There's little debate over the beers that are driving the growth of craft beer in Australia. They're beers with hops to the fore: pale ales, XPAs and, increasingly, IPAs. Yet, take a look at the last five Champion Beer winners at Australia's two largest beer competitions – the Australian International Beer Awards (AIBA) and The Indies (previously the Craft Beer Awards) – and you'll find beers of a rather different ilk winning over the judges.
At the latter, it's been a hat-trick for lagers – Little Creatures Pilsner in 2016, Dainton Brewing's Cherrywood Smoked Rye Baltic Porter in 2017 (OK, this is a far cry from your common or garden lager, but technically...), then Mismatch Lager in 2018. As for the past two AIBA champs, it's been a pair of traditional wheat beers: White Rabbit's Belgian witbier style White Ale last year and then, in May, Beerland Brewing's take on the Bavarian Kristallweizen, a filtered Hefeweizen.
No one is going to deny the popularity of lagers – for all that the rise of craft beer styles is changing the local landscape, pale lager is still the behemoth that bestrides the beer industry – yet wheat beers on the other hand... Who's drinking them? When was the last time any beer nerds among you had a discussion about your favourite banana and clove delivery system or the subtle delicacy of a good wit? As a good friend of The Crafty Pint, an avid and broad drinker, once said: "I can tell that's a good Hefeweizen. But I'm never going to buy it."
So, not to put too fine a point on it, just what is wrong with wheat beers?
If Australian brewers are making excellent ones, why do they remain unloved, gathering dust on the shelves? (Unless, of course, we're talking about American wheats, which use a high proportion of wheat but in combination with "clean" yeast strains that deliver none of the banana, clove, coriander and other esters of the European styles. Or, indeed, Berliner weisse and gose, which have leapfrogged their peers in terms of popularity with beer geeks due to their sour nature and brewers' willingness to throw all manner of fruits and other additions at them.)
But back to the matter at hand: when was the last time you heard someone say Hefeweizen was their favourite style?
You certainly wouldn’t hear it from Lachlan Toose. Lachlan is a long-standing fixture in Melbourne good beer circles and can regularly be found enjoying myriad beer styles at St Kilda’s Local Taphouse. But, when it comes to a Hefeweizen or Belgian witbier, Lachlan doubts he could even work out the last time he ordered one.
“I have no problem with them when I think about it, I guess,” he says. “Hoegaarden (pictured above right with a couple of classic Bavarian wheat beers) was one of the first 'boutique beers', as they were known in the early 2000s, that I had, and then had again, and then made other people drink. It was different and interesting and came in fancy glasses.”
Lachlan says part of the reason he isn’t drawn to wheats is that the yeast-derived flavours like banana and clove aren’t a natural draw for him. But he believes wheat’s malaise might also be the result of the style’s relative inflexibility.
“I'd say one reason that they haven't transferred so well into 'craft' culture is the relatively thin lane they have to stay in to be considered well made, similar to pilsner,” he says.
“They can either be made to ape Schöfferhofer and Hoegaarden and therefore dismissed as inauthentic clones or boring homages, or they can widen the parameters, add 'modern' ingredients and then lose the original point.
“Also, from a practical point of view, consuming them away from a pub is also a pest. Lively carbonation makes drinking from a bottle or can difficult and unpleasant. You don't want to faff about at a barbecue, beach, park or music festival with a branded glass to let you pour the 'perfect head'.”
Lachlan would appear to be in good company. At Perth’s Mane Liquor, home to one of the widest collections of beer in Australia, Elliot Moore sets aside little space for such beers. He says the number of local breweries producing them is shrinking and the only beers selling consistently are those from Germany's Weihenstephan.
“A traditional wheat beer we’ll stick away from most of the time, even from the guys who have won awards,” Elliot says, adding that sour beers with a high proportion of wheat, Berliner weisse or gose, sell well.
“They’ve gone crazy,” he says. “So, you could almost say the evolution of wheat beer into the sour style has been very successful, but the classic style of wheat beer has fallen off in a big way.
“In the very experimental, aggressive style of beer market now it doesn’t really deliver in those big flavours. Sour beers scratch that sour itch, hoppy beers scratch that hoppy itch but what do wheat beers scratch?”
He says Mane’s customers are often younger drinkers whereas wheats often appeal to an older demographic.
“I think the younger drinkers are wanting something different and new all the time and wheat beers haven’t been able to change with time.”
Elliot points to the increasing number of limited releases from breweries now, including the greater number of GABS beers that have been packaged compared to previous years. With social media and apps like Untappd playing an important role in the way some drinkers buy beer, he suggests brewers potentially aren’t doing enough to keep wheats relevant.
“How many wheat beers can you think of that have really insane labels? Nobody’s really trying to appeal to that market,” he says.
