PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The average U.S. beer drinker doesn't know what a witbier is. Ask them what a wheat beer is, however, and there's a good chance the answer will be Blue Moon.
The hazy, cloudy, coriander-and-citrus concoction that's become a summer favorite here in the U.S. and has worked its way into the catalog of brewers including Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) , Boston Beer's (SAM) Samuel Adams and the Craft Brew Alliance's (BREW) Redhook existed long before Blue Moon came to be, but owes that brand a great deal of gratitude -- as do many small brewers and members of the craft beer community for whom Blue Moon served as a gateway between light lager drinkers and more complex beer styles.
It wasn't until Pierre Celis single-handedly revived the witbier after centuries of dormancy in 1965, when he began brewing it in his barn in the Belgian town of Hoegaarden, that witbier came out of a more than 400-year slumber. The yeast in witbier that's 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 provision, witbier's standard combination of wheat, bitter Curacao orange peel, coriander, sweet orange peel and only a slight touch of hops is a no-no.
Celis' recipe turned into Hoegaarden White Ale and sold more than 300,000 barrels at its peak in 1985, when a fire engulfed its brewery and forced a cash-strapped Celis to sell to giant Belgian company Interbrew. That company is now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev and is the reason jelly-glass tumblers of Hoegaarden can be found in outdoor restaurant spaces and beer gardens across America. Undaunted, Celis moved to Texas and opened his own craft brewery just outside Austin in 1992. His Celis White was good enough to get Celis a buyout from Miller and introduce witbier to a generation of craft brewers.
Three years after Celis debuted his white, however, Coors (TAP) brewer Keith Villa formulated Blue Moon while working at the company's on-site brewery at the Denver home of Major League Baseball's Colorado Rockies in Coors Field. Not only was it well-received during the initial craft beer boom in the early '90s, but it's still growing in popularity today. Amid a recession that sent light lager sales plummeting, Blue Moon sales rose 26% in 2010 and anther 19% a year later, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Of the 20 beer brands that make up 72% of all beer sold in the U.S., Blue Moon is the only one that's not a light lager.
Though slurred as "crafty" by the Brewers Association craft beer industry group and often ridiculed by craft brewers themselves, Blue Moon is often beer drinkers' all-important first leap from the comfort of their favorite mass-produced can into the broader beer spectrum. If you've drunk witbier, you can handle a hefeweizen. If you can hack that, you might try a Berliner Weisse and some raspberry or woodruff syrup. If you're comfortable with that in your beer, you could be persuaded into a tart lambic. From there, you could kick it up to a stronger tripel or abbey beer. From there, you'll be ready to drink a Trappist brew such as Rochefort or the evasive Westvleteren 12.
If you take that path, congratulations! You just went from Blue Moon to some of the best beers in the world in five steps and it wasn't a very difficult trip. It's the wonder of an expanded palate and, depending on what a drinker enjoys most about Blue Moon or other witbier, it can go off in several directions. Like the citrus flavor? That's the first step on the pale ale trail to an Imperial IPA. Like the cloudiness and spice? Welcome to wheat doppelbocks such as Germany's banana-flavored Aventinus. Like the refreshing mix of all of the above? Step into a saison and see if that suits you.
The only problem presented by a Blue Moon is where to go next. Craft beers and imports have been the answer more often than not, but the mean, mocking cool kids from both of those ends of the beer aisle should be a bit friendlier if they want to keep reaping Blue Moon's benefits. MolsonCoors has grown wise to Blue Moon's effect on business and has built an entire "craft" division -- Tenth and Blake -- around it. After all, why let beer snobs who hate you cull your customers when you can redirect them to a Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss or Summer Shandy or a Third Shift amber?
Until Tenth and Blake broadens its offerings a bit, there's still a window of opportunity for smaller brewers to woo beer lovers who are just getting into wheat beers. The following are 10 examples of wheat beers well-suited to folks testing the boundaries of their beer tastes and looking to take the next baby step beyond Blue Moon:
Alcohol by volume: 5%
A year before Blue Moon made its debut, Allagash founder Rob Tod set up shop in Portland, Maine, and began making one of the first American takes on this Belgian import. His witbier and its long, slender glasses that are now ubiquitous in his core New England market all draw a direct lineage to Celis and his White.
