Summer of Weiss

Photo by Jeanne RiceAwhile back, the folks at JW's in the Anaheim Marriott, which was then one of the top restaurants in the county, invited me to an Oktoberfest dinner at which each course was perfectly matched with a different Spaten beer.

There was a special Oktoberfest beer and a classic doppelbock called an Optimator. There were light pilseners and heavy lagers. There was even a beer aperitif, thick and sweet. I don't remember one thing I ate, but I do recall walking away impressed by the range and flavor of German beer. And considering my tastes back then ran all the way from Bud to Bud Light, this was quite a revelation. My beer-drinking lifestyle changed overnight.

And so 10 years later, in an attempt to identify the optimum brew for this Summer of Beer, I turn back to Bavaria for an ancient unfiltered blend of wheat and yeast and fruity esters—hefeweizen.

Hefeweizen is the best-known of the wheat beers, which hail mainly from southern Germany and Belgium. The general category they fall under is weiss (white) beers, and while there are subtle differences between them, they are generally lactic and tart in flavor, cloudy (hence the "white"), and have various fruity esters, which is a high-falutin' beer term for aroma.

Most folks drink a hefeweizen with lemon. This is wrong. Way back before refrigeration, Germans would add lemon to cover flavor of souring yeast, but you wouldn't catch one doing that today. Still, rubes predominate. "I see 90 percent of the people here using lemon," groans Kirk Roberts, brewmaster at the Newport Beach Brewing Co. "I don't know why, either. It takes away the taste of the beer."

If you're out on a beer run, here are a few brands you might want to check out.

Widmer Brothers and Pyramid make the two American favorites. The Portland-based Widmer Brothers claim theirs is the standard by which all other hefeweizens are judged because it won a gold medal at the 1998 Great American Beer Festival. Hey, that sounds good, but the brewmasters I talked to called it bland. I think it's okay but nothing compared with the German originals.

The same could be said about the Pyramid version, which has been flooding the liquor stores and supermarkets of Southern California. I usually find 12-packs on sale, and while it lacks the distinctive esters of the German originals, it hits the spot on a hot day.

What makes the German versions superior is the homegrown yeast used in their brewing. If you make the effort to get acquainted, you will be mightily pleased with these brands—Paulaner, Franziskaner and Edelweiss, which is an Austrian favorite that has a lighter flavor than the German beers. These are unquestionably the favorites among the beer pros I talked to.

Or you could go to your local brewpub, where along with hefeweizens, a bunch of yummy summer beers are being brewed as we speak. To see what's up, I called upon four top Orange County brewmasters to ask what they'll be pouring this season.

VICTOR NOVAK TAPS FISH HOUSE AND BREWERY, BREA What he's making: "I'm fermenting a pilsener right now that'll be ready June 20. It's a German pils, not as malty as a Czech—a little lighter in body, drier and crisper. You don't see too many pilseners at local microbreweries because they take twice as long to make. I've also got a Belgian wit that'll be ready June 15. It's an unfiltered wheat beer with coriander and orange peel. I make hefeweizen year-round with the classic Weihenstephan yeast, which gives it a classic banana-clove flavor. These wheat beers are perfect for summer." What he's drinking: "I go to Hi Times Cellars in Costa Mesa or Hollingshead Deli in Orange, which has a fantastic bottled selection. I'm a lager and hefeweizen fanatic—Franziskaner, Paulaner and Edelweiss. They're all great." SCOTT BREZNOCK OCEAN AVENUE BREWERY, LAGUNA BEACH What he's making: "Every summer, I make a wheat beer. This year, it's a hefeweizen. I'll also make a blonde ale, and in August, I'll make a special Indian pale ale. These lighter, refreshing beers sell really well along the beach. It's what everybody wants." What he's drinking: "My tastes vary, but on a hot day, I'll go for a light lager or a wheat beer. When I'm in a store, I'll look for a Bavarian wheat. Edelweiss [which is Austrian] is my favorite." BENNETT PONDER ROCK BOTTOM BREWERY, IRVINE What he's making: "I always carry a hefeweizen and an American light lager. They're a big hit, very refreshing—during the summer, our hefeweizen sales go up 20 percent. For a specialty beer, I'm making a light, tangy Belgian raspberry ale with a trappist yeast called Fallen Angel. And for July, which is American Beer Month, I'll make a pre-Prohibition lager. It's the style of beer that was made before Prohibition. It'll have flaked corn in it, but I'll make it extremely light." What he's drinking: "I like going to the Abbey in Seal Beach, where they have two great German wheat beers—Franziskaner and Hacker-Pschorr. Paulaner is a good one, too. At a store, I usually buy a hand-crafted brew, a light, citrusy ale or a nice amber or red ale." KIRK ROBERTS NEWPORT BEACH BREWING CO., NEWPORT BEACH What he's making: "Hefeweizen is our good summer beer. Another good light one we do is the Newport Coast Steam, which is like a light Anchor Steam. I also make a kristal weizen, which is filtered. I use a German strain of yeast to get the banana-clove esters. We used to do raspberry and peach beers, but they stopped selling well. Fruit beers are kind of a fad that's passed." What he's drinking: "I go to Hi Times and get the German wheat beers—Franziskaner, Erdinger, there are so many good ones. The American wheats are bland to me. I'd put lemon in them because they're so bland."

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