DRAFT PICKS: American Pale Wheat ales with individuality

This column marks the Draft Picks’ jubilee. Fifty columns have been penned on the subject of beer and beer appreciation. Fifty columns. By my best accounting, well over 70,000 words! This is actually more words written than were in Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front, (61,922), or the “Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (47,094), or “Old Yeller”, (35,968). It’s about the same number of words as Jack  London’s “White Fang”, (72,071),  or Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”, (73,404.) A lot of words, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Surprisingly enough, there are a lot of beers still waiting to be reviewed, (thousands actually!), and so much more to be written about this wonderful art form. And so we shall ... There is a most enjoyable style of beer on the market that simply doesn’t get its deserved due. American Pale Wheat Ale is a singular and very specific category of beer style. It is not the same as American Pale Ale, Belgian Pale Ale, English Pale Ale, American Pale Lager, or any of the other ales, light ales, blonde ales, of whatever ales. American Pale Wheat Ales are what they are, but they are too often confused with something else. (Not that I suppose it really matters too much. If you like them, you like them. What did Shakespeare write? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”) American Pale Wheat Ales are lighter and generally more ‘acceptable’ to most American drinkers than what they would usually tag ‘ales.’ Fact is, the APWA style is much more akin to German Hefeweizen, (examples of which include Short’s Brewing Company’s Beach Wheat, or Spoetzl Brewery’s Shiner Hefeweizen.) The APWAs are much more cheerfully colored than are some more somber ales, ranging from pale yellow, to more golden tones. The brew is pretty well carbonated which makes it a great summer offering. There are often some spicy hints, (such as cloves or even cinnamon), that also make this a most refreshing exploration. Some APWAs have a good sense of fruitiness, and are definitely hops forward. Others tend to be a bit more neutral on the palate but still maintain the florals. Despite the fact that these are definitely ales, there is often little if any yeasty taste — or even maltiness for that matter. As is often the case with Shock Top Wheat, some servers or hosts offer this style of beer with a sliced orange. Personally speaking ... Really!!??!! If you want orange juice, buy orange juice. Brewers deserve a little respect for their work. Feeling the need to ‘decorate’ a glass of decent ale or lager with a garnish is just as silly as adding a green stripe to Old Glory - just to make it a bit more colorful. Note well: Adding orange, lemon, or lime to a glass of good beer can affect the drink’s ability to hold its head. So if you care about the aromatics of the experience, you should forego the “pleasure” of the garnish. And another thing ... Beer, and especially APWAs and similar ales DO NOT get better in frosted mugs. The frosted mug thing is all for the show. Most brews actually lose taste and often aroma in the frozen glassware. If you really must have a frozen mug of glass, drink Bud or Miller Lite. Please don’t kill a good craft beer by giving it frostbite. APWAs range from 4-7 percent ABV, but even the higher end offerings don’t pack too much heat. This category of beers may often be less than clear, sometimes a bit hazy. That really shouldn’t put you off the experience. About halfway through the pour give the bottle a light swirl and mix any sediment that may be present up before finishing the decanting. It just adds to the taste. There will probably be a good head of foam if this beer is poured right. Enjoy the aroma and scent portion of ‘the game.’ The foam, as I’ve mentioned many times, will help bring the hidden scents up to your nose. Most AWPAs have low to moderate IBUs (International Bittering Units) which means they will be pretty mild on the hoppy side of things, and generally more ‘marketable’ to a wider range of people. On the other hand, some have a hefty amount of hops and seem almost like a more standard IPA. The Beer Advocate folks have rated the most popular  American Pale Wheat Ale’s on shelves in this country. Many of them can be found in our immediate area. Following are the Top Ten:   A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale Lagunitas Brewing Company Gumballhead Three Floyds Brewing Co. & Brewpub Birra DeCicco - Limone Luppolo Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. Piña Colada Wheat The Funky Buddha Lounge & Brewery Akari Shogun Half Acre Beer Company White Gold Ithaca Beer Company 80 Acre Hoppy Wheat Boulevard Brewing Co. Tallgrass Halcyon Unfiltered Wheat Tallgrass Brewing Company Alpha Weizen New England Brewing Co. Aleias Boneyard Beer Company Bell’s Oberon Ale Bell’s Brewery, Inc.   You’ll notice I’ve added the eleventh as well. There simply has to be a Michigan offering in the mix! American Pale Wheat Ales may best benefit from being served in a traditional German weizen glass, similar to a pilsner glass but not really the same thing. Weizen glasses best allow the aromatic elements to be gently released. Also, many wheat beers, (including APWAs),  raise quite a bit of head. The style of this glass allows for the foam to form well and the drinker to get the most benefit from the experience. Enjoy.

A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Lagunitas Brewing Company California

  This is a wonderful looking APWA that pours crisp, but with a slightly hazy light golden color that is really most attractive for this style. There is a LOT of head when poured correctly, and the foam sticks around a good while. (Actually, there was still residual head left when I reached the end of this sampling.) There is a substancial coat of lacing as the brew level settles in the glass. Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is one of those APWAs that is more obviously hops forward. It is hoppy - almost to the IPA levels. The smell is richly aromatic - packed full of hoppy florals with background malts holding down the fort. There is a thick, appealing, almost outdoorsy sweetness to this brew’s aroma, a bit like retsina - a Greek wine made with pine sap. At first sip, the hops burst on the taste buds. Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is very clean and crisp. There are decided tones of citrus, and even a touch of lemon zest. There is a sense of bitterness that isn’t surprising considering the elevated International Bittering Units (IBU 64) of this brew. There is an excellent base of maltiness that I believe balances the mix and makes this a very, very drinkable ale while leaving it heavily hops forward. As regular readers know, I’m not a huge hops-forward fan. I do, however, appreciate the balanced bite the Lagunitas team has managed to produce. The mouth-feel of Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is sharp and alive. The brew ends quite dry. This comes as no surprise considering the strong second-place positioning of the malts. All in all, a nice drink that I’m sure I’ll return to - in the summer. It’ll be a good summer drink, and more expressive than at this time of year.

Oval Beach Blonde Ale Saugatuck Brewing Company Saugatuck, MI 

I generally enjoy the American Blond or Golden Ale genre of beers. I certainly enjoy the work the good folks at Saugatuck Brewing Company are doing. Still, I found it a wee bit difficult to get too enthusiastic over this brew. It pours strong and bubbly leaving a good amount of foam for quite a while. Oval Beach certainly looks inviting. At first sniff, there was what I suppose some might call a “earthy” smell to this ABA. I thought it carried a little too much yeast and there was even a bit of a tinny back-scent. I kept searching, however, and things do improve. It even gets a bit lemony with deeper investigation, but most folks don’t want to dedicate themselves to such an extensive process. The point, after all, is to drink and enjoy the beer. I found Oval Beach a bit lacking. It may be that it was designed to be dry, but this was just was a touch blander than dry. It didn’t pop. There simply wasn’t the range or depth that would draw me in to investigate more. There was a certain maltiness, but this too was merely a rather more undistinguished bready taste. Don’t get me wrong. All the elements were there - just not in tune or balanced enough to make this a remarkable beer. Other Saugatuck offerings, such as their Baltic Porter, Bonfire Brown, Delilah DeWylde-Berry Wheat, and Neapolitan Milk Stout were much, much more exciting. Oval Beach didn’t cut it for me, but I still believe Saugatuck Brewing is one of the most innovative in Michigan.