look with a yeastier taste. Any wheat beer could technically be hefeweizen, I believe, as long as it is unfiltered.
These beers are quite interesting; called "the Champagne of the north" by Napoleon's men, Berliner Weissen are bubbly and elegant. They have very low gravity (2%-3%, generally) and (consequently) little malt flavor, which makes them a great light summer beer. In addition to yeast, these beers are soured with lactobacillus bacteria (much like Belgian gueuze and lambic) and occasionally sweetened with fruit syrup at serving, I've only had the pleasure of trying one of these beers - the Berliner Kindl Weisse, which was light and effervescent with a dry lemon flavor. If you can find these, they are well worth a try.
German Barley Ale
During the 17th - 18th centuries, the German beer world was in upheaval. Lagers were gaining fantastic popularity, while the traditional ales were on the decline. The ale brewers fought back with various taxes, regulations, and other legal obstructions directed against brewing bottom-fermented beer, but nothing could be done to stop the yellow lager tide. In the end, German barley ales were almost completely eclipsed by lagers - only a few small groups of brewers (mostly around Dusseldorf) continued to brew in the old ("alt," in German) style, and they give us the two styles widely available today: Alt and Kalsch.
The relatively small number of brewers that continued to brew Altbier over the past few hundred years means that we aren't totally sure what an "authentic" one tastes like. There is always debate over whether any given alt is truly exemplary, but what is certain is their potential for deliciousness. Alts vary from copper-colored to brown, and have a fairly high hop bitterness with good malt flavor, derived in good part from the darker Munich malts. They can be a little chocolaty and a little fruity, but rarely spicy. Interestingly, alts are often stored in the same cold conditions as lagers, which lends a clarity of color and clean flavor. Alaskan Amber is an alt-style beer, and not too bad at that. The best I have tried was a German example, Uerige Doppelsticke.
Kalsch is a style that is light in every way; it is pale colored with little malt flavor, a touch of fruitiness (generally citrus), and just a bit of hop. This beer, like alts, is stored at lager temperatures, which cleans it up and helps to clarify. They are very refreshing, tasty brews that I generally prefer to light lagers, though that is strictly personal preference. Try Alaskan Summer Ale or Hyland Farmhand Ale.