‘Tis The Season: Wheat Beers

28 04 2010

Photo Credit: Wikicommons CC

It’s springtime in the Northern Hemisphere and here in the United States, the unofficial beginning of Summer (Memorial Day) is just a month away. One of my favorite parts of Spring and Summer is drinking outside. And in my opinion, there is no finer beer for drinking outside as a good wheat beer. Although wheat beers can be consumed year round, I believe it is the perfect warm weather beer. The slight spiciness of the nose, the way the haze catches the sunlight, the refreshing nature of the beer; all make it all the more better out doors.

Traditionally, a wheat beer is made of about 50% wheat and barley. There are some difficulties of using wheat in brewing. For one, it is rich in non-fermentable starches and it is low in starch converting enzymes. For that reason, the wheat must be matched with barley in order to get a complete fermentation. Those unfermented wheat starches and proteins are not filtered out. As a result, the starches and yeast create a lovely haze as well as increased fruit and spice esters. Wheat beers are rich in notes of banana, clove, all spice, pineapple and smoke. Depending on the region of the beer, different characteristics are enhanced (more on that a bit).

Wheat proteins are good at another thing: head formation and retention. Wheat beers create lovely, rich, foamy heads that are persistent. A properly poured wheat beer can be a thing of beauty; a graceful, light, hazy body with a cloud of meringue-like head floating on top. There are few things like it in this world.

The Three Traditional Wheat Regions-
Traditionally, there are three countries that brew wheat beers: Germany, Belgium, and the United States. While all wheat beers have the same haziness, spicy notes and beautiful head, the different regions have their own different characteristics.

Germany

In Germany, wheat beers are known as “Weissbier” or “White Beer.” The most popular of the Weissbiers is Hefeweizen which translates to “Yeasted Wheat.” Hefeweizen began in the state of Bavaria. Because Bavaria had the strict beer purity law known as Reinheitsgabot (which only allowed barley, water and hops in the beer), only the King’s Brewery, Hofbrauhaus, was allowed to brew it. Having a monopoly on the style, the Hofbrauhaus made a fortune on the very popular style. As Mel Brooks would say, “Its good to be King!”

The Reinheitsgabot was later amended to recognize two things: the inclusion of yeast and generalizing malted grain. Thus, allowing other breweries to use malted wheat in their beers. Schneider & Sohn was the first brewery to begin brewing Hefeweizens in the 18th Century. And by far, their beers are some of the best. Even though the Reinheitsgabot has been lifted decades ago, Germans still hold true to their sense of purity. Only barley, wheat, hops, yeast and water are used in their beer. Any aromas of spice, citrus, fruit or smoke come from the yeast and nothing else.

Hefeweizens are served in long, slender glasses which help accentuate the head and haze of the beer. Below, I show you how to pour a Hefeweizen.

There is some controversy on whether or not the pour above is appropriate. Garret Oliver argues in The Brewmaster’s Table that it is very rude to pour a hefeweizen in that style. Although Randy Mosher argues equally as much in Tasting Beer that he has seen people in Germany serve the beers that way. I have asked some Germans and they say that they have never seen any one pour a beer that way and they were quite impressed with the technique. So, either way, just have fun!

In Berlin, they drink a sour style of Weiss called Berlinerweiss. Berlinerweiss lost its popularity in post-war Germany. And for many years in the late 20th Century, it was seen as an “old man’s beer” and a relic of drearier times. Lately, some breweries have picked up the style again and it has begun catching the attention of some beer programs on this side of the Atlantic. It is often sold with a shot of raspberry syrup or essence of Woodruff, a bitter, green herb.

Belgium

Whereas the Germans base their beers in the strict confines of styles and a tradition of simplicity, Belgians see their beer as an opportunity for freedom of expression. While German’s have a “paint by numbers” view toward beer, Belgians have a more “watercolor” view to their beer. In Belgium, wheat beers are known as “Witt” and their beers are spiced with adjuncts: traditionally coriander and curacao (bitter orange peel).

