Friday, December 21, 2007

Hey Barkeep!

Yes, it's that time of the month again. Today we are fielding questions from the peanut gallery. This question comes to us from the deep recesses of The Great Dane at Fitchburg (proof positive that we have nothing against the Dane here - we drink at all three of them constantly), but inspired by their summertime Watermelon Weisse and the general practice with wheat beer:

Why is there fruit in my beer?

A good question. What does a lemon (or in this case a huge chunk o' watermelon) really add to the weisse experience? Why is it there? Are you supposed to eat it?

I will admit that I do not like chunks of fruit in my beer, so I always ask the bartender to hold off on the fruit - I often get a crazy look, but they usually comply.

But why put it there at all? Michael Jackson (the beer one, not the gloved one) has reported that he first encountered the practice in the 1960s in Bavaria (Southern Germany along the Austrian border). He indicates that his own investigations into the matter have turned up a few reasons:
1) the style was originally farmhouse style (similar to the Belgian saison or the French bier de garde), and the fruit had been added to mask uneven product quality - I agree with Mr. Jackson in his dismissal of this as a legitimate reason: the people who would have brewed these beers would have viewed the "uneven" product as natural and would have left it as is;
2) because of all of the wheat (as much as 50% of the grain bill for these beers) these beers generate huge amounts of foamy head - lemon acts to cut the head; while Mr. Jackson dismisses this because it flattens the beer this seems pretty reasonable to me, though is probably not the entire factor behind the practice, it certainly is a benefit when pouring - particularly if the practice began because the lemons were on hand "just in case" and when the foam became unmanagable the lemon was quickly added to prevent excessive overflowing; and
3) the tartness of the lemon accentuates the charateristic fruitiness of the drink - which seems a perfectly legitimate, if not slightly subjective, reason; thus, it seems to me, the bartender should ask if you want, not put it in by default.

Finally, Mr. Jackson, notes that this practice has fallen out of favor in continental Europe for two reasons: first, that the lemon rinds contain trace amounts of pesticides, and second, that styles more in favor are less and less filtered and contain significant amounts of yeast sedimentation in the bottle - this yeast adds a creamier texture and alters the taste such that the lemon becomes more off-putting.

Personally, I do not put a lemon in my beer because I like the taste of the beer - the popular American versions (Blue Moon, et al) are already so sweet and fruity that they hardly require the additions. And, of the craft versions, I prefer the continental style: more heavily sedimented and yeast-y and find that the lemon does not accentuate the flavors.

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