Have You Tried All Seven Kinds of Wheat Beer?
May 15, 2001
The Bottom Line Wheat beers can be pale and cloudy, dark and clear, big as an ox, or light as a butterfly -- here's how to find the one that's right for YOU!
Any beer made with wheat might be called a "wheat beer", but after you drink a few different brands, you start to realize that there is a huge difference between them. Hopefully, I can help you understand some of the major types of wheat beer that are commonly available and help you figure out which ones best suit your taste preferences.
Summer is usually considered the "season" for wheat beers, as if they need to have a season. Most wheat beers are light, drinkable, refreshing beers that work well at warm weather picnics or while simply sitting outside on a sunny Sunday morning. Nonetheless, some of the styles, like dunkelweizen, are great all year round, and some (like weizenbock) actually work best on cold winter nights -- like the times you might normally reach for a barleywine or old ale.
German Wheat Beers
Several distinct types of wheat beer are made in Germany. Most are from Bavaria -- especially Munich -- but one very unique style is the sharply sour Berliner Weisse that originates from Berlin.
1. WEIZEN (Weissbier)
Southern Germany is renowned for its world-class breweries, and while most people know them for their high quality lager beers, Bavaria is also the world's leading region for wheat beers, which are commonly labeled as either "weizen" or as "weissbier" -- but don't confuse the latter with the "weisse" beers of Berlin! They are wildly different animals!
Bavarian wheat beers are not light beers -- they are brewed to an average strength (about 12 degrees Plato, and about 5% alcohol). These beers have a characteristic cloudiness from the yeast and from proteins in the wheat, but many breweries today filter their wheat beers, but more on that in a minute.
The amount of wheat used in a wheat beer varies from brewery to brewery, but it is usually around 50 percent, although one of the most common recipes is 60 percent wheat and 40 percent pale malted barley. Hops are usually traditional European noble varieties (Hallertau, Tettnang, etc.) but are used at very low levels. There should be some hop bitterness to balance the sugars of malt and wheat, but there should be little or no noticeable hop flavor nor aroma.
The yeast is the key to a great southern German wheat beer. It's a blended strain rather than being pure brewing yeast (Sacchoromyces Cerevesiae). Chemically, the yeast produces a very complex blend of esters and phenolic by-products; what that means to the beer drinker is that you can experience a rich milieau of different flavors and aromas. Typically, you might find the smell of cloves and bananas together, although some people say they get a little bit of peppery spiciness in the flavor, or a little bit of vanilla. In my opinion, cloves is the flavor and smell I look for most often.
You want that with or without the yeast?
Modern beer drinkers often like the look of a brilliantly clear beer. They don't want sediment or cloudiness. But there are a lot of people who prefer traditional wheat beers with the yeasts and proteins still in the beer. Breweries who cater to traditionalists often label their wheat beers "hefe-weizen" or "mit hefe", which means "with yeast," and that's exactly what it is. Breweries that cater to customers who want a brilliantly clear, filtered beer often label their beers as "kristall." If you don't see the words "kristall," "hefe-weizen," or "mit hefe" on the label, the beer is probably a traditional unfiltered wheat beer.
Traditional beer purists feel that wheat beers with yeast have a more rounded, fuller bodied feeling and that the filtration process removes some of the flavor. They're probably right, but the great thing about finding a beer retailer with a huge selection is that there's room for both opinions, and there's a great opportunity to try a couple of different wheat beers side-by-side and see which type you think best matches your taste preferences!
Kristall and Hefe-weizen are not different styles of beer, they simply describe whether the beer you are drinking was filtered or not. They're both southern German wheat beers.
Recommendation: Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, DeGroen's Weizen
Dunkelweizen is a dark wheat beer. Everything I said about weizen holds for dunkelweizen too, except that the beer is made a little differently, and it tastes a little different -- maybe a bit softer with a bit more malt character.
Color is the key, and the color comes about in the brewhouse in one of two ways. Either the brewer blends some dark malted wheat into the grist, or he blends some dark Munich malt into the grist. The dark malt is pale malt that is lightly toasted in a kiln to give it some color. Colored malts also add flavor complexity -- maybe a bit of a caramel like flavor, or a bit of toast or biscuit-like flavor. There will not be a strong "roast," "chocolate," or "coffee" flavor like those you would find in porters or stouts.
American brewpubs sometimes make beers they call "dunkelweizens" using a small percentage of a dark malted barley called "chocolate" malt, but that gives the beer an odd roast flavor that's not at all like the more rounded character you get from Munich malts. These may still be good, drinkable beers, but they probably won't taste much like their role models from across the pond...
Recommendation: Franziskaner Dunkel-Weizen
If wheat beers are good, then brewing it 50 percent stronger must make it GREAT, right? That's sort of what's behind weizenbock. These are wheat beers, made like I described the weizen style, but they are brewed to the strength of a bock beer (which in Germany, is prescribed by law to be no less than 16 degrees Plato). Instead of a 5 percent alcohol beer, you have a 7 percent alcohol beer.
