By Andrew Sangster
SUMMER is usually a difficult time for sales of traditional cask ales. Hot weather often encourages even the most dedicated ale drinkers to plump for a chilled lager or cider instead.
But, just as there are ales to keep away the chills of winter, there are ales to quench the thirst caused by summer heat.
Outside the UK, wheat beer is a particular favourite for a summer tipple. Within these shores, however, it has yet to make much of an impression, with Hoegaarden, imported by Whitbread, being the most widely available example.
To encourage brewers in the UK to take a stab at producing wheat beers, the Small Independent Brewers Association (SIBA) has been organising wheat beer-brewing competitions.
This year, some 26 breweries took up the challenge and entered 35 different beers between them.
The judging day last month was also organised as a seminar on wheat beer, where the issues of brewing and selling these products were discussed.
Robin Appel, who runs his own business supplying wheat and barley grains for malting, described how it had been necessary to grow a special wheat suitable for brewing.
Normal wheat is high in protein, but this is not desirable for brewers. Appel went to Germany, where the tradition of wheat beer brewing is arguably the strongest in Europe, to find a variety that could be grown in the UK. He brought back Atlantis, and its use is about the only rule in SIBA's competitions - it must make up at least 30% of the malt.
When Kent regional brewer Shepherd Neame started producing its own wheat beer under licence, obtaining suitable malts was one of its hardest challenges.
According to senior brewer Mark Dobner, the next biggest problem was with selling it: wheat beer has a much larger head than beer made just using barley malt, and wheat beer is usually cloudy.
Neither of these aspects makes wheat beer an easy sell to the British drinker but the distinctive style can be made into a big selling point.
Whether you choose a home-grown version of wheat beer or an import, there is a wide range of beers within the style.
Eric Toft of the Schlossbrauerei Stein explained that the German Weissbier or Weizen, produced in Bavaria, typically contains at least 50% wheat malt, and usually as much as 70%. The use of just wheat malt is rare.
Other German styles, such as Altbier from Dusseldorf and Cologne's Kolsh, use up to 20% wheat malt. The Belgians prefer unmalted or raw wheat, at around 35%, for lambic beers. Witbier (white beer) has up to 40%.
If you do fancy trying to sell wheat beer, the winner of SIBA's competition is an obvious start. The Quay Brewery in Weymouth was only founded in the summer of 1996 but it has won SIBA's competition for two years running.
This year's beer, Summer Knight (3.8% ABV), is only currently available in cask, although it is likely to be listed in Safeway shortly, in Quay's usual flip-top bottle.
Last year's winner was Silent Knight and this is available both as a bottle-conditioned ale and in cask. n
Beer of the month: Silent Knight, 5.9% ABV. Available in 500ml bottles at £1.35 plus VAT each (six packs of 12, smallest delivery) or nine-gallon casks at £63 plus VAT. Tel: 01305 777515.