My first exposure to wheatwine was courtesy of Smuttynose in Portsmouth, NH, and I have to confess that I was immediately hooked – which made it all the more disappointing that there were so few available on the market! Those you can find are often stale (not much pull-through on them) and it’s a rare brewpub that whips one up. Luckily, this is exactly the kind of conundrum that homebrewers are built to address. Can’t buy one? Brew one. This can be a fun style to make (given enough rice hulls), and it makes for an outstanding fall beer that holds up to a lot of aging.
Wheatwine is very much what it sounds like: a higher-alcohol beer with a significant contribution of flavor and texture from the malted wheat in its grist. It also allows for “mild” hops character, representing just about any region, and we’ll be pairing some classic American citrus and Continental floral notes here. It’s also a “light” beer in color, that as a strong golden ale shares a lot of characteristics with the Belgian Tripel: pale, with noticeable alcohol, but a smooth-drinking beer with good grain and fruit notes.
What it most certainly is not is a kind of Imperial Weissbier. You can brew those, for certain, but this isn’t the place for it. Banana and clove should not be present if you plan on calling your beer a wheatwine, and they really shouldn’t be present if you’re going to enter it in competition! The guidelines also indicate a subtle preference for a light oak character, but we’re not going that direction here: it’s easy to overdo, and we can add some of those richer flavors in other ways without running the risk of big tannin expression.
This recipe is built around wheat in a way that even Weissbier or Weizenbock recipes aren’t. Start with about eleven pounds of malted wheat, which will end up constituting about 60 percent of the grist. Along with that, be absolutely certain to blend in about a pound of rice hulls, without which the only way you’re getting the wort out of the mash tun is with a scoop.
To that we’ll add five pounds of Vienna malt; the BJCP Style Guide suggests two-row pale malt, but also indicates right at the top of the description a beer that should be “richly textured” with “interesting complexity” in the malt. I find that an American two-row is unlikely to add much texture or flavor, and feels like a missed opportunity, hence the Vienna to add some light grainy spice, nicely complementing the wheat (and alcohols, if they come through in the flavor).
Rounding out the malt are a pound of Caramunich and a pound of Maris Otter, along with eight ounces of Melanoidin malt. Every one of these should provide a bit more bready, biscuity complexity and the Caramunich will give a touch of crystal sweetness without darkening the beer too much. Not a bad foundation, and your post-boil gravity should just top the 1.100 mark.
We’ll need a fair amount of bittering to balance that out, so I add 65 IBUs using any high-alpha American bittering hop, then tack on an additional 4-5 IBUs with a one ounce addition of Hallertau at the ten-minute mark. Finally, at flame out I add an ounce of Cascade – that might sound like a bit too much, but this beer will age into itself and it helps preserve a light orange-and-flowers nose that won’t have completely faded in a few months’ time.
Finally, I like London Ale III (Wyeast 1318) for fermentation. It gives a rounded expression to the malts, much like the Irish Ale yeasts, but also adds some nice fruit aromatics as well. It’s not the best attenuator in the world, but that’s something we can whip along well enough, and I’d rather have the right malt-ester profile and a few points of leftover gravity than a bone-dry beer that’s lacking in character!
Mash at a steady 152F; for such a big beer, some might recommend lower to increase fermentability, but the style can tolerate some body (medium-full to full and chewy) leftover, so you don’t want to try too hard. Be sure to add your rice hulls to the mash as well, to improve flow. Boil and chill as usual, then pitch your yeast and start at 60F. That might seem too low, but while you want the alcohol to be slightly noticeable, you need to guard against it being too hot or too strong in flavor, and a cool fermentation will help on both counts. Hold there for a week or so, then raise to the mid-high 60s for another week, ending with a free-rise to wherever it wants to go. When you’ve had no airlock activity for a week or so, cold-crash and package, shooting for a very modest 1.75-2 volumes of CO2.
You can age this beer a long, long time. Even at more than six months in the bottle, the samples I opened taste richly bready but still slightly fruity, and a bit of light oxidation or added richness from IBUs falling out of solution will only improve the overall flavor and impression. This is a once-a-year beer for me, often in cycle with an Old Ale or American Strong Ale at the opposing halfway-mark through the year, and it is a surprisingly approachable beer even for non-beer geeks. Just be careful with it: at a well-hidden 10.5% ABV, it can catch you by surprise when you stand up!