The plan was to brew a barley wine. One day during the mid-’80s, Phil Moeller met up with a friend to make a batch of that strong, warming winter ale. But a blunder occurred. Too much wheat went into the mash. Before the beer swirled down a drain, samples were poured. “As all brewers do, they drank their mistakes and found it delicious,” says Glynn Phillips, who owns Sacramento, California’s Rubicon Brewing Company, where Moeller became the first brewmaster in 1987. To celebrate the brewery’s first anniversary, in fall 1988, Moeller revisited his delicious gaffe.
Relying on a heavy measure of wheat, Moeller made a rich, brawny ale with a surprising caramel complexity that tipped the scales at more than 10 percent ABV. Despite the heft, Winter Wheat Wine was surprisingly, even dangerously easy-drinking. “In the early ‘90s we used to sell pitchers of the Winter Wheat Wine,” says Scott Cramlet, Rubicon’s brewmaster since 1990. “I’m sure there were some righteous hangovers back then.”
Since wheat wine’s accidental birth, the intriguingly malleable style has steadily gained a toehold in craft breweries’ lineups, becoming a lighter but no less warming barley wine alternative. In Michigan, Short’s Brewing Company makes its Anniversary Ale with blood orange zest and green peppercorns, while New Hampshire’s Smuttynose Brewing Company ages its Wheat Wine Ale with oak chips. In Missouri, Boulevard Brewing Company has taken the name of its Harvest Dance Wheat Wine literally, formerly adding grape juice when bottling the beer. And what started as an annual fall release for Rubicon has blossomed into a year-round staple.