Wheat watchers

01 January 2000
Wheat watchers

THE dramatic return to favour of old-fashioned wheat beers in their main native regions, Bavaria and Flanders, is well documented. What is less known is the speed with which the various styles of wheat beer have spread round the world.

Today, wheat is a commonly used ingredient in France, the USA and even the UK, as well as Germany and Belgium. From the brewer's point of view, it has useful characteristics. It gives a soft texture to beer which can mask comparatively high doses of alcohol, and it carries spicy, herbal, floral and citrus notes which, to an extent, stand in for the bitter hop flavours which many modern drinkers - especially younger ones - seem to find unpalatable.

As a result, wheat is finding its way into the grist of many beers that are basically straightforward barley-malt brews but which are meant for easy drinking - summer ales in particular. But there are also many more authentic wheat beers now being brewed around the world: outright imitations of - or, their brewers would tell you, homages to - Bavarian and Flemish styles, some of them more successful than others.

There are also many crossover beers, known as wheaten ales in the USA, which use a high percentage of wheat in the grist but which make no pretence of being a Continental wheat beer, Hop Back Thunderstorm being the perfect example.

But what is the attraction of these beers? To the consumer, wheat beers have two key attributes: accessibility and sophistication. Put simply, they taste great the first time you try them. You don't have to endure a long apprenticeship, as you do with bitter: the pleasure is instant. At the same time, they are Continental. They are cosmopolitan, they are chic; ordering a wheat beer by name makes you sound knowledgeable.

From the retailer's point of view, wheat beers are accepted equally by male and female consumers of almost all age groups. They are as appreciated by beer buffs as by novices. And they command terrific margins - Hoegaarden sells at up to £4 a pint and encounters very little resistance even at that level.

Wheat beers have been slower to catch on in the UK than in the USA. The tied house system has made it harder for them to get into the retail mainstream. But all over the country, an increasing number of privately owned style bars in unlikely corners such as Leek (Den Engel) and Leicester (Wilkie's) are hitting a consumer nerve with their wide range of Continental bottled speciality beers, especially wheat beers.

Even though the on-trade has been slow to take up the opportunity offered by wheat beers, supermarkets and off-licence chains such as Oddbin's haven't. You may wonder why your local Sainsbury has a wider choice of Continental bottled beers than the trade cash and carry you normally use. It's because drinkers at home are well ahead of the pub trade - and supermarket buyers are well ahead of brewery and pub chain buyers - in style and sophistication.

The venue

Once a year, a huge selection of wheat beers are gathered under one roof at Olympia in west London, where the Campaign for Real Ale's Great British Beer Festival includes an increasingly popular, and increasingly well-stocked, foreign beer bar, christened Biäres Sans Frontiäres.

This year, Caterer decided to sample a pretty random selection of the many wheat beers from around the world sold at the festival.

The verdict

Some were old friends, some were less familiar, some were very good indeed - some were less so. But one thing our panel agreed - the choice on offer was staggering, and the potential appeal of these products to consumers was very strong indeed.

The panel

Paul Home, Mas & Air, Manchester; Albrecht von Wallmoden, Freedom Brewery, Covent Garden; Marc Stroobandt, development manager, Belgo, Covent Garden; Ted Bruning, editor, What's Brewing.

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