Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bottled Michigan: Bell's Oberon

I have come to embrace the concept of the seasonal beer. Certain beers just taste better when accompanied by specific weather conditions; a warm fire during a blizzard calls for a stout, freshly mowed grass and a muggy afternoon calls for an IPA, and crisp autumn days punctuated by flashes of bright crimson and saffron leaves demand a balanced brown ale. Additionally, one cannot deny the fact that the old cliché, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” holds a lot of weight when speaking of seasonal beers.



Without sounding like too much of a hipster, Bell’s Oberon has been a household name since before it was cool to drink craft beer. Before someone accuses me of pushing up my nerd rock glasses and claiming that I was in on the ground floor, I should mention that Oberon – originally brewed as Solsun – came out in 1992, right before my 11th birthday. The name wasn’t changed until later, when a giant Mexican brewing company decided Solson was a little too close to their beer, Sol. Rather than fight, Bells renamed the beer after a Fairie King present in one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Oberon is too mainstream for Hipster Cat.

After 19 years of innovation, what does Oberon bring to the table? The beer pours a pale gold, with just a hint of sediment floating lazily through the glass. Sunlight dances through the beer and comes out the other side looking more like summer than it did going in. Aromas of orange/lemon citrus waft from the glass; the beer tempers the classic smells of summer with a residual malty sweetness, burying any harshness one might expect from an IPA. There is no booze smell rolling from the glass, simply a lightness accompanied by memories of summers past.

The taste is sunshine. I realize I’m just paraphrasing the bottle itself (“An American wheat ale with the color and scent of a summer afternoon”), but damned if the marketers didn’t hit the nail on the head. Light citrus dances on the palate, encouraged by just enough bitter hops flavor to keep the sweetness in check. Oberon pours at 5.8%, and keeps its alcohol flavor in check. There’s no booze flavor to blurry up a sunny day, just fresh hops and wheat with a kick of citrus and a comforting fresh bread taste from the malt.

There were two drinks that got me hooked on craft beer: New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk and Bell’s Oberon. I drank them before I knew just how far the horizon on craft beer stretched. Perhaps that is why I always go back to the bottle with a smiling sun on it for a warm spring or summer day. I will tell you honestly: Oberon is not my favorite beer in the world. It’s not even my favorite Michigan wheat beer. Yet despite that, I’ve had more Oberon this spring than any other Michigan beer. I reach for it instinctively because Oberon represents something more than a single beer. It’s my gateway beer – not only the gateway to Spring, but the gateway to craft beer in general. For that, it deserves to be held in very high regard indeed.

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