"The first one I ever tried was the Celis White, when Pierre Celis was still brewing it in Texas," Allagash's Tod told us two years ago. "That's what turned me on to the style. And though our white is different than that white, I love that white and remember exactly how it tasted and the mouth feel."
Nearly two decades later, Tod is still brewing his flagship witbier with the same basic formula. His mix of a whole lot of wheat spiced with coriander and Curacao orange peel remains just as refreshing as it was when he began, but even Tod admits that simple recipe is deceptively difficult to brew consistently. That cloudiness hides a lot of complexity.
"Can you just bang a witbier out? Yeah," Tod says. "But to make it consistent and have that delicate balance between the spices and the character of the wheat, to make it cloudy and get that texture and look, it's a tough beer to make."
St. Bernardus Wit
Alcohol by volume: 5.5%
If you're going to start experimenting with Belgian styles, it helps to try one from Belgium every now and again.
In the case of St. Bernardus, a Blue Moon fan will get a bit of everything they love about that beer multiplied by about 20. It's carbonated with a bit more pressure than mass-market witbier, which makes it crisp and surprisingly smooth without being overwhelming or gassy.
The mix of coriander and anise hits right away with a flavor like clove and a scent almost like citrusy pine -- no, oranges and lemons don't grow on pine trees, but trust us, it makes sense. The flavor, meanwhile, is incredibly tart but smooth. The folks at BeerAdvocate liken it to lemon meringue, but key lime pie or the lemon custard filling from a doughnut would fit as well.
The stumbling point of this beer is that, unlike Blue Moon or some of the other brews listed here, it's likely not going to be available in the beer aisle or at the average packaged-goods store. It's going to require a trip to a beer-specific vendor or bottle shop and a bit of bravery on the part of the drinker. Don't fret, the shops' staff typically have far less bite than the clientele and are there to help out. They won't be able to knock down the price -- which could result in sticker shock for those unfamiliar with Belgian imports that aren't Stella Artois -- but they might let you just buy a sample bottle and recommend something similar if it proves cost-prohibitive.
Alcohol by volume: 5%
Considered a must-have witbier in American craft beer circles, this behemoth from Japan's Kiuchi Brewery enhances the original Belgian recipe in all the best ways possible.
The coriander gets a little added spice from a hint of nutmeg. The sweet orange peel is supplemented by orange juice. The result is a a witbier a bit more intense than the average and far more flavorful than training-wheels beers such as Blue Moon and Shock Top.
Kiuchi's been cranking this out since 1996, and the consistent quality of the White Ale keeps its U.S. adherents coming back every summer.
Alcohol by volume: 4.5%
While not an impossible find -- it was kicking around as recently as last summer -- the Blanche De Brooklyn from brewmaster Garrett Oliver's Brewmaster Reserve series is an intentionally rare breed.
What's special about it? Other than the fact it has all that coriander-and-orange witbier goodness? Well, Oliver's just slightly good at his job and managed to get his witbier down to a manageable 4.5% alcohol by volume. To the craft beer kids, that's flat-out "sessionable," which means you can drink more than one without getting out of hand in a hurry.
When you're trying to enjoy a refreshing beer in 90-degree heat, sessionability's not such a bad quality to strive for. If it appears again -- which isn't completely out of the question, but a tough proposition for what's supposed to be a one-off beer series -- maybe Oliver will be kind enough to can some of it.
Alcohol by volume: 5%
Namaste comes to drinkers in capped wine bottles and tastes just a touch grassier than some of its coriander-and-orange cohorts, but little that founder Sam Calagione does adheres to script. Namaste was born at the Calagione family dinner table, when Sam asked his wife and kids what kind of beer they'd like to make and what it would be called.
"My kids were 7 and 9 at the time and I forget their goofy answers, but my wife had just done yoga that morning and she loves wheat beers," he says. "She said 'I'd love a Belgian white style made with lemongrass that I'd like to be called Namaste,' which at the end of yoga practice means 'the spirit in me recognizes the spirit in you.'"
