Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Tasting Notes: Summer Somewhere (2022) 1D American Wheat Beer

Summer Somewhere has been the summer seasonal beer at my home brewery since 2015. I have described Summer Somewhere as being the same British Golden Ale recipe every year but with completely different ingredients. It really is a horrible way to describe applying the same recipe framework in terms of the same starting gravity, hop bitterness, and hop schedule, but changing the base malt, hops and yeast every year. 

For my Homebrew Con seminar I brewed a variation of the 2020 vintage of Summer Somewhere. One adjustment I made was using a Maris Otter Extra Pale base, but added a small percentage of Caramalt 30 to match the color of the 2020 beer which was made with a darker base malt. 

As this summer approached, I was thinking about how much seasonal beer has changed. Summer in particular was the domain of lighter styles like Blonde Ales and American Wheat Beer. Often these styles were lightly hopped and flavored with fruit or citrus like Samuel Adams Summer Ale, or were hopped a bit more aggressively with a moderate spicy or citrusy hop flavor like Riverwalk Screen Door

The American Wheat Beer style used to be a lot more common than it is now, both in the summer and in general. Here is a rundown of the commercial examples cited by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP):

  • Widmer Hefeweizen: One of the archetypes of the style. This beer used to be made at the old Redhook brewery in Portsmouth, NH. That facility is now the Cisco Brewery, and this beer is nowhere to be found in the northeast.
  • 312 Urban Wheat Ale: Last time I had this beer was at a Goose Island bar at O'Hare Airport in 2017.
  • Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat Beer: This was the beer that made Boulevard. The beer's presence in the local market has faded like Boulevard has.
  • Bell's Oberon: It's huge following in Michigan guarantees this beer isn't going anywhere.
  • Harpoon UFO Hefeweizen: Not listed by the BJCP, but the first example I remember. Local bars used to serve it with a lemon wedge. I don't believe the beer has been discontinued, but I couldn't tell you the last time I saw it. Not being able to find it in awhile was one of the reasons I wanted to brew the style. 
For 2022 I decided for Summer Somewhere to make my own American Wheat Beer. My recipe was pretty straightforward: 66.6% Maris Otter Extra Pale, 33.3% Wheat Malt, homegrown Centennial hops, and American Wheat yeast (likely sourced from Widmer).

When the beer was done and I tasted it for the first time, I really enjoyed it. The more I drank it, the more I started to believe something was missing. It was good, but felt like it might have been missing the mark in some way. Maybe the hop bitterness and flavor was too low. Using homegrown hops exclusively is a bit of a trial and error since you don't know what the alpha acid percentage is.
I decided to see how my beer compares to some commercial examples of the style. I visited my local Total Wine and found exactly two examples of the style. There were a lot more Belgian-style witbiers, or blonde ales with little or no wheat in the grist. When I shared this experience on my Facebook page, a couple commenters said it was because American Wheat Beer is not a style they enjoy. 

For this beer I wanted something easy drinking, with a citrusy hop flavor without feeling like a New England IPA. I targeted 20 IBUs, and had equal hop additions at 60 minutes, 10 minutes, and 15 minutes in the whirlpool. 

The two examples I was able to find were Oberon and Shipyard Summer Ale, a beer I had cloned previously. I poured all three beers in taster glasses and did a side-by-side. I jotted down some quick thoughts on all three beers, taking notes on aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impressions. Same criteria as a BJCP scoresheet, but not as detailed as if I was judging in a competition. Since my objective was to compare the beers and not determine the best beer, I didn't score the beers.

Shipyard Summer Ale
Aroma: Bready, toasty malt. Spicy hops
Appearance: Light copper, brilliant clarity. Foamy white head with good retention 
Flavor: Smooth and slightly rich malt flavor. Citrus and spicy hop flavor. Floral esters high and add a nice complexity. 
Mouthfeel: Med body, med-high carb. Finish slightly dry. 
Overall: Nice blend of malt and hops. Like a summery best bitter 

Aroma: Doughy wheat, hint of citrus
Appearance: Hazy gold. Foamy head with good retention 
Flavor: White bread with a hint of maillard sweetness. Med low floral & spicy hop flavor
Mouthfeel: Med body, Med-high carb. Finish fairly clean and crisp, zesty 
Overall: Smooth and citrusy. 

Summer Somewhere 2022
Aroma: Lemongrass, bread dough and crust 
Appearance: Straw, hazy but not opaque. Foamy white head with good retention 
Flavor: Doughy up front and finishes with some light toast. Hop flavor low, some citrus. Bitterness is low, beer malt-forward. 
Mouthfeel: Creamy, medium carb. Neutral finish 
Overall: Clean and easy drinking. A little bland compared to the commercial examples. Could use more hop flavor and bitterness to add some zip. 

The exercise was instructive. My beer was more subtle than the commercial beers. Both tasted like they had some specialty malt, and definitely more hop flavor. I wanted a balance of wheat flavor and hop flavor, but the hop flavor was a little lacking. The hop aroma was nice. If I re-brewed this, I'd use commercial hops for my 60 minute addition, and bump up my late additions from 0.33 oz to 0.5 oz. 

When done well American Wheat Beer is a style I enjoy. There are more small brewers than ever making American-style lagers. If drinkers are buying and brewers are making lagers made with a high percentage of corn or rice, what's wrong with an ale made with a high percentage of wheat?

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