I love wheat beers. I have as long as I can remember. I'm pretty sure my first taste of a deliciously banana, clovey hefeweizen was Franziskaner from Spaten Brewery in Munich, Germany.
In the late '80s when I first tried it, Spaten was one of the few imports I could find in Minnesota. I was impressed with the drinkability and thirst-quenching attributes of this previously unknown beer, and quickly started researching the style.
I learned that in Germany a hefeweizen must contain at least 50 percent wheat and be warm fermented with top-fermenting yeast.
Wheat has been used in brewing for thousands of years. Wheat tends to lend a mellow flour-like flavor with slightly tart acid notes. This balance makes beers brewed with wheat highly drinkable.
Wheat does not possess a husk like barley and is low in enzymes that can convert starches into sugars to be fermented. For this reason, brewers usually brew with a percentage of wheat often 30-60 percent and use malted barley to round out the recipe. Barley has husks that provide a filter medium in the mash and the sugar-converting enzymes that work their magic to help provide fermentable sugar.
I use quite a bit of wheat in my beers. I love the soft flavors and the lighter body that can be achieved. Wheat also helps with the formation and retention of the head (foam) of the beer. A great head of foam on a pint is a thing of beauty and is much desired.
There are many subcategories of wheat beer, I will summarize by country with a brief description of the style characteristics.
• Kristalweizen is a filtered wheat beer, it's clear and bright yellow, with a simple approachable flavor.
• Hefeweizen has banana and clove notes with high carbonation and is wonderfully thirst quenching.
• Dunkelweizen — "dunkel" is German for dark — is usually amber or brown and often features the banana flavors of the hefeweizen with additions of chocolate and toffee notes from the darker, flavorful caramel malts added.
• Weizenbock is a strong wheat ale. A doppel weizenbock ("doppel" is German for double) usually has 8-12 percent alcohol. Many breweries brew these as holiday beers. They're often brewed in early spring and aged six months or more. Because of the higher alcohol, the beer develops flavors as it matures. This beer is fruity and warming with a malty sweetness and a long lingering finish. It's a sipper.
• Berliner Weisse is often called the champagne of the north. This is a low-alcohol beer that is put through a lactic fermentation that slightly sours the beer, creating a tart and very refreshing brew. Often a dollop of raspberry or woodford syrup is added, creating a red or green glass of beer. It can be tough to find, but I highly recommend it.
• Wit or "white beer" is an amazingly refreshing summer beer. Wit is a Belgian staple that has been brewed for hundreds of years. It's dubbed "white beer" because it is brewed with a percentage of unmalted wheat, which gives it an almost milky white color. It is light and tart and very unique because it's traditionally brewed with the addition of spices. Coriander and dried sweet orange peel are the standard. Some brewers add small amounts of ginger and/or nutmeg. The spices add a pleasant aroma, and the orange peel compliments the fruity yeast notes. I call this beer style "summer in a glass."
• American wheat beer is usually 30-50 percent wheat brewed with ale yeast devoid of the banana and or fruity notes in the European yeasts. Hops are usually low. This style of beer is a perfect alternative to the blonde or golden styles seen at many breweries with its soft and approachable flavors.
• Fruit wheat beers are great because wheat is a great grain to marry fruit. There are so many delicious options. A simple wheat ale with raspberry, apricot, blueberry, cherry, even watermelon, is tasty.
• Pale wheat ale or lager is brewed like a pale ale except with a high percentage of wheat. Softer flavors offer a mild bready-malt profile that supports all manners of hop loads.
• Wheat wine is one of my favorite styles of beer to brew. It's a fun beer and it's becoming a little easier to find. It's called "wine" because the alcohol content is in the 12-14 percent (similar to a wine). These beers are brewed with at least 50 percent wheat malt and fermented with multiple yeast strains and high hop loads. They're usually cellared for one to three years, often in wood barrels, before release. They're still hard to find but should be sipped and cherished.
Feel free to email me with your favorite wheat beers and thoughts.