Inventing a style

What did wheat do wrong?!

What did wheat do wrong?!

Even 20 years after the big bang of the craft-beer revolution—when San Francisco’s historic Anchor Brewing Company underwent a relaunch in 1965—palates still remained timid and most brews thin, tame and yellow. Thus, the appearance of a dramatic style called the wheatwine right here in Sacramento, in 1988, was a remarkable event—and even today this brawny, tawny ale of high alcohol and a tremendous wealth of flavor may be too much of a mouthful for many beer drinkers.

The wheatwine is often categorized as a close relative of the barleywine, but, actually, the first wheatwine arrived as the result of a botched batch of Rubicon Brewing Company’s summer wheat beer. Brewed with twice the malt sugar as intended, the accidental beer measured about 11 percent alcohol, balanced by a sweet yet aromatic malt profile—and it would become an annual seasonal release. Expect it on tap in late March.

Twenty-three years after Rubicon’s happy accident, the wheatwine remains virtually unheard of outside just a handful of brewpubs nationwide. The Beer Judge Certification Program, whose style guidelines serve as an online reference bible for beer geeks, is only now working on a draft definition of the wheatwine—a document we had a look at and that describes a wheatwine as “similar to English barleywines, but with a grainy, bready flavor.” And the Great American Beer Festival, an annual contest in Denver, recognizes the style only as a subcategory of “Other Strong Beer.”

Scott Cramlet, Rubicon’s brewmaster, notes that boasting to have created a beer style sometimes brews controversy. A lighthearted feud, for example, has murkied the matter of where and when the first double IPA appeared.

“It’s a dangerous game to play in claiming the invention of a style,” Cramlet said, “but we’ve planted the flag on top of the mountain for the wheatwine.”

Nobody has challenged the declaration, and while Sacramento may not be the center of the expanding craft-beer universe, it’s here that a small star was born.