In Western culture, wheat is more than a foundation of cuisine, frequently chosen to symbolically represent the life-giving power of nature. Its history goes all the way back to the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. For countless generations, wheat was one of the wild grains selected and replanted, and eventually nurtured into high-yielding domesticated versions. Its cousin barley was carefully developed into the perfect brewing grain. While much of wheat breeding was aimed at making better bread, evidence shows that some wheat was bred for brewing.
Wheat is still as valued for brewing today as it was at beer’s dawn. As early as the 10th century, beer in Northern Europe was clearly differentiated into red and white varieties, often associated with specific cities. These early wheat-based white beers are the ancestors of most of the classic wheat styles enjoyed today.
Wheat beers share a pedigree as well as confusingly similar names. Beers called “white” are typically wheat-based. In German, you have weisse, which is more commonly applied to the sour Berliner style, and weissbier (more properly weißbier), referring to the Bavarian style, which is also sometimes referred to as weizen—meaning wheat. In Belgium there is an important classic style called witbier or bière blanche—“white beer,” in Flemish and French, respectively.
While barley makes fine beer, wheat has unique qualities that broaden the possibilities for the final product. Its unique protein and carbohydrate structures bring a creamy palate, a weighty body, a fine, stable foam, and often a milky haze. In terms of flavor, wheat is pretty subtle. Even when malted, it’s less sweet and malty than malted barley, with just a delicate grainy aroma.
Many grains, including barley, contain gummy carbohydrates called glucans and pentosans—the “soluble fiber” that makes your oatmeal so gloopy. These carbs interact with water to greatly increase viscosity and often are used as thickeners in processed-food products, but they’re a nuisance in malted barley. Large breweries test their malt to ensure low levels, as their viscosity can make the running off of the sugary wort produced during mashing slow and inefficient, things that breweries do their best to avoid.
But in wheat beers, sticky carbs such as glucans are a blessing rather than a curse, although slow run-offs can be problematic when the percentage of wheat is high and especially when grains such as oats or rye are added. The benefit is worth the pain, though; there’s nothing quite like the smooth texture and gloriously flouncy head you get in a well-brewed wheat beer.
So in some ways, a wheat-beer base is a blank canvas, although a richly textured one. Perhaps that’s why wheat beers are embellished with spicy and fruity yeasts, sour fermentations and, sometimes, actual spices. These flavoring techniques usually work better with wheat beers than with all-malt ones. Hops are usually inconsequential in wheat beers, but you do find a few eccentric versions with a bit of hop character, and of course, the new hazy/juicy IPAs are largely wheat-based. Since there are a number of quite well-defined historical styles, it seems best to just describe them here.
These wheat beers are typically brewed with half or a little more malted wheat and come in colors from straw to amber-brown, although the paler ones are the most popular by far. There are stronger bock versions as well, a style I personally find irresistible. Specific yeasts bring a unique clove-type spicy flavor, along with banana and bubblegum notes. As fermentation temperature drives fermentation flavors, brewers tend to be quite fussy about these specifics. Aromatically, these yeasts are pretty in-your-face. People either love this style or hate it, perhaps due to the clove aroma. These wheat beers are generally of normal strength: 5–5.5 percent ABV.
In general, these beers are pretty highly carbonated, which is why the tradition is (at least in the past hundred years or so) for bottles rather than draft, as it’s more complicated to serve a super-fizzy beer on tap. While filtered versions are occasionally seen—such as kristallweizen—these beers are typically yeasty. There is a specific serving technique that rolls the near-empty bottle on the table before dregs are dribbled on top of the foam, cascading through the beer like a gauzy curtain.
Before lager took over, Berliners enjoyed mammoth tumblers of quenchingly tart, low-alcohol (historically, 2.5–3.5 percent ABV) weisse. The style still exists but more as a specialty item than the everyday drink of Berlin. Current practice is to serve them with a shot of syrup: either the green woodruff herb-based waldmeister *or a red raspberry *himbeersaft. In the old days, drinkers spiked their beers with a shot of something stronger such as cherry (kirsch) or caraway (kümmel) schnapps. Weisse undergoes a lactic fermentation, bringing brisk tartness in the form of lactic acid, which adds a rounded character that plays nicely with the wheat’s creamy body. Along with the acid, Lactobacillus also adds a slight dairy (think yogurt) aroma.
Many international craft-brewed Berliners use a technique called “kettle souring,” where the wort is held in the kettle at bathwater temperature for eight to 24 hours, allowing the Lactobacillus cultures to create flavor and acidity. If this is not done correctly, some sulfurous aromas can arise, especially methyl mercaptan (aka methanethiol), known for a garbage or sewage smell. At noticeable levels, this is obviously not delicious in a beer. Most of the larger producers of Berliner weisse or its cousin, gose, conduct the lactic fermentation in a closed tank for cleaner fermentations. On the other end of the spectrum, a few smaller breweries in Berlin are reviving a more traditional mixed-fermentation weisse, using both Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces to get a more complex product. (For one such brewery, see “Will the Real Berliner Weisse Please Stand Up?” in the February/March 2020 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®.)
Belgian Witbier/Bière Blanche
In 1851, brewer Georges Lacambre described Belgium as “a wheat beer–brewing country.” It was probably encouraged at that time by a law that reduced tax for unmalted grains such as wheat and oats. So various wheat beers were widespread, although the specific tradition of witbier was centered on the celebrated brewing center of Leuven and a smaller nearby town, Hoegaarden. Like many of Belgium’s historic styles, witbier declined during the first half of the 20th century and was gone by 1960. Fortunately for all of us, a brewer named Pierre Celis revived this lovely style in Hoegaarden, and it is now brewed with various levels of authenticity wherever there is craft beer.
The classic recipe is 50 percent air-dried six-row malted barley, 45 percent unmalted wheat, and 5 percent unmalted oats. Unmalted grains retain more of their sticky glucan-type carbohydrates, adding proportionately more creamy texture compared to malted wheat. Belgian witbier is generally spiced with a mix of bitter orange peel and coriander, sometimes with a little something extra such as elderflower. Celis himself employed chamomile, which adds a delicate fruitiness.
A light touch is crucial to getting the balance correct. Spices can go off the rails due to excess or indifference to their quality. The Belgian approach is to use spicing to gently push the beer’s flavor in a direction not possible with malt, hops, and yeast alone. Conscientious brewers also insist on quality ingredients. A lot of the coriander sold for culinary purposes contains a saturated aldehyde that smells of cilantro or celery, and these savory flavors tend to stick out awkwardly from the flavor mix. Much of the dried orange peel sold contains some bitter pith—perceptible in such a delicate beer.
Like its wild cousin lambic, witbier was traditionally brewed with a “turbid” mashing process that maximized unfermentable carbs and provided a fine, stable haze. This long, exhausting process was modernized in the mid-19th century, replaced by an adjunct mashing process later used for making American mass-market lager. Belgian witbier yeasts produce a mix of fruit and spice but don’t go as far as saison in the phenolic/spicy dimension. In my experience, there’s plenty going on in these beers, although they’re not as yeast-driven as other Belgian styles. Alcohol levels in modern times range from 4.5–5.5 percent ABV. Historical records mention some acidity, especially in the versions from Hoegaarden.
I’m a fan of all of the above. Maybe it’s the way wheat adds weight to the beers without adding the sweetness that malt alone generally creates. Maybe it’s the unusual yeasts or subtle Belgian spicing. Maybe it’s because in the dappled sunlight of a beer garden on a fine summer day, a tall, luminous glass of weissbier really adds something magical to the atmosphere.
Photos: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com