April Style of the Month: Wheat Beers
German Weissbier, Belgian Witbier, American Wheat Beer, Berliner Weisse, Gose, and Lambic; you can quickly see that this is a pretty broad category. With warmer weather on the way (we hope, it is coming right?), sitting in an outdoor beer garden with a half-liter of Weissbier is just one of the things we look forward to this time of year.
With its fluffy white head, full body, light flavor and signature haze, wheat is an ingredient that has been a part of beer since the beginning. Wheat was a staple of early civilizations and an important reason why humans progressed from a hunter/gatherer to an agrarian society. But wheat isn’t that great for brewing beer with. It’s sticky and glutenous and high in proteins. This makes it really good for baking bread but that stickiness can cause problems when trying to drain the wort away from the grains, especially since there is no husk to provide a natural filter like there is in barley. So normally, you will see wheat used as merely a percentage of the total grain bill. A Weissbier, for example, needs to be made with at least 50% wheat.
Why do we especially love a nice wheat beer on a warm day? Because these are darn refreshing beers, that’s why! In the case of German and Belgian wheat beers, spritzy carbonation and tropical fruit esters are combined with a spicy kick from peppery phenols. The Belgians go one step further by adding orange peel and coriander to the mix. The fruit flavors, high carbonation, full body and relatively mild ABV of 5% or so, make these beers delightful summer sippers. American Wheat beers (Anchor brewed the first filtered wheat beer, and Widmer Bros. brewed the first unfiltered wheat beer, both in 1984) trade thepungent yeast for a more pronounced hop note but keep the crisp carbonation. The German sour wheat styles use lactobacillus (for souring) and a hint of sea salt and coriander in the case of Gose.
Wheat beers can come in all shapes and sizes these days, from traditional to ancient to experimental. Even hopheads have fun options with hoppy American Wheat Beers such as Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Notch’s Infinite Jest.
Fruit or No Fruit?
The eternal debate on whether it’s okay to garnish a wheat beer with a slice of lemon or orange rages on! In Germany, it’s generally frowned upon though there is evidence from the 19th century of lemon use at Munich’s Hofbrauhaus. Scientifically, the oils from the citrus will diminish the pillowlike head. But there’s something to be said for how a slice of citrus really brings out those tropical fruit flavors of the beer and it certainly makes for a nice presentation. Most Beer Geeks will shun it, but there’s no right or wrong answer. Do what feels right!