Style Guide #1 – Wheat Beers Explained

This is the first in a series of posts about families of beer.  The idea of this series is to give you some insight into origins and brewing science behind the beer, brief descriptions of each style within the family, and some good examples so you can do your own research.

We start with wheat beers, a family that that can be a good gateway into the world of great beer for the newcomer and a perennial summertime favorite.  For a type of beer that is so prevalent, I find there are many facts about wheat beers that are pretty hazy (pun intended) to the average beer drinker.  Have you ever wondered why German Hefeweizens taste different than most of their American cousins?  If you were put on the spot at your next job interview could you explain how wheat changes the taste of a beer?  Are all wheat beers light, refreshing summer beers?  Keep reading and you’ll be able to answer these questions and many more.

To understand wheat beers we must first understand the role of barley in brewing beer. As everyone knows barley is an essential ingredient in beer.  It provides a source of starch that can be converted first into sugars and then fermented into ethanol, but all grains contain starch so why is barley special?  The answer in large part is because barley contains the enzymes needed to break the starch down into simpler sugars that can be fermented.  Grains like corn and rice, both of which are used in mass produced American beers (more on that later), don’t contain the proper enzymes, so when making beer when using these so-called “adjunct malts” extra enzymes must be added.  Wheat, oats and rye have plenty of protein, but they lack the right combination of enzymes found in barley.

(WARNING – THIS PARAGRAPH IS BLATANT ATTEMPT TO TRICK YOU INTO LEARING SOMETHING ABOUT SCIENCE, SKIP AHEAD IF READING ABOUT SCIENCE MAKES YOU SLEEPY.)   You might be asking what’s an enzyme and what does it do?  It just so happens that in my other life I’m a chemistry professor so we’re going to take a short detour into the world of chemistry to answer this question.  An enzyme is specialized protein that acts as a catalyst.  This immediately brings us to another question, what is a catalyst? In just about every chemical reaction some bonds have to be broken to start the reaction and breaking bonds takes energy.  This is followed by the formation of new bonds, which releases energy. Even when the energy released by making bonds exceeds the energy consumed by breaking bonds (and this is often the case), you still have to put energy in to get the reaction started.  For example, the reaction between gasoline and oxygen gives off enough energy to power your car, but gasoline doesn’t spontaneously burst into flames when it comes in contact with oxygen.  You need some kind of spark or flame to raise the temperature high enough to break a few bonds and initiate the reaction.  A catalyst lowers the amount of energy needed to get the reaction started, without itself being consumed by the reaction.  Enzymes are biology’s catalysts, they are essential to life. In the context of making beer the key thing to remember is that the enzymes in barley allow the brewer to convert the starch to simple sugars at modest temperatures.

A common misconception about wheat beer is that the barley malt is completely replaced by wheat. That’s almost never the case.  In most wheat beers you have something close to a 50-50 mixture of wheat and barley.  Thus the use of wheat in a Hefeweizen is not so different from the use of rice in a Budweiser.  In both cases they partially replace the barley and in doing so change the characteristics of the beer.  The difference is that each type of non-barley grain has a different effect on the look, taste and feel of the beer.

Wheat – High in protein (but not necessarily enzymes), wheat tends to produce a creamier, smoother texture while improving head retention.  The high protein content also tends to make the beer more cloudy/hazy.  I find that wheat beers have a little more sweetness than all-barley malt beers, while others would say that wheat adds a subtle lemony spritziness to the beer.

Corn/Rice – These grains tend to thin out the beer.  Their lack of protein means that they contribute fermentable sugars which can be converted to ethanol without adding much of anything else to the flavor profile.  Budweiser and Coors both use rice, while Miller and others use corn (or in some cases high fructose corn syrup).  These adjuncts also lower the cost to produce the beer.

Oats/Rye – Like wheat these grains are high in protein and so improve the smoothness of the beer (think Oatmeal stout) and the head retention.  I find that the use of rye in beers imparts a spiciness that would otherwise be absent. Oats and rye tend to be used in smaller proportions than wheat.

Summarizing for those of you who’ve skipped ahead, we should expect wheat beers to be smooth, hazy beers that support a robust head of foam.  Wheat beers are often on the lighter side with relatively low bitterness and subdued hop profiles.  There are some exceptions to these generalizations, which we will see below.  Now we’ve got the basics behind us lets dive into the different styles of beer that use wheat.  I’ve tried to keep things succinct and give some examples of each style for you to try.  One taste is worth a thousand words.