Inspired by a friend at 3 Fonteinen brewery, which lost one-third of its total production to a power outage the day after his wife's suggestion, and with the help of a brewer from the Birra de Borgo brewery in Italy, Calagione went about making "a very off-centered white beer." Instead of sticking to the standard Curacao orange peel-and-coriander formula, however, Calagione found an organic petrified orange in his travels and threw the dried peel's flesh into the mix to produce more sugars without losing the orange aroma.
Though production of Namaste increased somewhat last year, it's still available in limited supply and can be a tough find in certain corners of the country. That said, its mild alcohol content and dense flavor make it worth tracking down.
Alcohol by volume: 5.2%
Up in Astoria, Ore., summer is a rare commodity. When the sun does shine and the tourists drop by to see the house from The Goonies, the sea lions on the dock and the train that runs along the wharf by the old canneries, that's when Fort George's Quick Wit works its magic.
One of the few witbiers served in 16-ounce tallboy cans, Quick Wit is otherwise tough to distinguish from other wits. It's pale, cloudy, unfiltered and packed with wheat. Generally nothing out of the ordinary.
It's the ingredients list that separates it from the pack. A combination of organic pale and wheat malts, ground coriander, organic lemongrass in place of orange and wild-crafted elderflower wipes all the bitterness right out of this wit. Meanwhile, there's just enough spice to let the palate wander a bit as drinkers consider another can before losing the sunlight.
Alcohol by volume: 5.2%
It may be from the same town that's considered the birthplace of America's national pastime, but Ommegang and its Witte are as Belgian as it gets in this country.
No, seriously. Back in 2003, Belgian brewer Duvel Moortgat bought Cooperstown, N.Y.-based Brewery Ommegang and its Witte witbier less than a decade after Ommegang opened in 1997. To this day, it's the one brewery in America that can rightfully claim Belgian lineage.
With that comes incredible pressure and responsibility, but Ommegang has proven itself up to task. It sticks to the straightforward wheat/coriander/sweet orange formula and goes so far as to serve it in a Hoegaarden-style jelly glass when visitors make their way up to Cooperstown. From a brewery that's modeled itself after a Belgian farmstead and ages some of its brews in barrels at nearby tourist spot Howe Caverns, that's about the most you can ask.
Alcohol by volume: 7.5%
Like your witbier but really want to see what's up with those hops all the craft kids are raving about?
Well that's firmly in Lagunitas' wheelhouse, and the Petaluma, Calif.-based brewer is up to the challenge. While more an American wheat beer than a true wit, Little Sumpin' Sumpin' has that pale wheat appearance but is loaded down with hops that give it a citrusy bite more akin to an IPA.
Let the pinup on the label serve as a warning: This isn't just some ballpark Blue Moon. This is one aggressive wheat beer that can be really fun and bitter if you come to love hops, but comes with a high price at 7.5% ABV if you're not used to a brew that potent. Approach with caution.
Alcohol by volume: 5.6%
American wheat beer admittedly doesn't have a great reputation. At times, it undercuts its original Belgian or German recipe and becomes a, no pun intended, pale version of a better beer.
Three Floyds brewers seem incredibly self-conscious about that fact and loaded its Gumballhead with Amarillo Hops and a generous portion of American red wheat. Those hops hit a drinker right in the nose, as do traces of grapefruit, lemon zest, marmalade and peach. That's somewhat fruity, but it also cuts into the hop bitterness that's ill suited to what's supposed to be a more citrusy beer. That combination took this brew out of Three Floyds' seasonal pile and made it a year-round offering.
As for the name, Gumballhead isn't nearly as sweet as that would suggest. It's named in honor of the underground comic book cat created by Rob Syers. Consider that your summer reading.
Alcohol by volume: 5.8%
Even a fairly mild Blue Moon can be a bit of a turnoff to someone used to their daily lager.
Where a witbier is somewhat lacking in subtlety, Bell's Oberon wheat ale is a bit milder and a nice middle ground for folks having trouble making the adjustment. Spicy hop character and mildly fruity aromas combine with malt to make a smooth, easy-sipping summer brew that's just wheaty enough to hang with witbiers, but benign enough to ease the transition from yellow fizz.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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