PORTLAND, Maine ( MainStreet) -- Sixteen years ago, Rob Tod was traveling to any place with a tap handle to convince bartenders and managers that the cloudy, yellow concoction he was pouring for them was a drinkable beer. Consensus was he was nuts.
Today, that cloudy, clover-and-citrus-flavored brew makes up 70% of annual production at Portland-based Allagash Brewery, and his Allagash White flagship beer is just one of many Belgian-style witbiers on the U.S. market. It's permeated mainstream America's kegs and coolers in the form of MolsonCoors' (TAP) Blue Moon, Anheuser-Busch InBev's (BUD) Shock Top and Boston Beer's (SAM - Get Report) Samuel Adams White. It's serious business for craft and corporate beer alike this summer, but Tod says it was as foreign to most Americans as Flemish when he founded Allagash in 1994.
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"We could not even give that beer away when we first started making it," Tod says. "Very few people were drinking Belgian-style ales, very few people were drinking Belgian-style witbiers, and I used to walk into bars all the time 14 or 15 years ago with a sample and the first thing bartenders would say was 'What's wrong with it?"
What's "wrong" with witbier is that the yeast allowed to float around and give it a hazy color disgusted brewers adhering to the Reinheitsgebot, the German brewing purity law enacted in the early 1500s that limited beer ingredients to water, barley hops and, begrudgingly, yeast after some prompting by Louis Pasteur. Under that uptight provision, witbier's standard combination of wheat, bitter Curacao orange peel, coriander, sweet orange peel and only a slight touch of hops is about as pure as driven slush. Though some craft brewers originally prided themselves on strictly following Reinheitsgebot -- Boston Beer founder Jim Koch even used it as a marketing device in the early days of his Samuel Adams Boston Lager -- beer purity eventually started to seem prudish."Unlike wine, where wine is just so unilaterally one combination of things -- grapes and water -- American craft brewers in particular are proving that the limits of a beer are only up to a brewer's imagination," says Sam Calagione, founder and owner of Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery, which brewed its first witbier, Namaste, just two years ago. "Since we opened in 1995, we've included the whole spectrum of culinary ingredients into what we'll consider putting into beer, so we don't feel stilted at all and, if anything we're just really psyched to see other brewers play outside the Reinheitsgebot lines."