Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It's The End of Summer

This summer has been pretty active around here. Beer fests galore. Lots of great summer wheat beers - Leinie's, Capital, and New Glarus all had particularly good years for their wheat beers. Leinie's had their best-selling seasonal beer in their Summer Shandy. Which, if if you haven't tried it (and based on Leinie's numbers, you probably have) it's surprisingly decent. It's a lemonade-ish beer (a "shandy" is typically half lemonade, half wheat beer) that goes down well bitterly cold. And, the nice thing about it, at least for me, is that it doesn't give me that beer drudgery that I get when I drink a cold beer on a hot day after working outside.

While the American wheat beers (some ales, some lagers) have been particularly popular, there are two types of wheat beer that have been, if not ignored, at least not pushed as hard: wit, and saison. These are both interesting wheat styles from Belgium and France.

The saison is interesting because as a style it almost went extinct. Recently there has been a revival of sorts and breweries all over the world are producing beers in the saison style. The saison originally started as a farmhouse beer with each one tasting far different the next. At the end of winter, a batch was brewed in preparation for the summer work. Because refrigeration didn't exist yet, the beers were typically fermented at temperatures much higher than usual (side note: typically ales are fermented at around 65-75 degrees). This was possible because of unique yeast strains that were capable of withstanding such high temperatures (sometimes up to 90 degrees). Moreover, because of the high fermentation temperatures and long bottle-conditioning periods (filter!? HAH!) these beers can have a quite a sharp alcohol-y taste. Some reports indicate that these were initially very low-alcohol beers (3% ABV or so), but they are now typically in the 5-8% ABV range. Of course, Americans like their hops, so the American versions of saisons can sometimes be fairly hoppy, but typically the hop profile was moderate with extensive use of the european noble hops (grassy and citrus-y).

The most famous of the American saisons is the Hennepin from Ommegang brewery in New York (Ommegang is actually owned by the Belgian brewery responsible for Duvel). The Hennepin (BA.RB.) is wonderfully complex, yet light, not overbearing, but definitely assertive. The yeast is definitely the show, but the malt and hops provide a wonderful chorus. Also available around the Madison area is the new Farmhouse Brewery Saison 7 out of California. (BA.RB.) It's not quite as assertive, not quite as bold, and a bit thin tasting. It's hard to pick out quite what is wrong with it, but between a lower yeast profile, a strange hop profile (more lemony than typical), and lower carbonation than the Hennepin it is definitely a more muted saison. But, it is a style definitely worth checking out and you can't go too wrong with either of these as your starting point.

Another interesting style is the wit. The wit is a very un-American style because it is typically very low hopped (if at all), but the Americans actually make some pretty examples. The Northern Europeans famous for this style typically used spices such as coriander, bitters, and orange as preservatives instead of the hops preferred by the English and Germans. They are typically golden in color and hazy with a strong foamy head. In the US we tend to bastardize these drinks by putting a slice of orange or lemon in them (e.g., Blue Moon).

The American gold standard of this style is the Great Lakes Holy Moses White Ale. It is fruity and light, with an astringent bite, and a light, moderately carbonated feel. Ommegang Brewery also makes a wit that is quite good if you can find it around town. More popular in the stores (although the Great Lakes is widely available) is the Victory Brewing Company's Whirlwind Wit. It is a very good example of the style with a moderate fruitiness (not nearly as strong as the Holy Moses), with a bit less body, and a clean, crisp finish.

There aren't a whole lot wits from the Wisconsin breweries. This is somewhat surprising given the Northern European decendency of many of the residents here. I think the biggest reason for this is the saturation of the market by the American wheats and light lagers. Hopefully, maybe next year, some of the breweries can give the style a running shot.

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