I was browsing the beer section* of our local Kroger the other day, trying to see beyond the endless supply of crap domestic macros, when, for a moment, the dark clouds parted. Wedged in among those behemoth 24 packs of Busch and Bud and Blatz were a few lonely six packs. How quaint they looked, and how overmatched. My heart sang an little, aching lament.
One in particular caught my eye, a wheat ale crafted in Bloomington, Indiana by the Upland Brewing Company--a worthy enough sounding prospect. Since Alex and I recently relocated to the Hoosier state I thought it appropriate to open this journal with my first authentic Indianan microbrew. I forgave the uninspired label and grabbed a sixer. The box touted the beer as a "classic rendition of the Belgian Wit Beer." Upland's wheat, according to the label, was a gold medal winner in the 2002 Great American Beer Fest in the category of Herb and Spice Beer. I gladly plopped $8.50 down for six bottles.
I was excited, yes, but also wary. I love a good wheat beer, and I love a good microbrew, but the combination of the two is quite often unsatisfactory. Nearly all well-established small breweries offer some form of wheat beer nowadays, be it a Belgian white or German Hefeweizen, and I marvel that a brewery can craft an array of wonderful beers and then fall so short in the category of wheat. A good Belgian wheat, or white, is a complex blend of herbs and spices and should explode with manifold flavors in the mouth. Still, so many American breweries produce what amounts to an insipid travesty of what Belgian monks perfected in the middle ages, or else we're treated to some obnoxious, typically American sort of Wildberry Wheat X-treme!!! When did beer begin to resemble breakfast cereal in this country? Personally, I think the monks had it right. What a little solitude and prayer can do for malted grain.
Anyway, I'm supposed to be talking about Upland Brewing Co. here and its own take on wheat ale. Now, with any wheat beer I first look for a healthy layer of yeast at the bottom of the bottle. Wheat beer should be cloudy, not clear. This is critical, because unfiltered yeast is where much of the flavor comes from, and what's more depressing than a clear and tasteless wheat? Nothing actually, and to my delight, Upland's Wheat Ale passed that first test with top marks. I trembled with excitement when I poured the ale and saw its color--a lovely honey-like golden orange. The head fizzed up and quickly vanished. Elation set in, but it was not to last. I took a whiff and there met my first disappointment. Instead of an otherworldly fragrance typical of the best wheats, my nostrils detected something citrusy and weak. I braced for heartbreak and raised the glass.
My worst fears were realized with the first sip. Lemon, of all things, dominated from first to last. While by no means bland, my tongue sought complexities that simply weren't there. Where were the herbs? Where the spices? All I found was a slight smack of alcohol and lots of lemon, which came and went and left no real impression. Even the aftertaste was hardly discernible. This was a beer without depth, without soul. You wouldn't sit down with a friend and discuss the work of James Ensor over an Upland Wheat Ale. This is the kind of beer that you drink--nay, quaff--after mowing the lawn. I was horrified to learn on the company's website that, in their tasting room, the wheat ale is served with a wedge of orange. Orange! The last thing this beer needs is more citrus. I mean, is this beer or Five Alive?
In short, Upland Brewing's Wheat Ale raises high your hopes but in the end is little more than a refreshing summer ale. Will I try the other beers that comprise their product line? Naturally, but, sadly I cannot in good conscience recommend the wheat ale.
Official McBone Rating: 2.0 McBones.
* As Purdue's school year approached, I found it funny that Kroger created massive displays of student essentials--dorm carpets, mini fridges, and cheap domestic beer.