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Monday, July 06, 2009

Sierra Nevada Kellerweis

Few breweries have had such a clear brand identity, unruffled by the passing waves of trend, as Sierra Nevada. It is the quintessential American ale brewery, offering a cohesive family of beers that started out near London and ended up in the fresh hop fields of the American west. So solid and consistent is the brand that the release earlier this year of an IPA--never mind that it was perfectly consonant with the Sierra Nevada Tao--was a big surprise. Sierra Nevada releasing a new year-round ale? Amazing!

If that registered a 4.9 on the Richter scale, consider their newest beer the Big One, a 9+ San Francisco-razing shocker: Kellerweis, an authentic Bavarian hefeweizen (and also slated to be a year-round beer). This really is a major departure. Not only is the beer distinct in style, but it's a pretty big change in terms of brewing. Before we get into the tasting notes, have a look at the beer's bio, provided by SN:

Several years ago, the brewers began working with a unique Bavarian hefeweizen yeast strain unknown in this country.... For years the brewers weren’t satisfied with the beer; something was missing. In a flash of inspiration, an epic trip was arranged. The brewers took a whirlwind tour through the legendary Bavarian wheat breweries to see what they were doing. It was there they realized the advantages of making wheat beer using the traditional system of open fermentation.

Sierra Nevada had been making a portion of their beer using the difficult and labor-intensive technique of open fermentation for years.... After seeing the technique in use in Germany, the inspiration to make Kellerweis in the open system took hold.

In the six-pack I picked up last week, the brewery included a bookmark with some info about the beer, including a remarkable photo of a brewer scraping off a billowing pillow of meringue from an open tank. The visual drove home the huge departure this beer represents for a brewery with no history of German brewing. This ain't no pale ale.

Tasting Notes
Two words are inevitably used to describe Bavarian weisse beers: banana and clove. And they are indeed notes one typically finds, but I think they mislead. Rather, what defines this style is the combination of fresh wheat and balancing acidity. The banana and clove are flavor notes emerging from the fermentation of the beer--thanks mainly to the wheat--which produces more phenols (the source of these notes). Absent the lovely wheat and effervescent, tart character, the phenols would be regarded as off-flavors. In a good weisse, they're an expression of the style.

(Widmer's version, incidentally, is not brewed to style despite the name. Although it looks the part, Widmer Hef is brewed with an alt yeast strain and lacks all these markers I've mentioned. Like many early takes on traditional styles--one could include Sierra Nevada's version of a pale ale--it deviated substantially from the inspiration.)

Kellerweis is an effort to stay mostly true to the style. It hits all the hallmarks--a cloudy yellow orange (the haze is yeast), frothy, and sporting an expected clovey aroma. Successive deep sniffs reveal the wheat. Yet it is also distinct. The nose isn't that clovey; the more you smell and taste, the more you notice an insistent lemon note. The flavor, likewise, tends toward the dry and sophisticated more than the funky and clovey. It tastes highly attenuated to me; if not for the fullness of the wheat, perhaps it would have been overly so. It is appropriately tart, but here is where it heads toward dry rather than sharp. Finally, there's a distinct almond note riding along, and once you notice it, you find it in the nose.

I give the beer generally high marks, though I find it slightly more austere than I might like. The traditional versions are so approachable they are sometimes called "breakfast beers." You wouldn't want a glass of Sierra Nevada's with your Wheaties, though--it's more suited for a hot afternoon. Well-made, tasty, and distinct. As with all Sierra Nevada beers, there's a lot of skill and effort in this beer.
Malts: Two-row pale, wheat, Munich
Hops: Perle or Sterling
IBUs: ABV: 4.8%
OG: 12.8 Plato
Yeast: Bavarian hefeweizen strain
Available: Year round
Rating: B


  1. agree with your review. thanks for not drooling all over it like many other beer writers lately. it's good, but has its flaws. SN just can't seem to make a great hot weather session ale.

  2. Wow a REAL Weizen beer! What a concept! You mean they didn't keep it all hazy and call it a Hefe Weizen?? Who would do something as stupid as that?

  3. Nice to see they are doing things the right way as per style etc... I went looking for it today, but came up empty handed... grabbed a 6'er of Bridgeport Haymaker Extra Pale Ale instead... quite liked it...

    Jeff.. you should check out Salmon Creek Brewpub up in Vancouver... they brew almost everything open topped... and have some mighty fine Belgians now.

    SN is a bit inconsistent for me... the Pale is blah... my first Torpedo 6'er was crap... the second was quite good... LOVE the anniversary ale.. hate the celebration... its all over the place... but you gotta love their distribution.

  4. As for Dr. Waurt... so what about style... I like a good Widmer pr Pyramid Hefe every once in awhile... they are great -American-Hefe's... they brewed good tasting summer session brews! Get over it and keep home brewing your 'true-to-style' German wheats...

  5. Jim, I'd call SN pale a pretty decent hot weather session.

  6. First off, I am a huge fan of Beervana. Thanks for putting so much time and thought into BEER.

    It is probably petty to mention, but the following is not really corect:
    The banana and clove are flavor notes emerging from the fermentation of the beer--thanks mainly to the wheat--which produces more phenols (the source of these notes).
    It is the yeast strain itself in combination with fermentation temperature which determines how much phenol and ester character is contributed to a beer. It would do the same with a beer made from all barley. The wheat addition leads to a lighter/drier beer and can also contributes proteins with add to the haze appropriate to the style.

    Anyway, I am excited that a big brewery is creating a 'real' hefeweizen!


  7. Jeff,

    I wondered if someone was going to mention that. I will confess that I'm not a chemist. I did a bit of research to determine what caused phenols in beer, and found reference to the production of guaiacol being a function of the conversion of ferrulic acid--found in greater concentrations in wheat than barley. The guaiacol is responsible for the clovey quality.

    Sorry, I can't find the source just now, though.

    Anyway, that's where the comment comes from. I've been wrong often enough on this blog that I no longer feel too bad when I botch something. In fact, it's useful as a way of learning.

  8. It's false advertising to call an "American Wheat" a Hefe. Hefe means true German Hefe, created with the right strain(s) of yeast. Banana and clove. It ain't got that, it's an American Wheat (which can be good on it's on right).

    BTW, it's typically banana vs. clove coming from the yeast, but the fermentation temperature is what drives one to be more abundant than the other.

  9. After leaving a comment about the role of wheat in wheat beer I began to worry that may be I responded too soon and that there could be more to the story. I posted to and got some interesting replies.

    Hopefully this isn't too techy and somebody finds it interesting...

    -Jeff O