The whipping boy of beer styles

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American brewers who dabble in wheat must feel some days like William Murray.


William Murray – a mostly forgettable character from 17th-century England who had the somewhat bad luck of being the boyhood pal of Charles I. It was Charles’ father, King James I, who devised the philosophy of the “divine right of kings.”

“The state of monarchy,” James wrote, “is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”

Which is all well and good until it comes time to give the king’s obnoxious son a well-deserved spanking. No one would dare lay a hand on the son of a god, right?

Instead, it was his friend, the unfortunate William Murray, who felt the lash. Charles won’t eat his veggies, William gets a beating.

Thus was born the entirely odious concept of the whipping boy.

Which only makes me wonder: Who made German hefeweizen the prince of beers?

For there can be no other explanation for the state of affairs that has left its erstwhile friend, American pale wheat beer, the whipping boy of beer styles.

No style gets flogged by beer freaks as often as American pale wheat (except, perhaps, American light lager, which really has it coming). Beer drinkers (including myself) routinely shrug it off because it doesn’t come close to the aromatic vibrancy of classic hefeweizen.

Pour a glass of Magic Hat Circus Boy and compare it to, say, Ayinger Bräu Weisse, and you’ll be left wondering: Where’s that telltale banana aroma? The clove?

A spokesman for Indiana’s Three Floyds Brewery once told me that his company began brewing Gumballhead because “Nick Floyd [the founder] felt most American wheat beers basically sucked.”

And Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver once told the New York Times that Widmer Hefeweizen – one of the top-selling wheat beers made in America – was “trading on the good name of an actual, established style to sell something that’s different.”

The difference is primarily in the yeast. Early American craft brewers like Widmer, hesitant to introduce a second strain into their brewhouse, often made wheat beer with the same house yeast they used for pale ale or other styles. The ale might look like a hefeweizen, but – without the telltale esters and phenols produced by classic German weizen yeast – it would smell and taste like something else.

Which is exactly the reason American pale wheat evolved into a style of its own.

Gordon Strong, president of the Beer Judge Certification Program, put it bluntly in Stan Hieronymus’s authoritative Brewing with Wheat (Brewers Publications, 2010): “Most people should know that you use a neutral American yeast in this style, but some people still get it wrong. Don’t use a German weizen yeast.”

Or, as the BJCP style guidelines stress, “The clove and banana aromas common to German hefeweizens are inappropriate.”

While that difference may have prompted handwringing among some critics, it also led to a veritable explosion of American innovation. Unbound by German tradition, American wheat ales have evolved with a playful, varied spirit, from the immensely popular Samuel Adams Summer Ale (spiced with Grains of Paradise) to the aforementioned Gumballhead (spiked with ample Amarillo hops). They may be refreshing (Bell’s Oberon Ale) or sweet (Ithaca Excelsior! White Gold) or bracing (Southern Tier HopSun ).

Rightly or wrongly, American wheat ale is the whipping boy for Bavarian hefeweizen… but it turns out that’s not such a bad thing. After all, William Murray’s suffering and loyalty eventually earned him a royal title and the deed to London’s palatial Ham House.

And Charles I? Convicted of treason and beheaded before a mob.


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