The first trip to the beer store after I made my plan to learn about versatile beers, I came back with two German weissbiers, one American alt-style beer, and one American pale ale.
I am pretty sure that I had never had a proper wheat beer before in my life. Around here in the Upper Midwest, one of the more popular summer beers is Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss. I have had that more than a few times, especially when I was in graduate school. I am afraid I don't remember much about the taste (you can follow the link to see what Beer Advocate says about it), but what I do remember is that people were always wedging lemon slices in the necks of the bottles, something that (however they do it in Wisconsin) doesn't really function as an advertisement for beery goodness.
To learn about weissbier, I dutifully purchased a six-pack of Paulaner Hefe-Weizen (described in The Brewmaster's Table as "perfectly correct, though perhaps a bit lacking in flair," and as having "a by-the-books corporate literalness"). I also brought home two or three bottles of Erdinger Weissbrau, which was the second weissbier listed in the book. I made a mildly spiced korma for dinner (weissbier being supposed to go well with Indian food) and presented Mark with the bottle of Paulaner.
He observed that it was unlike most of the beers that he drinks, in that it was not an India Pale Ale, and gave it a suspicious sort of "hmmmm."
"The book says it is supposed to be redolent of bananas and cloves," I explained eagerly.
"Bananas and cloves? In beer?"
"Well, yes," I said.
We poured the bottle into two glasses (it's true: I am such a lightweight that we split twelve-ounce beers) and I oohed and aahed approvingly at the fluffy head and the pretty yellow-orange color.
I sniffed it and didn't smell any bananas or cloves -- well, maybe a little bit. As for the flavor, it was a little bit surprising. I had been conditioned to expect all yellow-colored beers to be, well, like a pilsner, which was the only yellow sort of beer that generally made it into our house (mostly in the form of Pilsner Urquell or Summit Pils), or perhaps like a Corona. This was... different. Mostly because it had a flavor. "It's... nice," I ventured. "I do think it goes with the food."
Mark said, "It's okay. We can buy it again if you want. I don't really like wheat beers. They aren't hoppy enough."
I wrote expressively in my lab notebook, "Nice. Mark not impressed."
The next night that we had beer, I made salmon patties (weissbier being supposed to go well with fish). I opened the Erdinger and poured it again between two glasses. Sticking my nose into the top of my glass and inhaling, I was met with recognizable banana-and-clove-y odor. "It's true!" I said excitedly to Mark. "It really does smell like bananas and cloves!"
Mark did not think so, although in his defense he does not eat very many bananas or cloves, so perhaps he is desensitized to traces of their presence. Quite possibly I am susceptible to suggestion, in that if a beer-tasting book had told me I could expect dill pickles, raspberry sorbet, or mothballs, I might also have discovered their notes in the weissbier.
I liked it, I remember, but sadly I forgot to write down my impressions. Probably if I had written them down it would have said "Nice. Mark not impressed."
Anyway, I went back to my beerwatching list and checked off "hefeweizen." Over the next few days we finished the beers, and I liked them better and better as the week went by, enough to note that I would not mind keeping them around, perhaps to have when we made curry.
"What do you think? Could we keep weissbier around?"
"I'll buy whatever you tell me to buy."
+ + +
Just a few short words about the other two beers we tried in this round.
First: The American altbier was my introduction to a beer concept that had somehow escaped me: What an American beer calls itself is not necessarily accurately descriptive. I knew from reading THE BOOK (yes, The Brewmaster's Table is starting to acquire all caps in pronunciation around here) that there exists a class known as an "American Amber Ale" (aka "Red Ale") and there is a class known as an "American Amber Lager" (interestingly enough, aka "Red Lager").
You might think, therefore, that a beer called "Alaskan Amber" would, on account of Seward's folly, be one of these two. It is not. It is an Altbier. Why it is not called "Alaskan Altbier" is something to ask their marketing people, I suppose. Anyway, I liked it okay -- not so much by itself, but with dinner (bean-ham soup) it was nice. I remember, however, enjoying a local alt quite a lot the last time I had it, and so if I start experimenting more with American Altbier, I will probably return to that one (Schmaltz's Alt, brewed by Schell's in New Ulm, MN).
Second: The definitive American Pale Ale is supposed to be Sierra Nevada's -- not that it is the best, but that it is exemplary of the style. I am sure I have had it before without paying attention. Mark likes it, and I don't, because of what I am beginning to think of as the Essential Beer Dichotomy of our family: hoppy enough for him is too hoppy for me. Although as you will see there are some exceptions to this rule.
Next time: Porter and pilsner, but not at the same time.