SUMMER HAS returned and so, I'm surprised to report, have Bavarian-style wheat beers.
Surprised because, for a while there, it was looking like American brewers couldn't make a warm-weather refresher that wasn't hopped out the wazoo. Lately, even when the Americans have dabbled in wheat, it was only as a means to unleash yet another hop monster, the so-called white IPA.
But as Philly gears up for another run of the three H's - hazy, hot and humid - it can cool down with the fourth H, hefeweizen.
A batch of new, locally brewed hefes showed up in bottles this summer. And, unlike many American-made hefeweizens of the past, the newbies are all quite respectable knock-offs of the distinctly aromatic originals from Bavaria.
The most notable of the new breed is Yuengling Summer Wheat, which hit the shelves in April and was greeted with instant acclaim. It's the first wheat beer from America's oldest brewery, and it completely breaks the Pottsville flavor mold.
Gone is the familiar sweet corn of Lager, the hint of caramel in Porter. Instead, we're treated to the spicy aroma of banana and clove, and creamy, full-bodied refreshment with a bite of lemon in the finish. It is so different from anything else made by Yuengling, you'd swear it was brewed somewhere else - perhaps Baden-Wurttemberg, the family's southwest Germany ancestral home.
The reason is basic chemistry: Yuengling fermented this beer with a different yeast (the "hefe" in hefeweizen) than its usual house variety. Unlike its typical lager yeast, this strain produces high levels of compounds called esters and phenols that smell and taste either fruity or spicy.
Introducing a new yeast type into the brewery was a big step for a conservative operation like Yuengling. Its reluctance to use different strains partly explains the brewery's slow development of new seasonal brands.
Yet this beer's reception should embolden the company. Online rating sites already have it ranked as Yuengling's No. 1 brand, and the stacks at local distributors are close to bottoming out. While I'd guess that's at least partly due to its value price ($6.99 a sixpack, around $25 for a case), this is nonetheless a fine hefeweizen.
See how Summer Wheat stands up against one of the area's other formidable hefeweizens - Stoudt Heifer-in-Wheat, Sly Fox Royal Weisse (available in convenient cans) and, especially, Neshaminy Creek Highwater Hefeweizen.
Now in its second year in 22-ounce bottles, the wheat from Croydon, Bucks County, is as polished as they come. Neshaminy Creek's brewmaster, Jeremy Myers, credits its complexity to a decision to ferment the beer at a relatively cool temperature.
"We get more of the banana esters at a low temperature, but not too much of that phenolic clove flavor," he said.
Cloudy, full-bodied, flavorful and refreshing - it's exactly what you want in a hefe.
But, as I said, there are other wheat debutantes on the racks this summer:
_ Victory Mad King's Weiss. This one's actually been around for years, but only on draft. This season, it makes its debut in a 22-ounce bomber, so you can enjoy it on your roof deck.
This hefe seems to have been brewed with the American palate in mind. It's a bit stronger (6.2 percent alcohol by volume) and hoppier than typical for the style, and those telltale banana and clove flavors are fairly blunt.
_ Susquehanna So Wheat. The unique German-made brewhouse in Pittston was put to good use with this unfiltered beer. While its flavor is not as bold at either Yuengling or Victory, I wouldn't call it subtle, either. Pour it into a tall glass for an attractively foamy head, or just guzzle it from the bottle. This one's a keeper.
_ Evil Genius I Love Lamp. You might miss the brand name's goofball reference to Steve Carell's brain-damaged character in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," but there's no mistaking that flavor: It's pineapple.
The West Grove brewery figured the tropical fruit would mesh well with this hefeweizen's banana flavor. Instead, I find it tamps it down lightly with an acidic tang. Still, it's comfortably refreshing. I like it because it's not sweet or overbearing.
Also, it's not a hop bomb, which makes this - and all hefeweizens - a welcome change of pace in the summer of '14.
"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.