The Session #45 : Wheat Beer Love and Money

Nemsis of Beer Taster has decided to take us back closer to the original roots of The Session, and asks us to write about Wheat Beers.

While Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing is about 1,500 miles away from my home, it’s one of my favorite breweries. I’ve enjoyed several of their beers, such as their Single Wide IPA, their Bully Porter, and sampled a few releases of their acclaimed Smokestack Series. However, the most unquestionably important beer in Boulevard’s line-up is a beer I’ve never tried. It’s their humble Unfiltered Wheat Beer, which comprises about 70% of their sales. Four days out of each five-day work week, Boulevard’s brewery is bottling or kegging this brew. I’m not alone in ignoring Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat Beer. Check out Boulevard’s Beer Advocate profile , and you’ll find a mere 5-10% of the total Boulevard Brewing beer reviews are of its Unfiltered Wheat

I must confess to not finding many Wheat Beers, at least those brewed in the United States, all that exciting, and many other beer geeks seem to share this opinion. Wheat beers appear on a lot of brewery’s beer line-ups seemingly as “transition beers”, for that guy who faithfully drinks Budweiser who got dragged into the brewpub one night by his friends. Or even more derisively as “chick beers” especially when fruit is added to it, since wheat beers do provide a good base for flavor experimentation. But the dirty secret is that most of the non-beer geek population, as well as a few beer geeks hiding in the closet, generally prefer to drink something light and refreshing with good flavors going in it, rather than dealing with an onslaught of bitter hops or roasted malt. And selling “chick beer” or “transition beers” is good big business, as MolsonCoors will attest with their successful Blue Moon Belgian wheat beer brand.

And since Boulevard’s owner John McDonald is both a businessman and a brewer, I expect he cares rather deeply about his wheat beer, and is quite grateful it pays his bills, giving him the freedom to experiment with all the sexy barrel aged stuff we beer geeks tend to swoon over.

Is Boulevard unique as a craft brewery which relies heavily on wheat beers for their main source of revenue? Well, maybe. But since I am a mere beer blogger hobbyist, and not a paid brewing consultant, I’m not really in a position to do much scientific research on the subject. So instead, I did the next best thing, which is go to a beer festival, drink beer, and shoot the shit with various brewers and brewery staff about their wheat beers.

And so I learned at a recent San Francisco Bay Area beer festival that 21st Amendment sells lots of their refreshing and innovative Hell or High Watermelon Wheat over the summer, especially when the San Francisco Giants are in town, since their brewpub is close to their stadium. Talking to the folks at 21st Amendment about this, nobody could actually say how much of their total revenue was due to Watermelon Wheat, but “lots” , “plenty”, or “well over 50% when it’s hot” were their best guesses. At the same beer festival, I learned Thirsty Bear’s Valencia Wheat, an excellent Belgian Wit Beer with a California twist, is a pretty heavy hitter in their line-up, accounting for about 20-30% of their sales and their third biggest seller.

There was one brewery I spoke with that claimed to make very little money on their wheat beer. It’s one of my favorite breweries in the San Francisco Bay Area and they’ve brewed plenty of well respected beers, but seemed to treat their wheat beer as some sort of bastard child in their line-up. And I found their wheat beer rather uninteresting, like a Saltine cracker without the salt. I can’t help wondering if they gave their wheat beer a little more love, attention, and creativity, they’d be a lot more successful with it.

As a craft beer drinker and more than casual observer of the craft beer industry, let me draw on these experience to give this unsolicited advice to craft brewers everywhere: Love your wheat beer, and it will pay you back.

A few observations from Brews on the Bay

The Brews on the Bay beer festival, hosted by the San Francisco Brewers Guild is a pretty simple concept. Each member of the guide sets up a few taps along the deck of the S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, a World War II era supply ship permanently docked to a pier in San Francisco’s Fisherman Wharf. Before you climb the stairs to enter a ship, they give you a plastic cup. For four hours, you walk around to the various brewer stations on the ship’s deck, and ask the servers to fill your cup with one of their selections on tap. When you get tired of walking around the ship, drinking beer, and enjoying great views of San Francisco from the ship, you leave. Or, 5 pm rolls around, and they kick you the ship. Oh, and there was a Van Halen cover band this year, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

It’s a good opportunity to see what the many great San Francisco breweries are up to. And like any good beer festival, there’s a few brewers around, most of whom will gladly tell you about there beer, and are also good for picking up a home brewing tip here and there. A while plenty of breweries poured there tried and true brews, there were enough specials and seasonals pouring to make it interesting. Here’s a few random observations from that afternoon.

21st Amendment poured their new Imperial IPA, Hop Crisis. One would think the Bay Area needs another big Imperial IPA like most people need another hole in their head, but if you tasted this one, you’d likely disagree. It’s big and powerful, with a strong strong hop vibe, but makes it work is its sturdy malt character that provides a good balance and almost viscous mouth feel to this brew. 21st Amendment plans to release it in four-pack cans this coming spring. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be looking for it.

Social Kitchen & Brewery made their Brews on the Bay debut. I was rather fond of their Rapscallion, a pretty intense Belgian Ale with a zippy ginger-like aromatic spiciness and light apricot notes. Their Big Muddy Weizenbock has plenty of roasty malt, some banana-like esters, and a little clove like spicy vibe to it. I need actually go to their brew pub and actually purchase some of their beers.

-Also enjoyed Rum Runner from Thirsty Beer. It’s got a lot of molasses in it, as well a 120L Crystal Malt, and British Aromatic Malt. It’s lightly sweet, malty and molassessy. (Is “molassessy” a word?) If you ask me, molasses in beer is way under rated, and I’ve got to love a beer with “Runner” in the title.

Since I’m having some problem with my camera, I decided to use a picture for last year’s Brew’s on the Bay, just in case anyone would actually notice.