In Southern Germany, Laurelweizen would be a breakfast beer.
An opaque and golden brew, Laurelwood's Bavarian wheat ale is a cold, bubbly cocktail of banana and clove—a glimmering, mostly authentic example of the extremely quaffable pale wheat ales perfected by German brewers over the past several hundred years. In Munich, the style often doubles as a second breakfast, with locals enjoying a half liter of the stuff with some veal sausage or a pretzel around brunch time.
But a couple years ago, when Laurelwood's former head brewer, Vasili Gletsos, first told fellow brewer Shane Watterson he wanted to create a traditional-style hefeweizen, Watterson was skeptical.
"How do you expect us to do that, exactly?" recalls Watterson, now head brewer at Laurelwood.
Even now, regardless of the consistently tremendous results Laurelwood has enjoyed brewing the style, Laurelweizen is perhaps the brewery's biggest technical triumph.
Laurelwood, like most craft breweries in the United States, has an English-style brewing system, designed to hold the mash of each ale or lager at a single temperature for extended periods. But to brew a German-style wheat ale the traditional way, the brewers needed to hit multiple temperatures over time, which, according to Watterson, "our mash tun is not built for in any way, shape or form."
"It's a beer that we shouldn't really be able to make," the bearded brewer says, chuckling at his desk inside a makeshift plywood office above the brewhouse while two staff brewers work below.
From the initial idea to the first successful pour, it took a while for Gletsos and Watterson to leap the hefeweizen hurdle. And there are still some bumps they will never be able to iron out, due to the layout and equipment at the 15-barrel brewpub.
Years after the first batch, each shift brewing Laurelweizen takes about four hours longer than normal.
By now, the brewers have learned to expect the mash tun to clog about a quarter of the way into draining into the kettle, at which time they have to shovel it around to get it to drain.
But they make it work. They use boiling water to sweep through proper temperature ranges, boil, cool and pitch a borrowed German-style hefeweizen yeast from the folks down the road at Occidental. By the time the beer hits taps a little over a week later, it is perfectly fresh—a bready glass of wheat beer that stands up to the finest commercial examples from around the world.
Watterson counts the beer among his proudest achievements at the brewery.
Laurelweizen doesn't sell better than hoppy beers or keep better than dark ones; it is not an ale that rewards its brewers with massive sales or overwhelmingly positive responses in the market. But, for people who know about the style, it's a must-drink, a tasty homage to brewing heritage that doesn't go unnoticed.
"The brewers really love drinking this stuff," Watterson says. "The Germans got that right."