February Style of the Month – German Wheat Ales

It’s still snowy and chilly in February for most of the country so we’re enjoying Dunkles Weissbier and Weizenbock styles, with their darker malt flavors and amped up alcohol. And, with warmer weather on the way (we hope…it is​ ​coming right?), sitting in an outdoor beer garden with a half-liter of Weissbier or crushing a tart Berliner Weisse or Gose in the hammock are just some of the things we’re looking forward to.

The OG Hazy Beer – With One Exception

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, 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 needed to make beer.

The exception is Kristallweizen (“Crystal Wheat”) is simply a filtered Weissbier. The suspended yeast is filtered, leaving the beer much less hazy and nearly clear. Although Kristallweizens have been filtered, for the most part they maintain the typical flavor profile of traditional Weissbier. These are not commonly seen in America, as the filtering makes them less shelf-stable.

Wheat Beer For Every Season

Wheat beers are available in “dark and boozy” or “light and refreshing”.

Dunkelweizen (German for “dark wheat”) is the dark wheat beer of Bavaria. Like its lighter colored cousin, Weissbier, this beer is traditionally comprised of 50% wheat and 50% malted barley, and it is fermented with specialized Weissbier yeasts. The addition of Munich and/or Vienna malts is what distinguishes Dunkelweizens from Weissbiers. Aromas of caramel, bread crust, and rich malt complements the clove, bubblegum, banana, and vanilla character added by the yeast. Dunkelweizens have almost no hop presence and the beer is rich and malty, but not roasty like a Porter or Stout. Dunkelweizens are usually between 4.3% and 5.6% ABV.

Weizenbocks are strong wheat beers usually made with 60%-70% wheat and fermented with specialized Weissbier yeasts. Aromas of dark fruit, caramel, bread crust, and rich malt complements the clove, bubblegum, banana, and vanilla character added by the yeast. Weizenbocks have almost no hop presence, and the beer is rich and malty but not roasty like a Porter or Stout. Weizenbocks are usually between 6.5% and 8.0% ABV.

As Garrett Oliver writes in his book, ​The Brewmaster’s Table​, “The proteins in the wheat form an intractable haze, giving the beer a particular glow that gave rise to the term “white beer” (Oliver, 81). Unsurprisingly, this decree does not apply to the rest of the world, so there are many interpretations of this classic style. Germans utilize the term “Weissbier,” while people outside of Germany use the term, “Hefeweizen,” which literally means “yeast wheat” in German.

 

Weissbier is the classic wheat beer of Bavaria and one of Germany’s greatest and most distinctive beer styles. It’s traditionally comprised of 50% wheat and 50% malted barley and fermented with specialized Weissbier yeasts. Aromas of clove, bubblegum, banana, and vanilla characterize Weissbiers. This beer has almost no hop presence and is usually between 4.3% and 5.6% ABV.

Gose (pronounced “goh-zuh”) and Berliner Weisse have both seen recent revivals in the U.S. craft brewing scene. While both are German Wheat Ales that have been soured by Lactobacillus, they each have their own unique characteristics. Gose, which gets its name from the town in which it was first created, Goslar – is brewed with salt and coriander. Those flavors are subtle, and match the level of sourness in this highly refreshing beer.

 

Berliner Weisse expresses more acidity, but is even lower in alcohol (traditionally between 2.8% and 3.8% ABV) than Gose (4.2% to 4.8%). When served in bars and restaurants, Berliner Weisse is often served “mit schuss,”; literally “with a shot” of woodruff or raspberry syrup. American brewers have taken to short-cutting this step by making fruited variants in the brewery.


Why do we especially love a nice wheat beer on a warm day? Because these are darn refreshing beers! In the case of German wheat beers, spritzy carbonation and banana-like fruit esters are combined with a spicy kick from peppery phenols often reminiscent of clove. The fruit flavors, high carbonation, full body, and relatively mild ABV of 5.0% or so, make these beers delightful summer sippers. The German sour wheat styles use lactobacillus (for souring) and a hint of sea salt and coriander in the case of Gose.

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 pillow-​like 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!

Virginia is the Products, Programming, and Educational Director for Craft Beer Cellar. In addition to being a Certified Cicerone, she is an Introductory Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Her home base is Chicago, but she’s often found in the Boston area, or wherever her passion for good food & drink takes her.

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