Some of the most characterful wheat beers come from the relatively early practitioners of the style. I am not thinking here of the Sumerians, although they did brew from wheat as well as barley and thought beer a drink for the gods. I am more concerned with the breweries that emerged when the Dark Ages lifted to reveal medieval Europe.
The world's oldest operating breweries lie among the system of small rivers where the Danube skirts the Munich basin, the Bohemian Forest and the Austrian Alps. Between the rivers are ridges and mounds, each topped with a monastery, a bishop's residence, and a Schloss (manor house or castle), all of which are likely to have their own breweries.
Just north of Munich, at Freising, the hill of Holy St Stephen (Weihenstephan) is crowned with a former Benedictine monastery and a still- active brewery that traces its history to 1040. Weihenstephan, which makes wheat beer, shares its site with the University of Munich's Faculty of Brewing, one of the few such institutions in the world and the most renowned in the industry. (There are similar institutions or departments in Berlin, Edinburgh, at the University of California in Davis, and in Ballarat, Australia.)
Weihenstephan is widely regarded as the world's oldest operating brewery, but its title is disputed by the nearby Hofbrauhaus of Freising, which dates from at least the 1100s. The point at issue is whether or not Weihenstephan has brewed continuously, as Hofbrauhaus Freising claims to have done.
Hofbrauhaus means 'court brewery'. There are many with this designation in Germany, and the one at Freising was originally the brewery of the local bishop's household and court. It later passed into royal hands and, through marriage, to the Count of Moy. If the name does not sound especially German, that is because it derives from Moy, near St Quentin, in Picardy.
Hofbrauhaus Freising has a spectacular brewery in the architectural style known as a Jugendstil, a German counterpart to art nouveau. Its best-known product is Huber Weisses, a notably heavily sedimented wheat, full of fruity, banana-like flavours. The designation Weisses is one of this beer's several eccentricities. The normal designations, already confusing in their grammatical variations, are Weiss, Weisse or Weissbier. All these terms mean 'white', a reference to the pale head the beer develops during fermentation. As though to confuse matter's further, some brewers prefer simply Weizen, meaning 'wheat'.
All wheat beers are sharper, tarter and more quenching than those made purely from barley malt. In Bavaria, they usually have an alcohol content of around 5 per cent, and they are often considered as a mid-morning refresher, or a beer to have after church on Sunday, perhaps with a snack of veal sausage.
Wheat would probably have been more widely used in beer-making were it not for its lack of a husk. Wheat can clog brewing vessels, while barley's husk forms a natural filter. On the other hand, barley makes hard, crumbly bread, while wheat performs much better in the bakery. That is why wheat came to be the preferred grain of the baker, and barley of most brewers.
In the pockets of traditionalism where wheat is still widely used in brewing (Bavaria, Berlin, Belgium), there are different local styles. The Bavarians use more than 50 per cent wheat in their Weissbier, and prefer it heavily sedimented and cloudy (though filtered versions are available).
A further feature of Bavarian wheat beers is the spiciness of the most traditional examples. Drinkers of culinary orientation often compare the typical aroma and flavour to cloves. Others say it reminds them of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, or of bubblegum. The comparison is well made. In fermentation, the local yeasts used in Bavarian wheat beers can produce guaiacols. These chemical compounds are also found in the resiny barks of tropical trees which provide flavouring essences for gum.
The flavours of wheat beers take on further dimensions when dark malts are included in the brew. Hofbrauhaus Freising also has an amber- brown wheat beer called Gutstetter, which sounds more threatening than it is. This Dunkle Weisse ('dark white') has fruity flavours reminiscent of raisins.
I had dinner with the Count of Moy, a rather dashing chap, a year or two ago, and he served me zander (a fish in the perch family) poached in this wheat beer. The raisiny flavours work even better with fruity desserts. In Bavaria, I have been served wheat beer with elderflower fritters.
In Munich, I once enjoyed a more robust wheat beer with a dish of stewed lungs, at the famous Schneider beer hall, on the street called Tal ('Dale'). The Schneider beers are made at a brewery dating from 1607, at Kelheim, near Regensburg. When I went there to take a look, I had lunch in a local inn, and was served a knuckle of pork glazed in wheat beer.
Pointing out of the Danube valley into the hillside, the sixth George Schneider to have made the beer told me, 'It is Jurassic rock, which gives us our water, and it is the beginning of our special taste'. The waters also irrigate a fertile region for the cultivation of wheat and barley.
Even in unfiltered form, the Schneider beers are relatively bright, and they are distinctively lively and clovey. The basic Schneider Weisse has an unusual tan colour, and a touch of apple in the flavour. The extra-strong (8 per cent) Schneider Aventinus is full of toffee and chocolate flavours. This is the strength of beer the Bavarians like to sip as central-heating when, at the end of a long winter, they first venture into the beer gardens.
Closer to the Alps at Miesbach, the third generation of the Hopf family runs a renowned wheat-beer brewery. The family's name suggests hops in German, too, but that is misleading; wheat beers are rarely hoppy, preferring to emphasise the flavours of the grain and the yeast instead.
The flavours in the Hopf Weisse Export remind me of peaches-and-cream. A vanilla-like spiciness, perhaps? I think I found a tinge of cinnamon in the dark version, Hopf Dunkle Weisse.
These six Bavarian wheat beers, from three specialist breweries, are newly available in Britain. None is remotely bland, and they provide a good range of the aromas and flavours to be found in this delicious style. With that in mind, I have packaged them as my Easter Beer Offer.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content