IN THE AMERICAN MIDWEST, few indicators of summer’s arrival are so dependable as Bell’s Oberon Ale. When that orange orb of a tap head and crooked sun sketch of a logo start blossoming around town, it seems so perfectly natural that acknowledging it becomes almost redundant. Its mini-kegs invite themselves to your evening patio parties and are deemed ‘just the thing’, even though none would have comment on their absence.
As with other American Pale Wheat Ales (Goose Island’s 312, Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat, most ‘Summer-[suffix]es’), Oberon is based on the German Hefeweizen. The use of New World yeasts to dial back the banana esters so characteristic of the archetype while retaining the smooth palatability of a wheat-heavy grain bill and a fairly neutral palette for further development. A common flavor substitute is a dose of citric hops (as is America’s wont), landing the beer somewhere between a Hefeweizen and an APA without the most prominent characteristics of either. It simply fits.
Oberon is a textbook case. It pours a cloudy orange (nearly like the fruit rind) with a small lacy head that subsides into an atoll of yeast deposits. The nose is softly intriguing: some light phenols, orange zest, a little lemon, and pepper beneath neutral grain flakes. On the palate it is very smooth, a little full up front, with carbonation sitting just beneath the surface of the mouthfeel and dispersing efficiently into a clean and orderly finish. A light swell of grapefruit about halfway through is Oberon’s one hidden asset; playing this card more boldly might have turned it from a diversion into a dependable trump. The aftertaste develops some bitterness as it warms, showing both its 5.8% ABV as well as more of the yeast character. The percentage of wheat in the mash supplies enough body to keep its final impression quite level, though, and from end to end Oberon can be summed up with the irritatingly common bromide of ‘mild yet flavorful’.
Admittedly, this kind of equivocation is more reminiscent of macro-brewed lagers trying to have it both ways without actually having either. But insofar as it’s possible Oberon does have it both ways and deserves credit for making the most of an arguably losing proposition. Perhaps its obvious inclusion in so many summer events is because of this inoffensive mutability: mild enough to succeed with only sunshine as its complement, flavorful enough to balance barbequed meats sweet or sour, and well-rounded enough to be welcomed by all. Naturally, this flexibility is also the beer’s Achilles’ heel, as it fails to be indispensable to any one of its willing drinkers. But it’s summertime, after all, and the living (should be) easy.
Served: 12 oz bottled 6/14/13