Critical Thinking on Wheat

Want to change up your wheat-beer game? Here's John Mallett, director of brewing operations at Bell’s in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on forging a deeper relationship with this versatile ingredient—and how it can improve your next recipe.

John Mallett Sep 18, 2019 - 4 min read

Critical Thinking on Wheat Primary Image

Beer has existed longer than wheat has. Think about that for a minute. This ingredient that we use all the time has an incredibly complicated genome that resulted from the combination of three different parents, but what we know as modern wheat appeared only 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.

Wheat is a deliberate ingredient, so when you’re using it, it’s best to have your objective in mind. Do you want to brew with wheat so it stands out, or do you want to use it as an attribute? First-timers, or even those who use it a lot, need to be prepared. When you’re talking about wheat, you’re talking about the options of malted or unmalted, raw or flaked. Know what you want to use, what results they produce.

Remember that wheat shows up without a husk on it, so there is a limit on how much you can use and lauter easily. Because you will have a mash that is a little sticky, thanks to the beta-glucans of the wheat, you’ll want to treat the mash gently but still be prepared for a day of lautering. You’ll want to have some tools to help you with wheat, such as rice hulls.

There are rewards to the hard work. I’m a huge fan of some of the positive attributes that wheat brings to a beer, one of the best being foam. Having wheat in your beer brings tremendous foam generation and retention. It’s fun to focus on the process, but think about the end result, too. When I picture something like a hefeweizen in my mind, I picture pillows of foam and drinking in a sun-dappled beer garden under the shade of chestnut trees, just taking in all the visuals. Then you bring that beer to your nose, and there is the spicy clove; it’s generated by the yeast, but it needs the ferulic acid in wheat to spark it. The ingredient does more than just give us color and body.


Play around with wheat. Maybe take some wheat malt, rehydrate it, and then put it back in an oven to change its essential quality. Or toast it dry—that’s an interesting space to play in, especially on a homebrew scale. There’s no reason you have to use the ingredient exactly as it was packaged for you.

Going back to the start, don’t just think of wheat as how it is today. Think about its ancestors, these ancient grains—spelt, emmer, and einkorn, which were used in beer previously and have interesting brewing characteristics—as well as hard proto-wheats. Anyone who wants to play around with recipes should look to those ancient grains and how they might change your beer.


Unmalted Wheat

Imparts more intense grain flavor than malted varieties, but must be used in conjunction with malt for brewing conversion. High-protein content helps create stable haze in traditionally hazy styles such as witbier.


White Wheat

A softer, fruitier wheat malt (3.0–3.5° Lovibond) from North American soft winter white wheat, it’s less sharp than red wheat and generally suitable for most wheat-beer styles.


Torrified Wheat

Unmalted wheat that has been heated to a high temperature to pre-gelatinize the starches in the grain and prepare them for mashing. Adds body and head retention from structuring proteins, but must be used in smaller quantities with malted grains so that it can “borrow” excess enzymes from the malt to convert starches into sugars.


German Pale Wheat

A light (1.6–2.3° Lovibond) pale wheat malt that imparts a bready, doughy, nutty character to German-style wheat beers.