German Hefeweizen – Hefeweizens are the archetypal wheat beers.  They emerged as a regional specialty in Bavaria and have been brewed since the 16th century.  Even the venerable German Purity Law (the Reinheitsgebot) has a loophole that allows weizen beers to use wheat.  In German weizen means “wheat” and hefe means “yeast”, so Hefeweizen literally means wheat with yeast.  The yeast part is what sets Hefeweizens apart from other types of wheat beers.  They are fermented with special ale yeasts that produce fruity esters that give a Hefeweizen its characteristic taste.  The two most important esters in a Hefeweizen are 4-vinyl guaiacol, a phenolic ester that imparts clove aromas, and isoamyl acetate, a simple ester that imparts banana like aromas.  If you’ve taken an organic chemistry lab there is a good chance you’ve made isoamyl acetate in lab.  These beers are best when fresh and ideally should be served cold but not ice cold (roughly 45 °F).

For the most part the best examples of this style are not surprisingly German beers.  Among them my favorite is Weihenstaphaner Hefeweizen.  It’s not just my favorite either.  At both Beer Advocate and Ratebeer.com this beer is rated the #1 Hefeweizen.  For a world class beer it is both widely available and reasonably priced, $9.99 a six pack here in Columbus last time I checked.  A number of other German breweries make good Hefewiezens including Franziskaner, Paulaner and Schneider Weiss.  There are at least two domestic beers that can hold their own with the Germans.  Dancing Man Wheat, which is made by New Glaurus brewery and (sadly) only found in Wisconsin, is every bit as good as Weihenstephaner.  I’ve also heard and read a lot of good things about Live Oak Hefeweizen which is made in Austin, Texas.  This beer is high on my list of beers I would love to try.  Among domestic beers that are available across wide portions of the US, the best one I’ve had is probably Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweiss, followed by Tröeg’s Dream Weaver Wheat.  However, in my opinion these two are a notch below the beers mentioned above and are not any cheaper, so I’d say stick to the imports, but if you like your bananas and cloves in a more restrained dose they may be the right fit for you.

Kristalweizen – This style is simply a Hefeweizen that has been filtered to make it clear rather than hazy.  I find the taste and smell to be very similar to a Hefeweizen. Since the hazy look of a Hefeweizen is part of the appeal to me I don’t understand the point of this style.  Most of the German breweries that make the Hefeweizen style also make a Kristalweizen.

American Wheat Ale – One of the very first craft beers that I got into was Widmer’s Hefeweizen (back in the 1990s when craft breweries were called microbreweries).  In the mid-1990s I went to a conference in Europe and visited Germany where I was surprised to find that the German Hefeweizens tasted quite distinct from the Oregon versions.  I now know that the difference between an American Wheat Ale and a German Hefeweizen (and I use these terms regardless of where they are brewed) is in the yeast.  The yeasts used to make American Wheat Ales do not produce the clove and banana esters you find in a Hefeweizen.  Since those esters control so much of the smell and taste profile of a hefeweizen these two styles are distinctly different.  American Wheat Ales do retain the haziness, smooth texture, and good head retention of a hefeweizen.  I think it is fair to say that the subtle citrusy notes that are associated with wheat beers come through more clearly in the American Wheat Ales.  Thus if there is any beer that calls for garnishing with a lemon wedge it would be an American Wheat Ale.  I also have to say that back in the 1990s I preferred the Widmer Hefeweizen to the German varieties.  So if you (or your significant other) have not ventured far into the world of craft beer, this style is an excellent starting point.  For a thirst quenching beer on a hot day it’s hard to beat a good American Wheat Ale.

There are a lot of examples of this style out there to choose from.  In the Midwest Oberon by Bells is arguably the best and most popular American Wheat Beer out there.  My personal favorite is Agave Wheat by Breckenridge Brewery, where agave nectar nicely compliments the wheat.  Although not available in Ohio, Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat is a very solid take on this style. The aforementioned Widmer Hefeweizen is still out there and widely distributed, but it doesn’t hold the same appeal to me that it did 20 years ago.  Another widely available American Wheat Ale is 312 Urban Wheat by Goose Island.  This is a decent beer but I don’t think its texture and flavor can match the best examples of this style.

