The Brews of Summer is a series spotlighting the area’s best summer beers.
Today, our beer is Bluejacket’s Pattern Skies, a 5.6% Bavarian-style weissbier.
Ro Guenzel can remember the first time he drank a bottle of fresh Bavarian weissbier.
There was nothing quite like it: the intensity of the bubblegummy esters; the robust effervescence, fueled by the addition of fresh wort (or speise) at the time of bottling; the bouquet of phenols from its open fermentation.
Sure, Guenzel had tried various American iterations of weissbier (known alternatively, and more commonly in the U.S., as hefeweizen), but they often felt like generic German wheat ales, devoid of flamboyance and only loosely connected to the style’s 500-year brewing tradition. He’d consumed weissbier imported from Europe, but these beers had invariably matured during the journey, their esters mellowing and a bready malt character growing stronger in turn. At that point, he’d even spent years making weissbier as an assistant brewer for the Vail, Colorado outpost of Kaltenberg Brewery, but there were limitations on the brewpub system, most notably its closed, conical fermenters.
In short, nothing Guenzel had drank before could come close to matching the vibrancy of fresh, authentic weissbier – a realization that came to him at 80 miles per hour, speeding down a German highway.
It was 2003, and Guenzel was visiting Bavaria, the home of Kaltenberg Brewery, for whom he still worked. Sorta. Guenzel’s Colorado brewpub was one of 13 worldwide operations, all owned by a German conglomerate, all executing the recipes of König Ludwig Schlossbrauerei under contract.
When he arrived in Munich, Guenzel was greeted by Kaltenberg’s brewmaster and his “BMW turbo diesel station wagon.”
“I get in the car, and he shoves a half-liter of weissbier between my legs and says, ‘Go ahead and drink that; it’s been a long day for you,’” Guenzel recalls. “So, we’re cruising down the Autobahn, and I’m drinking this bottle that’s straight out of the cooler, probably packaged the day before, probably brewed 10 days prior to that. It was a quick, speedy beer, and it was absolutely mind blowing.”
Guenzel would continue to expand his understanding of weissbier as he moved to another Colorado brewery, Left Hand Brewing, in 2004. At the time, Left Hand was still producing the beers of Tabernash Brewing, a short-lived but influential producer of traditional German styles that was subsumed by Left Hand in 1998. (A graduate of Germany’s Weihenstephan brewing school, Tabernash founder Eric Warner subsequently wrote the book on German wheat beers.) One of those beers was Tabernash Weiss, a weissbier that still carries a legendary reputation among those lucky enough to try it in the mid-90s, an era when weissbier barely registered in the consciousness of the average American drinker and breweries had to explain to patrons that the style’s haziness was a virtue, not a defect.
By the time Guenzel arrived at Left Hand, the brewery had already been tinkering with the Tabernash Weiss recipe, and it would continue to do so for the next three or four years. Eventually, the beer evolved into the bottle-conditioned Haystack Wheat, which was then replaced by the “hoppy-Hefe” Hopfenweiss – a reflection of the brewery’s gradual drift away from the classic German styles that Guenzel loves most. Still, after 11 years, he would leave Left Hand for Great Divide Brewing well versed in weissbier, and with a clear idea of the kind he would brew, if given free rein.
That’s the situation Guenzel has found himself in since March of 2017, when he joined Bluejacket as Director of Brewing Operations. Granted, the brewery trades heavily in hazy IPA, pastry stouts, and fruited kettle sours, but working in partnership with Greg Engert (Beer Director for Bluejacket’s parent company Neighborhood Restaurant Group), Guenzel has developed a formidable arsenal of traditional German lagers and ales.
“I would put our collection of classic German beers up against any other American brewery’s collection of classic beers,” says Engert. “Helles, Northern German pils, Southern Bavarian pils, dunkel, we have a maibock on draft in the summer, we make a festbier in the fall that’s probably my favorite lager that Ro has ever brewed. It’s part of a bigger aim of our brewery – to be able to make things like that.”
Naturally, weissbier has also become an integral part of this line-up, in the form of a beer called Pattern Skies. Unsurprisingly, the 5.6% brew is nothing short of exemplary: tempered aromatically, with masterfully balanced notes of banana, bubblegum, malt, fresh bread, clove, and peppery spice; spritzy in carbonation; rich on the palate but with a dry, refreshing finish. It’s a testament to the brewing processes and patience – the things that Guenzel has spent decades learning.
“Recipes are pretty straightforward with beers like this,” he explains. “If you’re going to make a weissbier, you use 50% pilsner malt and 50% wheat malt. Brewery to brewery, the quality of ingredients will change, the equipment will change, the process will change a little bit, but that’s about it. Technically, however, this beer is incredibly difficult to make. It’s a very old style, but there are a lot of little nuances that need to be done in order to get the product right. You can’t be sloppy.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Jeff Alworth in his colorful 2015 survey The Beer Bible.
“On paper, brewing wheat ales doesn’t look so hard; it follows fairly predictable steps, and doesn’t include any offbeat ingredients,” he writes. “But brewing weizen relies on a lot on biological processes (some that need to happen, some that never should), and managing them is the real trick.”
