Often associated with the warmer weather of spring or summer, wheat beers are a refreshing and tasty treat to many beer lovers. In recent years the appeal of these warm weather quenchers has really caught on with the popularity of Blue Moon and Shock Top. But, wheat beers are nothing new. The style has been around hundreds, even thousands of years. So, let’s delve into the origins and styles of these popular brews and see what we can learn.
While I was in Belgium last month I had the opportunity to sample several wonderful wheat beers in both the Belgian and German tradition. In Belgium, wheat beers are most usually called witbier, which means white beer. The Germans call their white beer weissbier. Both the Belgian witbier and the German weissbier were termed “white beers” because historically they are pale unfiltered and have a hazy appearance due to the type of yeast that is used in brewing. Belgian white beers are often made with raw unmalted wheat, as opposed to the malted wheat used in other varieties. The two styles, while similar in appearance are different in how they are brewed and how the finished product tastes.
Belgian wheat beers are often flavored with spices and fruit. Most commonly the Belgians add coriander and orange peel. This style of beer is brewed mainly in Belgium but there are examples from the Netherlands as well. The brew gets its name from the yeast and wheat proteins suspended in it that causes a hazy or white appearance. Witbier is a descendant of medieval beers that were brewed and preserved with a blend of spices, florals, and herbs in the place of hops. This mixture of aromatics was known a gruit and is still in use today, though mainly consisting of coriander, orange, bitter orange, and hops now. Hoegaarden is an excellent example of this style of brewing. Most tasters who try Hoegaarden will say that they can taste cloves, citrus, and a hint of banana. This beer is refreshing and easy drinking. If you have not tried one, you owe it to yourself to head to your local grocer or liquor store and pick up a six-pack.
The German term weissbier refers to several different types of wheat beer including hefeweizen a traditional, unfiltered wheat beer and kristallweizen or kristall weiss a wheat beer that is filtered to remove the yeast and wheat proteins from suspension. The hefeweizen style is particularly noted for its low hop bitterness and relatively high carbonation, considered important to balance the beer’s relatively malty sweetness. Another balancing flavor note unique to hefeweizen beer is the result of fermentation by top-fermenting yeast. Hefeweizen’s taste characteristics are often described as clove and medicinal but also smoky. Other more typical but less assertive flavor notes produced by weissbier yeast include banana, bubble gum, and sometimes vanilla.
Some prominent commercial examples of hefeweizen Paulaner, Tucher, Franziskaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Ayinger (Bräu Weisse), Magic Hat Circus Boy, Samuel Smith Brewery and Widmer Brothers. The style is currently consumed throughout Germany, but is especially popular in its Southern German homeland.
Beers I Have Been Drinking
Bold City Fritz Hefeweizen
This is a golden pale wheat that pours cloudy and with a thin head. It smells of bread and spice. Smooth, easy-drinking on the palate and agreeably sour with hints of spice and banana. One of my favorite wheats of those locally brewed.
An all-time favorite that pours a cloudy straw color. Aromas of cloves, grains, banana, and orange peel. Refreshing and light to the tongue with light carbonation for just the right crispness. Perfectly served directly from a bucket of ice in a pint or pilsner glass.
Cloudy golden-orange in color with a thick head on the pour with great yeast and spice aromas. Floral and fruity when you taste it, with the typical banana and clove notes present. This beer does have quite a bit of yeast forward flavor, too.
Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat
At a party the other night, a friend brought this beer. I have had it in the past and have enjoyed its fruity, refreshing flavor. She, however, summed it up wonderfully; “It tastes like Fruity Pebbles!” And so it does! Refreshing and very drinkable, this beer is nothing fancy, but it sure is fun to drink.
- Samuel Adams Rustic Saison
Straw yellow with a slight reddish tint, this beer forms a thin head which dissipates quickly but still leaves nice lacing on the glass. Spice and wheat strike you first when you sniff this beer and the flavor follows suit. There is a bitter after-taste to this brew, but that is certainly not a deterent.
As the spring heats up and the promise of another hot Florida summer looms, stock up on some quality wheat beers to refresh yourself with after mowing the lawn. Whether you add a slice of lemon or orange is up to you.
Until next time…
Long Live the Brewers!