Almost always offered as a crisp, refreshing summer brew, wheat beer is one of those styles, which has so many different beers within it, that saying ‘Bring me a wheat beer’ in a bar is like saying ‘Bring me a plate of food’ in a restaurant. With so many variations, from traditional German (which itself has multiple variations) to Belgians, Americans, Fruited Wheat beers, and truly exotic styles, like Gose, Grodziskie, Lambic, and Dunkelweizen, we can’t properly cover them all in one article, so we’ll review what all wheat beers have in common. They’re usually fermented like an ale, with a top-cropping yeast at temperatures warmer than a lager, and they’re made with a portion (rather than 100%) wheat in the malt bill. The reason for using only a portion is that wheat malt is very sticky when mixed into the beer mash. Without the husks and the relatively un-sticky sugars of the barley to keep things flowing, wheat can end up like flour and water paste in a brewer’s mash tun.
Wheat doesn’t give a lot of flavour or aroma, but it imparts a slight tartness to the flavour profile, and the extra proteins that make it gummy in the mash tun also make the beer cloudy and give it a silky mouthfeel and a thick head.
Wheats usually get more of their character from esters from their warm-fermenting yeast, as opposed to other ales that focus on hops as the main component, and they’re almost always highly carbonated, making them effervescent and lively.
Also referred to as Hefeweizen or Weissbeir in southern Germany where it originated, this is the original style of wheat beer, easily identified by a thick, creamy head and spicy notes of banana, clove, and even bubblegum, which are produced by the special yeast used. Hefeweizen means ‘yeast wheat’ and it’s kegged or bottled unfiltered, leaving yeast in the beer. Traditionally 90% of the beer is poured out, the bottle is uprighted and swirled, and the remaining yeasty liquid is added to the glass for extra flavour and aroma.
Very low in bitterness, the spicy/malty profile of this beer is balanced by the high carbonation, giving it a beautiful appearance in the glass. Variations on Weizenbier include Kristalweizen, a filtered, yeast-free version, Dunkelweizen, made with dark malts for an added toasty character, and Weizenbock, a very strong, dark wheat beer with rich, malty flavour.
Originating in the Netherlands and Belgium, Witbier or Bier Blanche comes from old country beer recipes that added mixed cereal crops to the brew, including unmalted wheat flour and oats, and in the absence of hops it was brewed with orange, coriander, and other spices and herbs.
Nearly extinct, it was revived as a style in the 1980s and has steadily gained popularity for its slight tartness (usually from a small amount of naturally occurring lactic acid in the beer) and silky mouthfeel, and can be seen everywhere with a slice of orange perched on the rim of the glass.
Technically this beer can only be brewed within the city limits of Berlin, but the style has spread around the world. Crisply tart from the yeast strain used to ferment it, this beer is low in alcohol and much favoured by Germans who drink it on their coffee breaks. It is often flavoured right in the glass with sweetened fruit syrups, including raspberry, lemon, and woodruff. These help cut the tartness and have inspired craft beer makers to make their Berliner Weisse styles with fruit right in the fermentations.
A style derived from the Northern German city of Leipzig, Gose is similar to Berliner Weisse, but with a twist: it’s usually stronger and has the added character of coriander and salt. Craft brewers have brewed many variations on Gose, adding fruits and flavourings and generally treating it like a summertime sports drink.
Originally from the Pajottenland of Belgium, this beer has a high percentage of wheat in the malt bill, and is spontaneously fermented with local, indigenous yeast. Most Lambic sold in North America is flavoured with fruits like raspberries and cherries added to the secondary fermentation, but original styles include Gueuze and Faro. Most show pronounced or even aggressive tartness from the wild yeast, but they have a dedicated following.
Wheat beers are flavourful, spicy and satisfying, and their crispness makes them great food beers—pair them anywhere you’d be matching a zesty white wine like Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling.