For a variety of reasons both valid and otherwise, wheat beers don’t always get a ton of respect or even attention from the Craft Beer Movement’s™ leading blowhards, cheerleaders, and listiclers. The category’s association with the high-end Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors brands are likely its gravest sins: ShockTop and Blue Moon are the best-selling wheat beers in America by a combined factor of infinity-plus-a-six-pack, and while neither of those beers are as repulsive as their reputations among the craft set would have us believe, they also ain’t exactly good.
Purists and pedants refer to the ShockTop class of beer as “crafty,” and while I hate to get bogged down in the definitional games that take up too much valuable drinking time among members of the Movement, I must concede that the label carries a clever dual meaning. These beers roughly resemble some of the more basic shared characteristics of craft beer, in that they usually don’t flat-out suck and tend to represent styles other than American adjunct lager. But “crafty” is still intended as an insult, as it also refers to the sneakiness of Big Beer marketers trying to trick common lay drinkers into thinking they’re upstanding members of the craft collective.
That’s a pretty shitty reason to be dismissive of all wheat beers. If you need to insult another brew in order make the one in your own mug taste better, then it’s time to take either your tongue or your priorities in for a tune-up. Here’s a less dubious but still not so hot reason: Most subspecies within the broad wheat category don’t lend themselves to extreme alcohol contents, barrel-aging, or elaborately staggered hopping regimens.
German hefeweizens and Belgian witbiers are the two most popular styles in America, and both call for low hop dosages, which allows the signature grain and specialty yeast to do most of the talking (along with orange peel and coriander in a lot of the Belgians). This is great, because yeast is a very cool and often overlooked element of the brewing process, but I must confess that the only traditional wheat beer I can remember covering on Drunkspin was Bell’s Oberon, and that was to mock it. The Drunkspin staff is currently cooking up a Wheat Beers, Ranked post to be unleashed on the hottest day of the summer (i.e., when the style is at its most useful), but that sad fact is we haven’t seen fit to feature many wheaties on their own.
Today, however, we are unleashing the wheat, albeit a slightly berserk, highly adulterated version that bears little resemblance to the category’s standard-bearers. Lagunitas Little Sumpin Sumpin is 7.5 percent alcohol-by-volume and hopped to the gills, and the brewery’s marketing material outright admits it’s a wheat beer intended to appeal to IPA-heads. That’s kind of cheating. The fact remains, however, that Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is wicked fucking good.
It pours a pretty, clear gold with a wheat beer’s telltale fluffy white head. (Wheat has much more protein than barley, which affects the beer’s structure and texture in complicated science-type ways that manifest most obviously as a big head.) The aroma opens with a sweet, almost honeyed note along with bubblegum and clove from the yeast, but the dominant sensation is big, citrusy hops. It smells like lemons at first, but then grapefruit arrives a couple sips into the show, and some dry pine resin arrives by closing time.
The wheat doesn’t contribute a ton of noticeable flavor outside of a pleasant if generic sweetness. Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ is primarily a showcase for hops and yeast; if it were released today rather than in 2009, it would almost certainly be billed as a white IPA. But nevertheless, it is an excellent beer made with a lot of wheat, and I highly recommend you drink three bottles of it tonight after work.
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Image by Jim Cooke.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.