When you taste these beers, you can't help but notice how much more intense the fruit or spice flavors and aromas become. The banana scent sometimes becomes pronounced, like walking through a produce section full of ripe bananas. You might also start noticing the flavor of alcohol, which might come across with a sweet complexity like that you find in sherry -- especially with the strongest weizenbocks.
Recommendation: Schneider Aventinius
4. BERLINER WEISSE
Stop right there! Don't send that bottle of Berliner weisse back to the bar...it's not really spoiled. Berliner weisses are supposed to taste sour!
These are very tart beers, and the flavor might put you off if you don't expect it. Some people drink these beers with a little bit of sweet raspberry syrup (or woodruff) to cut back the sourness, or they drink it with a slice of lemon to revel in the tart flavor!
Because the beer is very light bodied and very low in alcohol (often below 3 percent), it makes an ideal refreshing drink on a hot August afternoon.
In the brewhouse, the beer is made as a light-bodied wheat beer (but with less wheat than is used in southern Germany), but it is fermented using a unique blend of yeasts and other microflora, including the strains Lactobacillus delbruckii and S. Brettanomyces. What that means is that instead of tasting like normal beer, the fermentation process produces flavors that are closer to those found in blue cheese -- it's the flavor of lactic acid, one of the byproducts of this yeast. That's why the beer tastes sour, not sweet or bitter.
Recommendation: Schultheiss Berliner Weisse
Belgian Wheat Beers
Belgium enjoys a huge reputation for its high-quality ales, but when it comes to wheat beers, there's really only one style -- Wit beer -- and the only major brand imported to the United States is Hoegaarden. Up until last year, Americans could also enjoy a homegrown version in Celis White -- brewed by the man who re-created Hoegaarden in Belgium, but sadly, I've been told that Celis is no longer available.
Wit is a wonderful springtime beer! It's light and refreshing, with a bit of cloudiness to it, a slightly tart acidic bite, and some light spiciness from coriander and curacao orange.
The beer is made using a 50-50 blend of pale malted barley and unmalted wheat. I won't get into the boring details of how the mash differs from other beers, but I will mention that its a longer and more difficult process because unmalted wheat has a tendency to stick together like oatmeal if you don't mash it correctly.
American Wheat Beers
When the brewpub and microbrewery craze took hold in the United States about 10 years ago, many small breweries started making light wheat ales that were much different from their European cousins. They used less wheat and they used standard beer (ale) yeasts. This light, drinkable beer also served as an ideal base for creating fruit flavored beers, and lots of craft breweries start making flavored wheat beers.
6. AMERICAN WHEAT BEER
These are usually drinkable beers that taste like a cross between the German weizen style and an American light ale. There's none of the banana or clove signature of the German styles, but there is some cloudiness and a little tartness. It's generally a smooth, drinkable, balanced beer.
In the brewery, the amount of wheat used in these beers varies wildly. Some have 50 percent or more wheat in their grist, but many others go as low as 30 percent. The hops are sometimes noticeable than with European wheat styles, and I've even had some that showed strong hop characters, especially the signature grapefruit citric aroma of American hop varieties like Cascade and its cousins.
Recommendation: Pyramid Wheaten Ale, Heurich Summer Fogg
7. FLAVORED WHEAT BEER
Serious beer connoisseurs like to sneer at flavored beers, but a lot of people like the refreshing flavors of fruit and honey and light spices that different brewers use to attract new consumers to the beer marketplace. These styles offer a lot of room for creativity and innovation, and the beers often appeal to younger consumers.
In the mid-1990s there were quite a lot of brewers doing raspberry wheat beers because the spritzy tartness that fermented raspberry juice brings to a beer makes it taste almost like a wine spritzer. The best fruit flavored wheat beer I've ever had was a blueberry wheat made by Brimstone, but that beer is no longer sold to my knowledge.
If you're the kind of consumer who doesn't usually like beer and you don't think tartness sounds good, then these are the kinds of wheat beers you might actually enjoy. Give 'em a shot!
Recommendation: Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat
I hope I've given you a little bit of insight into what to expect when you're trying to figure out which wheat beers to buy.
Just a footnote about the geographic terms that I use in grouping the styles; these refer only to the origin of the style. It's entirely possible to find Belgian wit beers that are made in the United States, or even an American wheat beer brewed in Australia! In fact, I listed DeGroen's wheat beer as an example of a southern German weizen -- even though its brewed in Baltimore -- because it is, in fact, a better weizen than many of the weizens brewed in Germany (that's what happens when you have a European brewer who is trained in Germany and operates a German-built brewhouse in the United States using German ingredients...)
No matter what the label says though, I know what I'll say...Ein prosit!