If it weren’t for one man, Pierre Celis, the world would be without Belgian wheat beers. Lovingly brought back from near extinction, Celis, painstakingly recreated the style with the archetypal witt, Hoegaarden. In 1955, the last wittbier brewery in Belgium closed. Celis, only a milk man at the time, decided to brew his own to sell to his customers. As demand increased, he gave up on his milk delivery and began exclusively brewing witts. In the 1980’s ImBev (owners of Heinekin and now Anheuser-Busch) put up the funds to help Celis expand. Feeling pressure from the larger brewery to change, he sold the brewery to ImBev and moved to the United States where he could have more freedom. While Hoegaarden is now part of a multinational company, the love for Belgian style witts has stuck. Several breweries in both Belgium and the United States are brewing witts with corriander and orange peel.

Belgian witts are often served in short, multifaceted tumblers. These help accentuate the haze as they act like a gemstone’s cuts and refract the sunlight.

The United States

In the United States, wheat beers got a lift from the craft beer community, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. While many American wheat beers call themselves “Hefeweiezen,” it is a pretty big misnomer. The BJCP considers them “Hybrid” beers as they really have no resemblance to German or Belgian style wheats. Too hoppy and spicy for German weissbier and absent of spices and adjuncts for wittbier, American wheat beers are a horse of a different color.

Using citrusy American hops from the Pacific Northwest, American wheat beers are crisp and refreshing with notes of lemon, orange and grapefruit. They have very clean and smooth back ends that don’t linger as much as their European counterpoints. They don’t hold a lot of complexity but they are darn tasty.

The Elephant in the Room
Talking about wheat beers brings up a big debate: whether or not to wedge a wheat beer. By that, I mean, does a wheat beer get a wedge of citrus on the rim? It is difficult to tell. Traditionally, wheat beers do not get a citrus wedge. It is hard to trace back where this phenomenon came from. Some beer historians believe it began with the Widmer Brothers–the first brewery in America to offer a wheat beer. They thought a lemon wedge on the rim of the glass would help accentuate the citrus of the hops and yeast. Whereas, others believe the adding of a wedge of orange to a wheat beer began with Blue Moon, thinking the wedge would accentuated the orange peel in their Belgian Witt. Regardless of who did it first, it has caught on. There is no doubt that a wedge of citrus can help pick up some of those notes. However, squeezing a lemon into a beer can also cover up some of the more delicate notes. Some places, including my work, won’t volunteer a lemon wedge for any beer (including an American wheat). I won’t begrudge some one of one if they ask for it, either.

Garret Oliver, Randy Mosher and I all agree- there is a time and a place for a wedge. At a picnic, drinking an simple American wheat is fine. But why would you want to ruin a perfectly balanced, creamy, spicy $12 hefeweizen? It would be like going to a fancy steak house, getting you prime rib medium rare and then covering it with A-1 sauce. It just does not compute. Please, be discerning of your citrus, and when in doubt, ask your bartender.

Next week, we will pick our top 5 favorite wheat beers of 2010 and add some honorable mentions. In the meantime, below are some wheat beers to try.

Some Wheat Beers to Try:
Dirt Cheap
: Pyramid Haywire, Widmer Bros. Hefeweizen, Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss, Harpoon UFO, Shiner Hefeweizen, Spaten Franziskanner
Mid-Range: Bell’s Oberon (Seasonal), Paulaner Hefewiezen, Hoegaarden, Omegang Witt, Ayinger Brau-weiss
A Pretty Penny: Allagash White, Schneider Hefeweizen, St. Bernardus Blanche Witt, Sterkins White Ale, Kaputziner Hefeweizen

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One response

28 04 2010
awinnett

I left out some other beer types just for simplicity’s sake. I could have mentioned kristalweiss (filtered wheat ales) and Kellerweiss (lagered wheats). Plus some other countries make some decent wheats as well. For instance, Baltica 8 is a pretty tasty wheat ale. But if I mentioned all those, this post would have gone on much longer than it actually is.

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