Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Your Cozy Rut Is Showing.

Like the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky before me, I am a “permanent revolution” theorist.

In beer drinking terms, the revolution is the ongoing process of opting out of the prevailing Swillocracy and rejecting the stifling uniformity of its pale, tasteless lagers.

Having thus elected to eschew the monotony of the mainstream, the discerning, liberated beer drinker finds numerous options available, and it is his or her response to the multiplicity of choices that determines the ultimate success of the revolution, in both personal and collective terms.

One among many.

As a means of illuminating this point, we must consider the example of a particular beer style, one of many in the multitudinous worldwide pantheon of brewing interpretations: German-style wheat ale. Beer style guidelines – or to some, beer style “commandments” – provide understandable parameters for German-style wheat ale, or as it usually is presented, “Hefe-Weizen.”

Half (or more) wheat and half (or less) barley, Hefe-Weizen is fermented with a special ale yeast that imparts flavor characteristics often associated with apples, bananas and cloves, although none of these actually are present in the recipe.

“Hefe” is the German word for yeast, and “Weizen” means wheat. “Weisse,” or white, is often used somewhat synonymously, as the cloudy appearance of wheat ale prompts descriptions of it as “white.”

This same phenomenon is to be found in Belgium, where “Wit” beer is referred to as white, and is made with wheat, but bears no further resemblance to the German variety. The Belgians use orange peel and coriander to spice their wheat ale, and these ingredients are forbidden by the beer purity laws in Germany.

(American-style wheat ales generally are tasteless and dreadful, barely suffice as lawnmower beers, and are best forgotten. Their makers will someday be punished, but that’s another story.)

Occasionally, German-style wheat ale can be found in its filtered incarnation (“Kristall”), but most often it is not.

Most are golden, but “Dunkel” indicates a variety with dark malts. Schneider’s famous Hefe-Weizen, certainly Germany’s finest example of the style, is as dark as Franziskaner’s Dunkel, but Schneider sees no need to tout this on the label, reminding us that beer style groupings aren’t always exact.

In fact, most of the world’s classic beers were conceived and brewed before the advent of stylistic guidelines, and the glove doesn’t always fit tightly.

Traditionally, Hefe-Weizen was a warm weather libation, and admittedly an ideal one at that. It often wasn’t available year-round, even on its home turf in Bavaria, where the style staged a remarkable comeback in the 1980’s after very nearly dying out. Now, German-style wheat ale can be consumed every day if so desired, in many parts of Germany and abroad as a result of aggressive export strategies.

To me, that’s a big, big problem.

“See Spot run” was just the beginning, right? RIGHT?

There was a time when I defended Hefe-Weizen as the ideal starter beer, the sort of authentic style that didn’t stand to overtly threaten Liteweights, but retained an integrity that made it helpful in luring converts.

I liked it as an example of an unfiltered beer, one that would help move beginners past their fear of cloudiness. Likewise, Dunkel Weizen eased the timid when it came time to experience darkness.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure whether it’s good or bad.

Whereas Hefe-Weizen quite possibly remains the best “starter beer” for many beer drinkers, far too often it is the “finishing” beer as well, in the sense of it constituting a comfort zone that the consumer clings to as though dangling from the edge of a cliff, and subsequently has no intention of vacating any time soon.

Even worse, the comfort zone often doesn’t even comprise the many different varieties of Hefe-Weizen that are available for sampling; rather, it is reduced to one word: Franziskaner.

It will come as a surprise to some readers, but Franziskaner is not “German for wheat beer.” There are other wheat ales brewed in Germany, many of which are better examples of the style than Franziskaner (see “Schneider” above).

Moreover, thanks to the transforming ethos of the American microbrewing revolution, it is possible that better examples of Hefe-Weizen than Franziskaner are brewed right here in the United States.

Brewmaster Ed Herrmann of Upland Brewing Company in Bloomington, Indiana, brews an authentic German-style wheat ale that cannot be distinguished from its German cousins.

Last year, a 20-ounce pint of Upland’s Dunkel Weizen was being sold at Rich O’s for $4.00, and still the majority of Franziskaner drinkers opted for 16.9-ounce bottles of their “finishing” beer for $5.25.

I grimaced, shrugged, stuffed their money in my pocket, and took consolation that at least we’ve been able to wean most of them (but not all) from ruining their Franziskaner with a lemon slice.

I suppose you pour ketchup on filet mignon, too?

And while we’re at it, let’s be clear about the use of citrus fruit in beer.

here is no use for citrus fruit in beer. Period.

If lemons were intended for use in German-style wheat ale, then lemons would grow in Germany. They don’t. Do oranges grow in Belgium? They don’t grow in Golden, Colorado, either, so they have no place in a glass of Coors’s mock Belgian Wit ale, Blue Moon.

When you place a slice of citrus fruit in a beer, whether it is a competently conceived and brewed wheat ale or the wretched beer-flavored and carbonated Mexican urine Corona, you are mindlessly following the marketing dictates of someone you’ll never know, and who makes more money deceiving you than you will in your life in your own chosen career. Is that clear?

Training wheels are just that, and at some point, it’s time to learn how to ride the bike.

The customer is always … huh?

My career in the beer business, and as a leader of the beer revolution, can be viewed as a constant struggle to resolve certain nagging elemental, cosmological problems.
Does one survey the world’s teeming diversity with a view toward finding the “one,” or the “many”?

Does one find the perfect song and listen to it to the exclusion of all others, or listen to many songs, finding the pleasure in each?

Does the beer drinker find one brand or style of beer, lavishing it with the personal and social implications of brand loyalty, or does he regard the whole world of beer as a vast puzzle, with the right beer for the right season, activity, meal or even time of day?

My business objective as Publican and my private imperative as a beer aficionado in the vanguard of the revolution are one and the same: To have access to as many different styles and interpretations of beer as possible, and to encourage their uses in a broad, sweeping, infinitely changing fashion.

Life is too short to drink the same beer every time.

Slavish brand loyalty negates revolutionary consciousness. There is a certain utility in knowing that particular breweries can do no wrong, or that a particular brewery produces a beer that is the yardstick for its style.

However, once the beer drinker has demonstrated an ability to see past mainstream brand loyalty to the bright and sunny paradise outside, it is no more conducive to further personal development to drink only Franziskaner (or Guinness, or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale) than it was to drink only Budweiser or Miller Lite.

FDR wasn’t talking about beer when he warned against fear itself, but his uplifting words are perfectly applicable to the beer menu you hold in your hands when you visit Rich O’s or any other establishment where a premium is placed on stylistic choice.

Years ago, the beer writer Michael Jackson said that the pursuit of the perfect pint should last a lifetime. He meant that there’s always another great beer around the corner, somewhere over the next hill, down the street in the brewpub, and we just have to revel in the unfettered joy that derives from searching for it.

In this way, the beer drinker’s tastes constantly undergo reinvention, and the ensuing revolution truly remains a permanent one.

Those seated cautiously on the sideline, fondling their lemons and gazing at their monks, are indeed comfortable. They’re safe, cozy, and risking nothing. But they’re missing out on the game, and I genuinely feel sorry for them – even as I profusely thank them, take their money and indulge in fevered speculation as to whether they’ll pay even more for the trouble.

After all, even revolutionaries gotta make some profit, eh, Leon?

("The Potable Curmudgeon: Your Cozy Rut Is Showing" was previously published in 2003. Only the prices quoted in the preceding have been changed)

1 comment:

edward parish said...

I had two Erdinger Pikantus Weizen Bocks with dinner on Tueday at the North End Cafe. Yummy stuff this time of year.