Hello, America! Does anybody remember NWOBHM? Those wild, heady days when heshers and punks defied and defiled the staid methods of the past and created wild, irreverent art for a few years before they themselves turned into either lean, mean fighting machines or old caricatures of what they rebelled against in the first place?
… or they went out of business. The New Wave Of Brewing: Home and Micro (NWOBHM), circa 1992-1998, featured lots of overkill, not much peace of mind, and a number of breweries and beers that, although they left multitudes wasted, ended up high and dry.
One beer style that was pretty popular during the NWOBHM days was American wheat. It seemed most breweries were making some kind of clear, not-hoppy-but-not-quite-wheaty wheat beer that was supposed to be a brilliant reinvention of a style that had existed for hundreds of years. Perhaps a more appropriate way to think about American wheat would be to set up an analogy, SAT-style, with two albums released on April 14, 1980—Iron Maiden : British Steel :: American wheat : weissbier¹.
Ah, weissbier (or weißbier for the ess-tsett-minded). Cloudy. Fruity. Wheaty. Often misunderstood, commonly dismissed, Bavarian weissbiers seem to have an unfortunate reputation as ‘gateway beers,’ ‘beer for people who hate beer,’ and ‘gross².’ I’m of the opposite mindset. The best weissbiers are beautiful, refreshing, complex, hazy wonders that can be enjoyed year-round in the company of a variety of foods.
Random thought: Some might also describe heavy metal coming out of the British Isles at the tail end of the seventies as misunderstood and dismissed. Hmm, if only someone was clever enough to grace that influential period of music with an unpronounceable acronym …
But I digress.
SIERRA NEVADA’s Kellerweis is so delicious—so deserving of a place on the podium with the Bavarian standard-bearers Schneider and Weihenstephaner—that a six-pack should always be in your beer fridge, fellow beer nerd. The huge white head after pouring (which will go down slightly after you swirl the bottle and dump the yeast layer left in the bottle through the foam, trust me), the bready aroma, the clove/banana/maybe ginger flavors, the yeasty finish that will help with your hangover the next morning—the classic weissbier profile, it’s all there.
At a beer dinner at Library Alehouse in 2008 or 2009, Sierra Nevada’s Brian Grossman mentioned they had been playing with a weissbier for many years after abandoning their American wheat beer (it had a red label and you never, ever bought it, remember?). He said that the magic really came together after they started fermenting Kellerweis in open, shallow stainless steel tanks—just like they’ve been doing in Bavaria for, like, forever.
Innovation. Reflection. Experimentation. Reverence. Why didn’t NWOBHM last longer than those glorious few years? Perhaps, after running to the hills, the survivors learned to appreciate what their forebears had achieved. The newcomers, rising from the ashes of NWOBHM, rode the lightning to new heights. The old-timers—of which the mighty Sierra Nevada³ belonged—screamed for vengeance, said “you’ve got another thing comin’,” and kept branching out to make kick-ass beers like Kellerweis. —B.S.
¹Both of these albums are awesome; the analogy, not so much if you’re not a fan of American wheats.
²Phil Cook wrote an excellent essay on the ridiculous and offensive idea of beers like weissbier being a ‘girls’ beer’. The footnote idea is also one hundred percent stolen from Mr. Cook’s excellent beer blog, philcook.net.
³Sierra Nevada was founded in 1980, the same year Iron Maiden, British Steel, Lightning to the Nations, and Ace of Spades were released. Coincidence?
We Welcome: Brian Skaggs, Senior Editor, Craft Beer