There’s no more apropos time than the depths of February to drive home the point that wheat beers can be much more than a summer quencher.
Wheat beers are one of the classic family of styles from Germany, where they’re known as weissbier. The best known of these variants is the esteemed hefeweizen, the golden, foam-dolloped sip of sunshine that just tastes like a beer garden in June.
But there’s a traditional style of weissbier for just about every season. In fall and early winter, the dunkelweizen, which incorporates dark malts into the grain bill, satisfies.
Late winter on the continent is traditionally doppelbock season, and while that Teutonic titan is a lager that is traditionally brewed only with barley malt, it also has a weissbier analogue. The weizenbock melds the brownish malts and high alcohol content of doppelbock with the wheat and distinctive yeast of the weissbiers.
That last element is a critical factor of what makes weissbier weissbier. Belgian-style witbiers or more hop-forward American wheat beers may have the 50% or higher wheat content in the grain bill like a weissbier, but they use Belgian or more standard ale yeast strains for fermentation.
Traditional weissbiers use yeast strains that produce a host of unmistakable flavors and aromas. These compounds — esters and phenols often compared to banana, bubblegum, clove and sometimes smoke — are most singular in the light hefeweizen (literally yeast wheat), but they are forward in the darker and bigger weissbiers as well, interplaying with the darker malts and higher alcohol in interesting ways.
This leads us, of course, to the weizenbock. There are two archetypes of this style — one dark, one light, and both German, of course. The pale weizenbock Vitus is a relative newcomer in the world of German beer, introduced in 2007 — albeit by the oldest brewery in the world, the nearly 1,000-year-old Weihenstephan. On the dark side Aventinus was first brewed in 1907 by Schneider Weisse, the Bavarian brewery that traces its roots to 1607 and is credited with keeping weissbier alive during a major shift in customer tastes away from the yeasty treat in the 1950s.
The latter is a seminal beer at Madison’s Great Dane Pub & Brewing — really one of the reasons any Dane beers as we know exist today. Brewmaster Rob LoBreglio says Aventinus is “the beer largely responsible for getting me into brewing.”
So naturally the Dane holds this style close, and for more than two decades it has offered its dark weizenbock, (deep breath) John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt’s Dunkel Doppel Hefeweizen Bock, as a seasonal at its brewpubs.
This year, it’s hitting the market in cans for the first time — the first of a string of several classic Dane beers coming in cans this year. Next up in March is Old Glory, an American pale ale that I feel like I drank by the gallon years ago. It’s been a while, though, and I’m interested to see how it holds up to my palate today.
The idea is to give people a chance to bring some of these familiar beers home. I hope this trip down memory lane includes a couple dark beers that often find a way into my glass during my Dane visits: Emerald Isle Irish stout and Black Earth Porter.
“We’ll always continue to experiment with new recipes — that’s what we love to do,” LoBreglio said. “But we’re lucky to have a deep bench of beers, which is why we want to put the spotlight on so many fan favorites that hadn’t made it onto shelves quite yet.”
The opening of the beer archives comes as the Great Dane has a new distribution network, the flagship of which is Madison-based Frank Beer Distributors. Great Dane’s distro partner since it began canning in 2015 was Breakthru Beverage, whose Wisconsin arm left the beer distribution business last fall.
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt’s Dunkel Doppel Hefeweizen Bock
Brewed by: Great Dane Pub & Brewing, which has pubs Downtown, at Hilldale, in Fitchburg and on the Far East Side, and in Wausau.
What it’s like: JJJSDDHB is inspired by Schneider Weisse’s Aventinus, but how do the two truly compare? Aventinus is smoother and just feels more cohesive — age could be a factor, as the trip from Europe takes some time, versus a just-canned beer over here — but the two have a remarkably similar profile. Fans of Madison’s Giant Jones will also note that one of brewmaster Jessica Jones’ first beers was a weizenbock.
Where, how much: The tallboy four-packs of this big beer cost around $13 and your best bet (as always!) is at the more specialty independent bottle shops. By the way, the label uses the acronym primarily, so don’t be confused by its now-common string of letters on beer packaging; this beer is definitely not double dry-hopped.
Booze factor: I don’t think anyone’s going to rush this beer, but if the complex flavor profile and beefy body don’t slow down your sips, John Jacob’s 7.7% ABV should.
Up close: JJJSDDHB pours a murky reddish-brown; I find the deeply hazy look of weissbier far more visually appealing in the lighter hefeweizen palette than the kind of turbid-looking dunkel strains. Nevertheless, JJJSDDHB’s nose rebounds nicely with a comely banana bread sweetness, a touch of caramelization and a spicy, almost cinnamon-like overnote.
And a sip reveals the full realization of dark weizenbock: The classic weissbier yeast profile transposed on the rich, deep malts of a doppelbock. It’s a little fruity, a little funky, a little spicy, and it has the doppelbock’s characteristic alcohol bite standing in place of hop bitterness on the finish. As with many big, complex beers, it’s best to let this one warm to nearly room temperature. Rich, full-bodied and carrying at least some of the vigorous carbonation of its hefeweizen kin, John Jacob is a fascinating dive into a relatively obscure style.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of 5)