Tastings School - Wonderful wheat

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Wonderful wheat

Ben McFarland looks at wheat beers in all their forms, and how to pair them with different dishes.

Most brewers are wheat intolerant. Not because it puffs up their faces, bulges their eyes and makes them come over all weird and queer, but rather because it’s a nightmare grain with which to work. Wheat, you see, is a messy little blighter. The husks that allow barley to self-filtrate are absent from wheat which means it causes mash-tun mayhem – hence the slightly sniping saying among German brewers: “weiss bier: sheiss bier.” It’s worse for the Germans than it is for the Belgians as German weiss beers get their distinct fruity flavours from a special strain of yeast (nothing gets one’s lederhosen in a twist more tightly than chopping and changing yeast) while to make Belgian witbier, brewers muck about with herbs and spices such as coriander and orange peel.

America and Britain may boast some superb wheat beers (Willi from the Alpine Beer Co in San Diego and St Austell’s Cloudy Yellow from Cornwall to name but two superb examples), the majority of wheat beers can be roughly divided into two camps based on their provenance: either Bavaria or Belgium.

Bavarians tend to be drier and hoppier interpretations with a higher proportion of wheat and are either filtered (kristal) or – far more flavoursome – unfiltered (hefeweizen).

Belgians, meanwhile, are sweet and spicy little devils made with at least 50 per cent wheat and are never filtered.

Weissbiers are the funkier and fruitier of the two with bananas, bubblegum, cloves, vanilla and grapefruit all unleashed by the yeast while witbiers bring dry, citrus, spicy notes, with a touch of lemongrass and summer fruit, to the dinner table. Both varieties will refresh a rasping thirst with aplomb and are ideal for summer al-fresco eating as they’re both fantastically flexible friends to food – their adaptability unrivalled by other styles.

Rupert Ponsonby Rupert Ponsonby: co-founder of the Beer Academy which currently runs a number of educational and entertaining courses on matching beer with food.

“Wheat beer. I love it. I can’t for the life of me understand why wheat beers haven’t taken off in a bigger way in restaurants and bars. It’s mesmeric with all manner of foods.

“Belgian wheat beers’ (Wit) citric edge makes them heaven sent for lighter foods, especially those which naturally benefit from a squeeze of citric or acidic sharpness. Green and red salads are ideal partners – and you can use some of the beer in the salad dressing as well.

Delicate seafish such as plaice and lemon sole also hit the spot, as do fish terrines. Basically, it’s the citric quality of Belgian wheat beers, their easy sweetness and lack of any discernible hop presence, which makes the pairings work. Celis White, Watou Wit, Bruges Tarwebier or the mighty Hoegaarden – all great beers.

“Dutch wheat beers, with the likes of Gulpener Korenwolf or the voluptuous new Grolsch Weizen, are slightly fuller figured brews, but they still retain the same underlying zest. So they’re great with firmly fleshed oysters and seafood, or for richer tasting fish – hake, halibut or hoki – or where a creamy sauce is involved. Gently flavoured chicken dishes also work.

“German wheat beers (Weiss) are bustier creatures with oompah flavours of banana, honey and clove. I remember chomping my way through breakfast near Munich a few years ago and revelling in the marriage of both Schneider Weiss and Erdinger with piles of pork chops, crackling and all.

“Their creamy-sweet flavours are also fab with sausages, tempura vegetables, or even cassoulet – all of them gently sweet like the beer. And higher strength weissbiers such as Schneider’s Aventinus are wonderful with all manner of puddings, such as spotted dick, crumble, jam turnover or chocolate pudding – and so much lower in strength than fortified port.” Bruce Paton Bruce Paton: “beer chef” based in San Francisco who works in close association with the leading players on America’s thriving craft brewing scene. His website is www.beer-chef.com “I find that wheat beers of all countries go perfectly with seafood. The lightly spiced banana flavours from the yeast as well as the slightly citric flavours complement both mild and slightly assertive tasting fish and shellfish.

In the past I matched up the classic Bavarian Schneider Weisse with butter poached prawns and citrus nage, Hefeweizen with seared scallops and lobster sauce as well as a unique Watermelon Wit (21st Amendment Brewery) with smoked salmon, heirloom tomatoes and cucumber gelee.” Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett: award-winning food and drinks journalist and co-author of Appetite for Ale – Hundreds of delicious ways to enjoy beer with food.

“Where to start? Wheat beers are so ridiculously food-friendly but let’s stick to summer treats like fresh crab. Gorgeous with a Belgian style witbier, especially if it’s seasoned with chilli and lime (the crab, not the beer, obviously) I also like this style of wheat beer with goats cheese – in fact you can more or less drink it any time you would think of drinking a Sauvignon Blanc: i.e. with asparagus, mussels, grilled fish, Thai curries… they all work.

“If you want to offer someone the most obscure food pairing on earth pair it with a potjevleesch, a traditional Flemish terrine of veal, chicken and rabbit served (in Lille at least which was where I discovered it) with chips, salad and a glass of bière blanche with a slice of lemon in it. Perfect on a hot summer’s day.

“Bavarian weissbiers are not that different but there’s a banana-y note to them which tends to lead them in a slightly different direction. Cold roast pork is very good, and mild chicken curries.

You can also make a fantastic refreshing sorbet with a weissbier as I discovered at a restaurant called Fingerprint just outside Munich. (Won’t give away the secret but the recipe is in my book!) It’s a real show-stopper – no-one can believe it’s made with beer.” Henry Dimbleby Henry Dimbleby: a leading London restaurateur and chef who co-owns Leon, a string of terrifically healthy and tasty, good-food venues.

Check out www.leonrestaurants.co.uk “I went to a dinner party full of foodie types last Saturday night and took three batches of wheat beer along with me: Schneider Weiss, Schneider Weiss Aventinus and Grolsch Weizen.

“Even though the crowd weren’t big beer drinkers, they went down extremely well. So well, in fact, I’m having trouble reading my notes but here goes!

“The Grolsch Weizen would be great with almond biscuits and strawberries; the Schneider Weiss with black cod nobu style or slow cooked pork belly and the Aventinus with fish and chips.”