When North End Brewing brought out its Hoppy Wheat, sales were disappointing.
“People who like hops don’t like wheat beer, and people who want a wheat beer don’t want hops,” brewer Kieran Haslett-Moore told me. So he changed its name to Super Alpha, and now it’s a popular part of North End’s core range. People are funny!
It’s not just New Zealanders though. Check out the loud-and-proud statement on Modern Times Fortunate Island: “Does the word ‘wheat’ on a can of craft beer make you assume it’s some insipid macro-beer analogue? A tepid, entry-level beer that’s ‘nice’ at best? Well, those would be incorrect assumptions in this case. Wildly, shamefully incorrect. Fortunate Islands is bursting with citrusy, tropical hop aromatics because we dry-hop the bejejus out of it with Citra & Amarillo hops. It tastes like wizards.”
I don’t know when exactly wheat beers developed such a negative reaction. Perhaps it was the bubble-gum/banana bombs of the 1990s, but in craft-beer-years that was decades ago. Now there’s a lot of creativity happening at the intersection of Hops and Wheat, hidden behind labels like White, Pacific, Blonde.
From one direction comes the White Pale Ale styles. Take a traditional Belgian Wit recipe – wheat, Belgian yeast, possibly some coriander and orange – then pour in the New World hops.
It’s a simple enough innovation and it can work well, combining refreshing carbonation with spicy yeast and hop flavours. New Zealand examples are easy to find: Bach Brewing Witsunday Blonde IPA 5.6%; Moa Southern Alps White IPA 6.4%; Panhead Whitewall WPA 4.3%.
Approach the Wheat/Hops intersection from the other direction, and styles become more varied. In this group you get a variety of Pacific Ales, combining New World hops with a combination of wheat and pilsner malts to produce refreshing, sessionable beers that don’t scare the lager drinkers.
Stone & Wood Pacific Ale 4.4% (Byron Bay, NSW) is the pioneer of the Pacific Ale style. It’s Galaxy hops are distinctly Australian, and the moderate alcohol and strong carbonation make it an attractive alternative to a mainstream Aussie lager. I first tasted it on a thundery Brisbane afternoon, and it works.
North End Brewing Super Alpha 5% now describes itself as Pacific Pale Ale. It’s New Zealand hops (Pacific Jade, NZ Cascade, Motueka and Super Alpha) give distinct NZ pale ale tones combining with a hint of coriander.
Modern Times Beer Fortunate Islands 5% (San Diego, Cal.) describes itself as “Hoppy, Tropical, Wheaty” and “shares the characteristics of a hoppy IPA and an easy drinking wheat beer”. The Citra and Amarillo hops give it that distinctly US-hop tropical fruit aroma and make it a good Northern Pacific variation on the style.
Sawmill Brewing Co. Crystal Wheat 4.5% takes a different approach, starting as a Pacifica-hopped lager built on 50/50 pilsner and wheat malts. Filtered clear and with a big white head, it gets a point for stating “Wheat” in big letters on the label.