FOOD & DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter on wheat beers

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WHEN I was a barmaid in Bavaria for a year between school and university, the drink of Sunday morning was Weissbier. During the week the locals drank lager; each had his own beer glass with a distinguishing picture of anything from a mountain goat to a scene of orgy. For Sundays I had to learn a whole new set of personal pictures on the taller, outward-tapering Weissbier glasses. Old men's faces fell in disappointment if I got it wrong.

Weissbier - a linguistic corruption of Weizenbier, meaning wheat beer - was the only brew at my bar that I enjoyed in those days. Wheat beers have a tart, refreshing, savoury but fruity character that appeals to non-beer drinkers as well as beer lovers. Wheat beers have become the fashionable young people's drink in Bavaria, and also in Belgium (wit bier or biere blanche). The style has now even spread to the US, Holland and two UK breweries, who make draught versions.

I was excited recently to taste a selection from beer mail order company The Beer Cellar. My favourite was the bottle-conditioned ***Alpirsbacher Kloster Hefeweissbier ( pounds 1.91 per 500ml, 5.2 per cent alcohol), dry and refreshing with a beautiful balance between toffeed malt and hoppy tang. The filtered, **Kristallklar Alpirsbacher Kloster-Weizen ( pounds 1.91 per 500ml, 5.2 per cent) was also delicious, soft, creamy, fruity and malty, with a nice tang of hop, and *Paulaner Hefeweissbier ( pounds 2.20 per 500ml, 5.6 per cent) attractive, fruity, malty and light, finishing with a tang of acidity. Dunkel (dark) wheat beer is light golden brown in colour instead of pale gold, because the cereal has been roasted. **Arcobrau Dunkel Weisse ( pounds 1.77 per 500ml, 5.1 per cent) is a good, complex one. It tastes smoky, roasted and chocolatey, with a nice, hoppy tang.

The Belgian bieres blanches have a different character, floral and fruity, with more than a whiff of the muscat and citrus aroma of Asti Spumante. I wouldn't want to drink too much of them, but I liked **Titje Biere Blanche, Brasserie de Silly ( pounds 1.38 per 250ml, 5 per cent) and *Blanche de Namur, Brasserie Du Bocq ( pounds 1.44 per 250ml, 4.5 per cent). **Riva Blanche, Dentergem ( pounds 1.54 per 330ml, 5.2 per cent) with less of the Asti Spumante character is more attractive, more malty and savoury, with a good, tangy finish.

Wheat beers are a tiny proportion of The Beer Cellar's wares. Their catalogue has 150 classy beers with notes by Roger Protz, editor of Camra's What's Brewing. He helps to choose the beers. There are pre-mixed cases such as 'wheat beer', 'strongest brews', 'bottle conditioned', 'Trappist and abbey', or you can buy individual bottles of smoked beer, barley wine, traditional dark German lagers, horrid (I think so anyway) sour Belgian red beer, British porters and stouts, a dark lager from Switzerland with a hefty 14 per cent alcohol, and beers from Finland, Lapland, Thailand, Africa, China or the Ukraine.

My favourite of all was ****Scherdel Doppelbock ( pounds 2.15 per 500ml, 7.5 per cent), a big, rich, characterful German beer with lovely, malty, honeyed flavour and a nice, hoppy finish - a beer to charm the most beer-resistant of drinkers, and wonderful with Indian food. ***Zhiguli Beer ( pounds 1.90 per 500ml, 4.2 per cent), a lager from the Ukraine, was very good, as were the German ***Arcobrau Mooser Dunkel ( pounds 1.77 per 500ml, 5.2 per cent), lively, fruity and cereally with a dry, hoppy finish; the Austrian ***MacQueen's Nessie, Whisky Malt Red Beer ( pounds 1.65 per 330ml, 7.5 per cent), strong but light in style, hoppy and malty; and the complex ***Burton Porter, Burton Bridge Brewery ( pounds 2.06 per 500ml, 4 per cent), lots of hop bitterness and highish acidity leavened by lovely honeyed malt, and nutty, liquorice and chocolatey flavours. **Scotch Silly ( pounds 1.57 per 250ml, 8 per cent) is actually serious and fascinating, creamy-rich, dark and fruity; Brazilian **Brahma Beer ( pounds 1.44 per 355ml, 5 per cent) an attractive, honeyed, hoppy-malty lager and **Cassovar Slovak Export Beer ( pounds 1.82 per 500ml, 5.5 per cent) is lovely, dark, sweetish lager with a very honeyed, fruity character.

The Beer Cellar, Forge Court, Reading Road, Yateley, Surrey GU17 7RX, tel: (0252) 861875.

RATING: ****complex / exciting; ***excellent; **very good; *good.