This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
In the last year, I wrote a few pieces in a quasi-series I’ve called “Endangered Beer Styles,” focusing on classic American styles that were once ubiquitous, but have since become much less common. The first two entries in said series were on non-adjunct, non-imperial American stout, and classic American amber ale, both styles that were once almost universal brewpub staples but are now few and far between, especially from younger breweries. A style I haven’t hit just yet: American pale wheat ales, but after revisiting Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat that piece may find its way onto my to-do list.
Suffice to say, “American wheat beers,” or “American pale wheat,” depending on your nomenclature, are those class of beers that were essentially the American brewer’s appropriation of German hefeweizen, sans the highly estery, fruity and phenolic German yeast strains. Instead, American pale wheat beers are made with clean-fermenting, neutral American ale yeasts, which put the focus of flavor on the grainy, bready character of wheat malt, and often the supporting player of American hops, although a yeast character may still be present as well. In general, though, American pale wheat ales have a tendency to be less fruity/spicy and a bit easier drinking than their European cousins, which made them an extremely popular, approachable style for fledgling American craft breweries in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, at a time when easy-drinking ales were the pillars upon which the craft community was built.. If you stepped into an American brewpub in the early 2000s, it would have been a shock not to see some form of American pale wheat ale.
Although American pale wheat ale was a popular style, though, no brewery embodied the popularity of that style more than Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Co. Along with its co-flagship, the classic Boulevard Pale Ale, Unfiltered Wheat was the beer that built Boulevard into a Midwestern regional powerhouse, quickly becoming its number one mover. It gave the brewery a stylistically distinct offering to build its identity around, in a field of breweries that were far more likely to have flagships that were pale ales, amber ales, lagers or IPAs. In the same mold as a brewery such as Allagash, the success of Unfiltered Wheat also filled company coffers enough to make experimentation a reality, directly leading to the development of other classics such as the influential Tank 7 farmhouse ale, or the company’s expansive line of barrel-aged beers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, recent years have posed more of a challenge for Unfiltered Wheat. The American pale wheat style, like so many other easily approachable former brewpub staples, has been reduced in visibility as drinkers have gravitated toward more bombastic (and typically less balanced) flavors, especially within the ever-evolving confines of American IPA. Today, Unfiltered Wheat still makes up a third of Boulevard’s overall volume and a quarter of its revenue, but volume losses in recent years make it safe to say that the brand has really needed a shot in the arm, as Boulevard has experienced the same difficulties also felt by other large, regional breweries such as Boston Beer Co., Great Lakes or New Belgium. Boulevard, in response, has looked to new marketing partnerships for the beer to rekindle interest, signing a deal with budding star MLB player Whit Merrifield (the Royals, naturally) to promote Unfiltered Wheat, as well as a series of TV ads. It’s a more proactive sales approach toward a product that could probably once have been said to “sell itself,” but also an indication of how much harder it’s gotten out there to move classic American beer styles in 2019-2020, especially when you’re competing against 8,000 other American breweries.
With all that said, let’s re-taste some Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat.
Tasting: Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat
First, let’s revisit how Boulevard describes this particular beer: “Unfiltered Wheat Beer is a lively, refreshing ale with a natural citrusy flavor and distinctive cloudy appearance. This easy drinking American-style wheat beer has become our most popular offering, and the best-selling craft beer in the Midwest.”
One can’t help but wonder if “best-selling craft beer in the Midwest” is still accurate after a few years of volume declines, and the continued growth of IPA, but the rest of the description is dead on. This series of flagship re-appraisals really won’t be featuring many beers that are distinctively hazy, for obvious reasons, but Unfiltered Wheat is an exception to that rule, looking more or less like a modern hazy IPA or pale ale in the glass. One might even say that these types of beers ultimately helped modern IPA overcome the hurdle of strangeness they initially faced for being opaque.
On the nose, Unfiltered Wheat is distinctly grainy and bready first and foremost, with a moderately “doughy” quality and hints of lemon citrus and a sweetness that evokes a little bit of vanilla. Although they’re not really a hallmark of the style, I’m also getting a bit of fruity esters, including perhaps just a hint of the banana you’d expect to pick up in any classic hefeweizen, although obviously nowhere near so pronounced as it would be in a German wheat ale.
On the palate, this feels like one of the few times I could condone someone calling a beer “rustic,” as Unfiltered Wheat calls to mind rural/farmlike impressions, like chewing on a strand of wheat. Grainy and bready flavors and mild residual sweetness give way to lemon citrus and vanilla once again, with a bit more ephemeral fruitiness that reminds me slightly of pear, finishing with a bit of anise-like spice. Bitterness is pretty much absent—unlike American pale ales of the day, these beers weren’t really meant to carry a bitter edge, unless they were “hoppy wheats” in the mold of Three Floyds Gumballhead. Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat is much closer to the platonic ideal of American pale wheat ale that was seen in almost every brewpub of the era—a characterful but easy to drink pint that thrives on the inherent flavors of its base malt, and a natural companion to pub grub.
It remains to be seen whether things like TV ads and MLB partnerships can help nudge drinkers back in the direction of more subtle and balanced beers like Unfiltered Wheat, but the product (now in cans!) is as steady and reliable as ever.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.