Hoppy American Wheat Ale – Technically this is not a separate style of beer, but from a taste perspective I classify American Wheat Ales into those that have an aggressive hop presence and those that do not (reviewed above).  Although I’m a big fan of hoppy ales, I generally find that the flavor profiles of wheat malt and high alpha acid American hops tend to clash rather than complement each other.  So far I’ve only been able to find one beer in this style where I think the combination truly works—Gumballhead by Three Floyds.  In this beer the red wheat malt mellows the bitterness and compliments the citrus fruit profile of the Amarillo hops.  Other examples of Hoppy American Wheat Ales that I’m less infusive about include A Little Sumpin Sumpin Ale by Lagunitas, Hop Sun by Southern Tier, Trout Slayer Wheat by Big Sky Brewing, and 80 Acre Hoppy Wheat by Boulevard.

Belgian Witbier – This is the Belgian version of a wheat beer.  The English translation of the name is White Beer, and true to that description Witbiers are pale and cloudy in appearance.  Often oats are also part of the recipe.  They don’t have the banana and clove esters of a Hefeweizen, but they nearly always come with added spices, traditionally orange peel and coriander.  So if you like adding fruit to your beer, an orange wedge would be appropriate garnish for a Witbier. This style nearly went out of existence but was revived by Pierre Cellis in his town of Hoegaarden in the 1960s.  Hoegaarden is still around today and I would say is still a good representation of the style, but it is now owned by the brewing conglomerate InBev and the general consensus is that Hoegaarden is not as good as it once was.  See http://www.beer-pages.com/stories/celis.htm  for a summary of Cellis, Hoegaarden and Witbier.

Unless you’ve been living in the tribal regions of Pakistan, one example Witbier that I’m sure you are familiar with is Blue Moon made by Molson-Coors.  If you like Blue Moon but haven’t ventured farther into the wide world of Witbeirs I’d recommend trying one or more of the following.  Allagash White, out of Maine, is in my opinion the best Witbier around.  Unfortunately, Allagash does not distribute to Ohio, so my access to this beer is highly limited.  White Rascal by Avery Brewing is pretty good (and comes in a can).  Recently I tried Bottom Up Wit by Revolution Brewing (also comes in a can) and was impressed with this beer. It is light and has some peppery spiciness to it, so I’d call it a Saison-leaning Wit.  Finally, I’ll give a call out to Oregon Trail Wit, made by the Oregon Trail Brewery in Corvallis and available on tap in the Old World Deli.  It’s as good an example of Witbier as you can find anywhere the US, but unless you live in Corvallis good luck finding this one.

Dunkelweizen – It may surprise you to know that I’ve not tried every style of beer, but one of the styles that has eluded me is Dunkelweizen.  However, for the sake of completeness I’ve done some research on this style for my loyal readers.  Dunkelweizens are similar to Hefeweizens but made with darker malts that add carmel flavors.  The combination of the bready malts and the banana/clove esters produces a beer that some call banana bread in a glass.  A reportedly quite good representative of this style is Ayinger Ur-Weiss.  According to my friend Scott Bailey, Franziskaner makes a dunkelweiss that is to die for.

Weizenbock – Something about the light, fruity character of Hefeweizen just doesn’t seem well suited for cold winter days, but if you need your wheat fix when the days get short look no farther than a Weizenbock. This is the bigger, stronger, darker brother of a Dunkelweizen. It still retains the fruity esters of a Hefeweizen, but combines them with the maltiness and dark fruit notes of a bock beer.  Not surprisingly Weihenstephaner makes a Weizenbock called Vitus, which in my opinion tastes too much like bubble gum to be taken seriously.  Victory makes an American version of this style called Moonglow, where darker fruit flavors like cherries and plums are prominent.

Berliner Weiss – A relative of the Belgian Witbier, the Berliner Weiss beer is a curious concoction.  They are low in alcohol, often only 3-4%.  It is fermented with lactobacillus strains of yeast that give a slightly sour taste from the small amounts of acetic acid (vinegar) produced by the yeast.  The beer chicks (http://thebeerchicks.com/) describe this style as similar to a sharp pinot grigio wine.  Given the sour characteristics it is common practice in Berlin to serve this beer with a dash of sweet syrup, either Waldmeister or Himbeer.   Waldmeister is extracted from an herb called Woodruff and is grassy and lemony with notes of anise and vanilla.  Himbeer is German for raspberry.  When I’ve talked to Germans from other parts of the country they tend to be a little dismissive of the notion of adding flavored syrup to beer and Berliner Weiss beer in general.

Here are some Berliner Weiss beers you can get stateside.  Hottenroth by the Bruery is the best Berliner Weiss I’ve tried.  Tart and slightly fruity with restrained vinegar notes. This is a good beer for a weekend brunch. During the summer dogfish head makes a Berliner Weiss with peach, called Festina Peche.  The award for the Berliner Weiss with the best name is Justin Blabeir by Evil Twin.

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