American Wheat Beer is a beer style popularized by American craft breweries, generally using malted wheat for 30% or more of the grist and fermented with either lager or neutral ale yeast. Hop character and bitterness levels vary from low to medium, but all examples display a mild, flourlike malt flavor. Beers brewed in this style do not exhibit the clove, cinnamon, or nutmeg traits or high levels of banana-like esters that are hallmarks of the Bavarian wheat beer styles. Examples of American wheat beer include Widmer Hefeweizen, Pyramid Hefeweizen, and Shiner Hefeweizen.
Wheat, in malted and unmalted forms, has long been used in making beer as evidenced by several classic European styles using the grain: wit, lambic, Berliner weiss, and Bavarian hefeweizen. Historically, these styles have often accounted for a significant portion of beer sales in their respective regions.
Before the 1980s, beers were rarely made with wheat in the United States. American wheat beer developed during that decade as start-up microbreweries emulated European styles, especially Bavarian hefeweizen. The resulting beers looked like the original, but offered a novel flavor experience.
The key to the American wheat beer’s flavor stems from yeast selection and fermentation practices. Early brewers used their regular ale or lager strains rather than a Bavarian weizen yeast, a practice that continues today. This approach gives American wheat beer a subdued fruitiness while eliminating the phenolic, clovelike traits associated with German weizen strains.
While American brewers use malted wheat like the Germans, they generally use less—as little as 30% of the grist and rarely more than 50%. The balance of the grist comes from pale two-row malt. A huskless grain, wheat malt does not deliver the same lightly toasted flavors found in barley malt. Recipes are generally formulated to result in a beer with 4%–5.5% ABV and the soft, flourlike flavors from wheat malt give the style a relatively mild flavor and good drinkability. A slightly tangy light acidity is common.
The resulting beers are pale yellow to gold in color and the high protein content of wheat malt contributes to a hazy or cloudy appearance common to the style. Like their German counterparts, American brewers often sell wheat beers unfiltered so yeast may be present—occasionally to such an extent that it contributes to the cloudy appearance of the beer. Despite this, bready yeast flavors are not seen as an accepted style trait.
While hop usage varies, the relatively light malt base means that hopping must be kept in check to prevent overwhelming the beer. Bitterness may range from 10 to 35 IBUs but is usually at the lower end of this range and generally perceived as low to moderate. Many examples use flavor and aroma hopping with American varieties for a low to medium citrus or piney trait. European aroma hops are occasionally used for a similar level of floral or spicy effect.
Despite significant flavor differences between American and German wheat beers, many US brewers use the German words “weizen,” “weiss,” or “hefeweizen” in naming wheat beers made in the American style. As a result of this twisting of the nomenclature, consumers rarely know whether to expect the traditional German flavor profile or the American flavor profile when buying US-made wheat beers.
American wheat beer has been a popular base for making fruit beers.