“If people drop it, that also creates that snowball effect. They become less available, less people see it on the shelves, less people buy it and it falls off pretty quickly.”
One traditional wheat beer to fall away is Hargreaves Hill's Hefeweizen, which first appeared in the brewery’s core range back in 2006 but was dropped, along with their Golden Ale, when they rebranded earlier this year.
“We had moved it into the smallest tanks at the brewery,” he says. “To my mind, it wasn't going into trade fresh enough because of the rate of sale that we had and it simply wasn’t selling enough to justify brewing it.”
Simon says he remains a fan of the style, having fallen long ago for Weihenstephan’s Hefeweizen.
“When they are done well, the ester profile gives them such a full mouthfeel and they have this sweet tasting ester but it’s a very dry beer,” he says.
Yet, though his Hefe had its fans, the style has plenty working against it, from drinkers not knowing how to pronounce the name to modern dietary trends.
“We’ve talked about it at the brewery and one of the things we consider is the idea of wheat’s association – more so than barley – with gluten," he says. “People are becoming more sensitive to their intake of gluten, whether they are coeliac or not. There’s certainly a dietary trend and we’ve seen that in our restaurant too, people are trying to avoid eating and drinking too much gluten.”
One beer still being brewed and consumed is the 2017 AIBA Champion Australian Beer; White Rabbit's White Ale (pictured at top of article) is the brewery’s second biggest seller. Despite that, head brewer Jeremy Halse knows the beer market isn’t kind to wheats.
“Our marketing team looks at research,” he says. “Wheat beers are definitely part of a shrinking beer category – a very small shrinking part.
“But, personally, I don’t understand why; you look at them and just visually they look really quite appealing. Often, they can be a bit cloudy, which might have been a bit off-putting for people previously, but we are seeing lots of beer becoming cloudy these days.
“They are typically soft, malt flavoured beers, very low in hops so they aren’t too bitter; they are very approachable, very sessionable, great for summer and very refreshing. In a very good, well balanced beer nothing’s sticking out like a sore thumb.”
But does being well made matter?
“There’s definitely a disconnect between what is being judged and what judges are looking for and what people’s perceptions are and what they want,” Jeremy says.
In Freising, Germany, drinkers do want wheat beers. It’s there that Weihenstephan brews beers regarded as exemplars of the style; their various wheat beers make up some 80 percent of the brewery’s production. Export director Marcus Englet has made regular trips to Australia to collect AIBA trophies in recent years and says their wheat beers appeal to drinkers across Germany despite their association with Bavaria.
“[It’s] more in the south than in the north part of Germany, but it [has become] available anywhere these days. But, in general, there is no real classification for Weihenstephan wheat beer drinkers as the taste profile of the beer appeals to many different people because it is easy to drink.
"In most of the export markets, wheat beer is a niche product and has to be explained to new consumer groups: why is it cloudy, why does it taste like banana even though that there is not real fruit added to the beer.”
Marcus adds that, while some modern craft markets favour other characters in their beers, there’s plenty of regions of the world that are drawn to those found in traditional wheat beers.
“It is obvious that hoppy flavours drive the overall beer market in many parts of the world but not in all of them, for example Asia," he says. "Therefore, I think that balanced, sessionable beers like wheat beers never will become extinct.
“Areas like Asia, where the consumer is used to balanced, not so bitter beers, wheat beers still have a lot of potential.
“A market that we were really surprised regarding [the] success of wheat beers is Israel: it’s a young market regarding [consumption] and the wheat beer is a style that meets the demand.”
Even in Germany the popularity of wheat beers had declined, only to enjoy a revival towards the end of the last century. Marcus suggests that had more to do with breweries consolidating and brewing practices changing than drinkers' tastes changing.
So where does that leave such beers in Australia?
Jeremy believes there could be a cultural factor that hurts the wheat beer category and that, if a broad section modern craft drinker isn’t interested, they just aren’t interested. Yet, in America, Blue Moon, the Belgian style witbier brewed by MillersCoors, is the country’s best-selling beer that isn’t a lager.
A misunderstanding of what drinkers are buying could be part of the problem. Many of Australia's most popular beers that aren't lagers – light-coloured, hoppy ales – could be categorised as American wheat beers. Among such beers was Green Beacon's Wayfarer Wheat, a beer that has been renamed Wayfarer Tropical Pale Ale because the "Wheat" tag was putting off customers.
“If people flat out don’t like wheat beers then nothing we do or say can change that,” Jeremy says. “But the more we can educate people about what these beers are might help, because they have been around a very long time."
As for Simon, he says: “I think it’s going to be a while before it gets to a place where venues are really going to want to chuck it on tap. I suppose that demand's really got to come from the drinker.”