Wheat Beers

by Will Bocher

This summer beer sales statistics showed a major trend toward wheat beers.  
Refreshing and tasty they dominated the high end summer craft line for many
breweries.  Despite their popularity with the public most people are still unsure of
what a wheat beer actually is.  All most seem to know is that it's a far better
alternative to watery macro lagers or syrupy carbonated soda for any thirsty
individual.   Simply put, a wheat beer is one in which a significant quantity of the
mash contains wheat.  Mashing is the brewer's term for the hot water steeping
process which hydrates the barley, activates the malt enzymes, and converts the
grain starches into fermentable sugars.

Typically wheat beers contain 30-70% wheat malt and the remainder is regular barley
malt, usually a pale variety like Pilsner. Though there are many different styles and
sub-styles that can be called wheat beers they all share certain characteristics.
Wheat has a lot more protein in it than barley which contributes to thick, long lasting
heads. This protein also creates haze in most wheat beers. Wheat contributes very
little flavor to a beer but it does contribute a distinctively silky mouthfeel. Wheat beers
are highly effervescent and most are light in flavor, making them, as noted, great
summer beers.

The best known and original wheat beer is hefeweizen. Using wheat as an ingredient
in beer was the first exception made to the famous German beer purity law,
Rheinheitsgebot, and that exception was made specifically so the nobility could
continue to enjoy this style. This Bavarian style of wheat beer is pale and cloudy. It is
bottled and served unfiltered so the yeast used during fermentation is still present.
This special strain of yeast contributes banana and clove notes to the aroma and
flavor of the beer. Wheat beer is an ale so it is heavier and doesn’t provide the
smack of a lager. But served cold, with or without a slice of lemon, it is no less
refreshing.

Belgian witbier: Thanks to Hoegarden, this once almost dead style has come roaring
back. Brewed similar to Hefeweizen, Belgian witbiers use a yeast that is similar to the
Bavarians’ yeast in the way that it adds flavor and aroma but those characteristics
are distinctly different. This style, having grown up out from under the dictatorial eye
of Rheinheitsgebot, also includes orange peel and coriander. Witbiers are at the
same time fresh tasting and complex. Other Belgian beer styles contain malted and
unmalted wheat but are not generally considered to be wheat beers.

There are dark wheat beers too.  The main two styles in this category are
Dunkelweizen and Weizenbock.   Dunkelweizens are brewed very much like
Hefeweizen except that the malt used is typically one of two darker varieties – Vienna
or Munich malt. These malts contribute a chestnut brown color. The combination of
the rich roasted flavors of the malt and the banana and clove notes from the
Hefeweizen yeast can create a wonderfully complex and satisfying brew. Weizenbock
is made in virtually the same way except that it is a higher gravity beer so, in alcohol
content at least, it’s similar to bock.

If you just don't want hazy beer but still yearn for a wheat brew then try a Krystal it is
a clear wheat beer. Cloudy wheat beers are said to be "unfiltered". Krystal is simply a
filtered wheat beer.

Because wheat contributes so little to a beer’s flavor while at the same time giving it  
much desired qualities such as head retention and a smooth, full mouthfeel, it is the
perfect style to use as a base for many fruit beers.  One of my favorite this summer
came from 21st Amendment - Come Hell or High Watermelon.  It's a straw-colored,
refreshing wheat beer with a kiss of watermelon aroma and flavor.  It's a uniquely
American take on wheat beer.

Be sure to check out other interesting types of wheat beer (weissbier) such as   
lambic, Gueuze, Berliner Weisse and gose.  Some of these may be hard to find but
thanks to the craft beer revolution and the ever increasing sophistication of the
American palate, they are out there waiting for you.  Discover these and I guarantee
you will be amazed at how different from a hefeweizen another wheat beer can be!

Wheat beer will surely continue to expand and be reinterpreted by today’s innovative
brewers.   Enjoy!


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