With Pattern Skies, it all starts with the mash (the point when, generally speaking, malt and hot water are mixed to stimulate the enzymes that convert starches and proteins to fermentable sugars). Like the classic German weissbiers, Pattern Skies undergoes a step mash, a process whereby the temperature of the wort is gradually raised with a series of progressively hotter water infusions, with rests between each. Doing so allows Guenzel greater control over the wort’s pH, and thus the activity of the enzymes.
To deepen the malt profile (and, according to Guenzel, to honor tradition), Bluejacket’s weissbier is decocted. A German technique, decoction calls for removing a thick portion of the mash, boiling it (effectively caramelizing it), then adding it back to the larger kettle. Further complicating the already tedious process, Bluejacket’s brewhouse was built for decoction… but not how Guenzel likes it, so uses a paperclip to manipulate the sensors in order to get a burner to come on and scorch the removed mash.
Pattern Skies is eventually fermented in a wide, shallow, open vessel, where exposure to oxygen allows the yeast to produce desirable characteristics, like the phenols that lend weissbier its distinct clove character, while blowing off other byproducts like sulfur. Guenzel favors a particular strain and further manipulates it – through pitch rate and then aeration – to soften its inherent banana character, which can often be overwhelming in the style. (He prefers those bubblegum phenols.)
Once the beer has finished primary fermentation, it’s transferred to a brite tank, capped off, and allowed to carbonate naturally. In contrast with “force carbing” (that is, adding extra CO2 to bring a beer up to optimal carbonation), natural carbonation leads to a softer mouthfeel and retention of subtle flavor and aromas.
“The texture is unparalleled,” observes Engert. “German brewers, much like the Belgian brewers we serve at The Sovereign, would think that force carbing is anathema.”
The beer isn’t dry, but it doesn’t taste overly viscous. It’s satiating and filling but not cloying.
“When I have some other examples of the style, it starts right, gets there, but in the end you’re left with this sticky residual on the palate that’s just not pleasant,” adds Engert. “Pattern Skies does everything: appearance, aroma, taste, aftertaste, texture. It really fires on all cylinders. And there’s a certain satisfaction in being able to brew a beer like this. Simple but really delicious beers are hard to make.”
Pattern Skies pours a golden hue, slightly darker than some of its contemporary counterparts. Despite Guenzel’s characterization of the beer as a simple 50-50 split of wheat and pilsner malts, the brewer also adds a charge of chocolate malt for color. He’s done this with all of his weissbier since visiting Munich’s Schneider Bräuhaus, where they once put the recipe for the iconic Schneider Weisse on the coasters.
Engert prefers Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, but for Guenzel, the nearly amber Schneider Weisse remains the style’s gold standard. In fact, during his Colorado days, the brewer had a bull terrier – “a Spud McKenzie dog, all white with a big head,” he says – named Schneider in the brewery’s honor. (Pattern Skies essentially splits the difference between the two favorites in its appearance.)
In Germany, Schneider (the brewery, not the dog) is credited with saving weissbier in the mid-1850s, when the popularity of lager and the German crown’s control over wheat almost erased the style from everything but historical record. Now, after five decades of growth, the rustic, bubbly beverage is the most popular style in Bavaria. It’s a near inescapable sight on a sunny day – or even as the sun is still on the rise.
“In the heat of a waning summer, when half the world seems to have taken off on vacation, a late-morning glass of wheat beer can be another sort of pleasurable departure,” Eric Asimov wrote in a 2012 New York Times article. “In Bavaria, home of the hefeweizen style of wheat beer, such refreshment is an essential component of the brotzeit, or second breakfast.”
This popularity has hardly been reciprocated in the U.S. With a few notable exceptions (Sierra Nevada and Live Oak, most prominently), there is paucity of traditional weissbier to be found at the national level. And looking at buzzy regional breweries (aside from perhaps Aslin, Tired Hands, and The Veil, who produce practically every style but notably without regularity), the majority pass over weissbier in favor of another fruity, spicy offering.
“If you told a new brewery, ‘In your portfolio, you’re not just going to make hazy IPA, fruited sour, pastry stout – you’re also going to make a wheat beer,’” says Engert, “then they’re obviously going to make a witbier and not weissbier at this point.”
Despite its meager representation elsewhere, weissbier has not struggled to sell within Bluejacket or other NRG properties. Produced year round, every three weeks, 10 barrels at a time, Pattern Skies is consistently in Bluejacket’s top five highest selling beers. (The brewery also distributes cans to a few select accounts, like Service Bar.)
“It’s a very food friendly beer,” observes Guenzel. “Of all the beers on tap, you could probably pair it with anything on our menu, and it would go really well.”
Even if it Pattern Skies didn’t sell particularly well, you get the feeling Bluejacket would find a way to keep it around. The brewery is noticeably proud – and rightfully so – of its weissbier. For drinkers accustomed to dull or unbalanced hefeweizen, their first pint of Pattern Skies can be just as mind blowing as one consumed racing through the German countryside.
Plus, Guenzel explains, the beer serves a vital purpose within the brewery. For the past 19 years, whenever a member of his brew team takes another job, he prepares a brewers breakfast with weisswurst, weissbier, and pretzels and sweet mustard.
“So, if a brewer ever leaves me,” Guenzel shares, “I need to make sure I have a weissbier on tap.”
And if we’ve learned one thing, it’s not to question his reverence of tradition.
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.