'GOING TO TRASH Anheuser-Busch again in your column?" my wife asked me as I sat at our kitchen counter with a smirk.

It's true, old Bud's an underdog in our household. But this day is different.

Beginning last fall, Anheuser-Busch, the world's second-largest brewer (after Inbev) began producing a series of first-rate seasonals. Some I've liked; some I haven't and — as my significant other points out — I often say so.

Spring is two weeks away and A-B has just released its newest seasonal: Spring Heat Spice Wheat. It won't be bottled. It's available through May, draft-only in bars and restaurants and the one place I've located it so far is an Applebee's in San Ramon.

This is an excellent, very drinkable wheat. I give it with one reservation.

From a company that makes the world's two best-selling beers, Budweiser and Bud Light, using a blend of barley and enough rice to qualify nearly as sake, Spring Heat Spice Wheat is most unusual. It's made in the ancient Belgian wit or white beer style.

Made at the A-B brewery in Fort Collins, Colo, it's 5.2 percent alcohol by volume, a blend of malted wheat and barley (no rice). Hops are citrusy American Cascade and mildly spicy Willamette hops with spicy imported Hallertau hops to finish. According to A-B master brewer Florian Kuplent, orange, lemon and lime peels are added to the brew, plus a touch of coriander.

Yeast, Kuplient said, is a "Belgian style.


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I asked him, "Did an A-B lab tech siphon off the yeast from a bottle of (Belgian) Duvel like homebrewers do?"

His e-mail reply: "We work with yeast collections around the world to obtain a vast number of different strains. These are stored in our yeast culture center in St. Louis where we evaluate and brew with them on a regular basis."

The beer pours with a large head of white foam. Unfiltered, it's a cloudy lemon color with a nose of wheat and yeast, perhaps a hint of apples. Like all A-B beers, the taste is smooth, well-rounded, a bit of citrus, with a crisp, mildly spicy finish and a lingering hit of coriander in the follow.

Here's my only problem with the beer: It's too drinkable. There are no edges. A single glass doesn't satisfy thirst. It's in no way filling. That's the devil of it. Sitting with friends in a friendly tavern, it would be easy to quaff several without a thought.

Of course, every brewer wants to sell beer, but the question is this: Is the goal to produce a great beer or is it to serve a beer that tastes just good enough to motivate the drinker to order another?

And the winner is ...

The winners at the Toronado Barleywine Fest held at the esteemable pub at 547 Haight St. in San Francisco last month were: First, Arctic Devil, Midnight Sun Brewing Co., Anchorage, Alaska, a 10 percent beauty with the aroma of oloroso sherry; second, Old Bluehair, Big Sky Brewing, Missoula, Mont.; third, Gnarlywine 2004, Lagunitas Brewing, Petaluma.

Also in the top 10 chosen by a panel of professional judges: John Barleycorn 2005, Mad River Brewing. Blue Lake; Odyssey Ale, Triple Rock, Berkeley; Old Stock Ale 2004, North Coast, Fort Bragg; Yo, El Toro Brewing, Morgan Hill.

Tornado is a must-visit for anyone who likes beer. Besides, where else in San Francisco can you suck in the ambiance of New York City's Lower East Side?

I managed to try everything but the top beer, which vanished within minutes of the announcement of the winners on Feb. 18. I loved Gnarlywine. It's always strong and a bit too sweet for me, when it's fresh. The 2004 had mellowed perfectly.

It was sweet to see Triple Rock in the top flight. Head brewer Christian Kazakoff is inventive, creative and at the same time, traditional. The Third Annual Bay Area Firkin Gravity Festival, featuring real ales from around the state, coming up April 1 is his creation. If you love or think you might like the idea of fresh, non-pasteurized beer served by gravity, not pushed to the tap by icy CO2, this is a fest not to miss: $20 admission, 11 a.m. - closing, Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse, 1920 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 843-2739, http://www.triplerock.com. 

Staff writer William Brand publishes What's On Tap, a consumer craft beer and hard cider newsletter. His column runs every other week. Write him at whatsontap@sbcglobal.net or P.O. Box 3676, Walnut Creek, CA 94598, or call (510) 915-1180.