When skies turn clear, some of us prefer a little cloudiness in our suds.
Wheat beer, the typically hazy brew usually flavoured with citrus and spices, has been growing in popularity in Canada, emerging from Euro-import-novelty status to become a staple offering at bars and restaurants. The selection in stores has boomed too because of the creative tinkering of domestic craft brewers.
There's no rule for when to enjoy a wheat beer, but the style tends to go down especially well in warm weather. Part of the reason lies in the grain. As the name implies, it contains a large proportion of wheat in combination with barley, the standard beer ingredient. Though usually fermented at room temperature like an ale, wheat beer tends to fall somewhere between an ale and lighter, cold-fermented lager in body. The wheat also imparts a silky texture.
More neutral in flavour than barley, wheat provides a relatively blank canvas for a panoply of flavourings, most notably orange and coriander, the main ingredients in the Belgian style called witbier typified by the iconic Belgian brand Hoegaarden. But the spectrum is broad and can include lemon, lime, berries and honey.
I sometimes think of wheat beer spiritually as a shandy without the soda or a lager with a lime wedge, only spicier, richer in flavour and, to my taste, incomparably more satisfying. They can be terrific with spicy foods.
The other major style has its roots in Germany and tends to get its fruity-spicy flavour not so much from extraneous ingredients as from special strains of yeast, which can impart an uncanny essence of cloves and bananas.
It's easy to get lost in terminology, which only the diehard beer fanatic will remember. Suffice it to say, you're drinking a wheat beer if the label carries any of the following terms: weissbier, weisse, hefeweizen, witbier, wit, white ale, blanche, krystal and - an affectation mainly popular in the United States - summer ale.
Many big-brand brewers have jumped on the wheat wagon, with such names as Rickard's and Keith's joining more rarefied imports such as Paulaner, Erdinger Dunkel and Schneider Weisse. Fine domestic microbrewed brands include Wild Rose Velvet Fog from Alberta, Denison's Weissbier from Ontario and Dieu du Ciel Blanche du Paradis from Quebec. Among the hot new entries from the United States is Shock Top, distributed in Canada by Labatt.
Why so cloudy? There's more protein in wheat than in barley, and it's the suspended wheat proteins and specialty yeasts that contribute to the beer's hazy appearance as well as its generally thick, long-lasting head. Brewers tend to eschew filtration in these products to retain that characteristic look. A well-poured wheat beer looks like an orange Creamsicle in a glass. And it's even more fun in the sun.
Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Germany
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $3.05/500 ml
Bananas, orange and lemon are balanced by a good dollop of hoppy bitterness. A classic German.
Shock Top Belgian White, United States
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $2.35/473 ml
Big on orange flavour , this trendy, delectable U.S. brew is eminently smooth, with a subtle coriander note rising up on the dry finish.
Hitachino Nest White Ale, Japan
SCORE: 90 $3.95/330 ml
The Kiuchi Brewery takes the cake for cuteness. The pudgy bottle and bird caricature are adorable, and so is the beer. Light golden and slightly hazy, the beer is nicely balanced with notes of citrus, coriander and nutmeg. Available in very limited quantities in Ontario.
Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, Quebec
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $12.95/6-pack
Straw-yellow and semi-cloudy, Unibroue's wheat beer leans heavily on clove, but there's satisfying complexity in the form of orange and coriander. On sale for $11.95 at liquor stores in Ontario until July 17.
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $13.95/6-pack
The leading Belgian brand that carried the torch for wheat beer long before it was popular here, it is crisp, invigorating and heavy on coriander and banana. I'd prefer a touch more citrus.
Wellington Silver Wheat Ale, Ontario
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $2.60/473 ml
Unlike most wheat beers, this one is filtered and clear in appearance. It's uncommonly light and crisp, with a subtle flavour of the grain anchoring overtones of lemon and lime. Wheat beer with a shy disposition.
Muskoka Summer Weiss Vintage 2011, Ontario
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $6.45/750 ml
Banana takes centre stage, with citrus providing backup in this barely spicy, creamy brew.
Big Rock Grasshopper, Alberta
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $12.95/6-pack
With honeyed sweetness supported by grain and citrus, it is easy-drinking but not as flavourful, spicy or creamy as I'd like it to be. On sale for $11.45 at liquor stores in Ontario until July 17.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story misspelled Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, the wheat beer from Germany.