There are so many wonderful micro, craft, and imported beers available that it is easy for even the biggest of beer geeks to get confused from time to time. Even though 98% of the beers can be classified as ale or lager, both include a wide variety of beers, creating dozens and dozens of sub-sets. Because of this, it can be difficult to know the difference between a witbier, a hefeweizen, and an American pale wheat ale. And even within the American pale wheat ale sub-sub-category, there is a wide range of options.
Let's take, for example, three APWA's that I have consumed on tap in the past month: Goose Island's 312 Urban Wheat (from a recent trip to Chicago), Bell's Oberon (recently reviewed here), and Three Floyd's Gumballhead. (the subject of our most recent review). Three beers with the same classification, but three beers with completely different identities.
The 312 Urban Wheat is a fine beer that is perfect for better-beer beginners. You ever go to a microbrewery that doesn't serve the big domestic trio (Bud, Miller, Coors) and hear a waiter or bartender say, "You should try our Beer X...it's just like Bud Light". That's what 312 is to Goose Island, in my opinion. It's a very light colored, light bodied beer without any identifiable flavors in it. It's an ale pretending to be a lager. It's at the low end of the APWA spectrum and would probably garner a 2.5 mug rating from me.
Now take Bell's Oberon, which I gave a 4 mug rating to back in April. It is still an easy drinking beer but with more depth and flavors than the 312. It is more complex and has more flavor. An exclusive Big 3 drinker would have to take a bigger step up to get to this beer compared with the 312. It's the sort of beer that this beer geek keeps stocked in his beer fridge and doesn't fear sharing with non-beer geeks.
Which brings me to Gumballhead, the American Pale Wheat Ale from Three Floyd's in Munster, Indiana. I should say right off the bat, I'm no stranger to Gumballhead. But this is the first time I've had it one tap. And we all know that beer on draught and beer in a bottle has different characteristics. It pours with a cloudy, light amber appearance. The beer wasn't over carbonated, which is not surprising from a bar whose manager really knows beers, so the pint didn't pour with a huge head. The aroma was a mix of citrus fruits, juicy and sweet. And, if you are in the right frame of mind (as Jim was), you would even swear that you could smell bubble gum. I'm sure that's completely unintentional. In terms of taste, it has a great wheat taste without the wheat aftertaste. There are a number of fruity hints. And a fair amount of hop bite to it without being super bitter. Like Jim, I give this beer a 4.5 mug rating. Gumballhead is close to being a Hefeweizen, which American Pale Wheat Ales are descended from.
Oh, as for the difference between a witbier, a hefeweizen, and an American pale wheat ale, let me share how I understand them. Witbier is a Belgian Ale that is heavy on wheat and often spiced with coriander, orange peel, or other flavorings. If you moved the Witbier to Germany, removed the added flavorings, you'd have a strong Hefeweizen. Now take the beer to America, use yeasts that don't add the banana and clove flavors found in Hefeweizen, and you have an American Pale Wheat Ale.