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.
Statistics
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
Jeff Alworth9 Comments