The bartender draws the luxurious, cloudy golden liquid from the tap. Just before he hands you the pint, he reaches down and plops a slice of lemon on the edge of the glass. What's going on? Did I accidentally order iced tea?
One sip, and you know it's not tea. This is a slightly thick beer, with a light snap of flavor that dances across the tongue. It doesn't feel overpowering, but it pleases the mouth as much as it does the brain. Try the beer without the lemon, as an experiment, and it becomes a little heavier, slightly harsher. The lemon clearly serves a purpose, but how does it work?
To find out, we turned to an expert, one of the three brewing honchos at the St. Louis Brewery, James "Otto" Ottolini. Otto knows beer like Whitey Herzog knows baseball. Give him a starting point -- in this case, the question of lemons in Hefeweizen -- and he can expound for an endlessly fascinating hour on the subject at hand with dozens of digressions.
Just one example of a really interesting digression before we find out more about Hefeweizen: "When you carbonate a product, you put in the gas carbon dioxide," Otto explains. "Carbon dioxide bonds with water to form carbonic acid. Carbonic acid doesn't like normal conditions. It likes things to be cold and things to be higher than atmospheric pressure. Once you pop the top or pull it out of the keg and put it in a relatively warm environment -- that of our atmosphere, which is rich in nitrogen and oxygen but not carbon dioxide -- the laws of nature state that all the carbon dioxide inside the bubbles in the head wants to become part of the atmosphere outside the beer. So one tiny little bubble says to another, 'Hey, you want to get married? Let's break down and form a bigger bubble.' And the bubble gets bigger and bigger until it pops."
Really, Otto could write a book, and he probably should. Anyway, Hefeweizen is a German name for a wheat beer, but the American recipe isn't exactly the traditional one. It turns out that American microbreweries were all discovering the ease of making an unfiltered wheat beer, and they figured that was close enough in spirit to the German Hefeweizen to give it that name here. It was a matter of adding a level of exoticism to the product.
Putting lemon in Hefeweizen is a regional practice that has caught on in St. Louis, largely because the Tap Room bartenders did it often enough to get people used to it. Otto's interest in brewing beers comes from his love of cooking, which is a matter of combining flavors in different ways to achieve new flavors. Beer is a combination of sweet and sour acidic tastes, and the lemon dropped into a Hefeweizen is calculated to interact with the mixture.
"Think of it this way," explains Otto. "If you had a wine tasting, which is basically acidic, you would eat bread to soak up some of that acidic quality. Well, bread is a bunch of complex carbohydrates and starches, and beer is basically liquid bread, so you would want the reverse of that. You need something acidic. It's easy to get a slice of lemon -- to get the citric acid -- and toss it in there to balance some of those flavors. It freshens things up. It gives that zest, that little spark, that tang, that high note on the flavor. When you talk about perfume, the high note is what you're left with. You smell it, you experience it, you walk away from it, yet there's something there and it's not just the memory. It's the high note, what's left behind.
"That's why the lemon is there," he continues. "That's a damn good use for a slice of lemon -- to take something that is a fine, well-balanced beverage, yet that is a bit weighty on the palate, and simply lighten it up right at the point of consumption. It makes it lighter; it makes it more refreshing."
To which we can only say: "Bartender, we'll have another round."
-- Steve Pick