The first time I enjoyed a wheatwine was at Rubicon Brewing in Sacramento, California. It was wintertime in the late ’80s. I had no idea what a “wheatwine” was, but it sounded cool—and as a young person in her twenties, I was looking more at the alcohol content.
What arrived at the table was a chalice. At the time, it reminded me of a highfalutin glass offered by caterers at a hotel convention—but instead of ice water, this special-event stemware was filled with a deep golden, slightly hazy beer topped with creamy-textured foam. It smelled of bread and biscuits with light toast and honey, and there was a mild yet distinctive floral hop note. The flavor delivered on that aroma, adding its own dried-fruit character. At 10 percent ABV, there was a bit of pleasant warmth as it went down.
Even if I didn’t know anything about wheatwine at the time, I knew this: It was a delight.
There Is More to It than Wheat
It’s tempting to think that wheatwine is just barleywine, subbing in some wheat but keeping the strength (and thus the “wine” vibe), but there is much more to it than that. Building in the wheat as the foundation is a fundamental shift in profile, character, and sophistication. You can’t change a variable like that without setting off a chain reaction that alters all sorts of other variables—and that’s part of the fun, right?
The big, bready grist and different spectrum of fruity notes set wheatwine apart from its barleywine kin (such as its American and English cousins, and any other more distant relations). Think of it as an imperial wheat beer—this is a strong American ale with a significantly grainy and bready malt character and smooth body. It’s a high-octane sipper, best consumed during the chilly months, as if it has the power to thaw the ice and bring on the spring.
And guess what? This is yet another style at which extract brewers can excel—if we keep a few things in mind.
Let’s begin with the obvious: We’re going to need a lot of wheat. The typical wheatwine grist is about 60 percent wheat malt, with a pale barley malt such as pilsner or two-row rounding out the rest. Here’s one of the elegant things about tackling this style as extract brewers: We don’t have to worry about getting a stuck mash from all that gummy wheat. Instead, we have a range of wheat- and base-malt extracts we can use to build that foundation.
Since this is a wheat showcase, we don’t need a lot of embellishments—any additions of specialty malts should be small, and darker ones should be avoided or used with great restraint. I prefer to keep specialty malts below 10 percent of the total malt bill. It’s worth thinking about what color you want to achieve: I enjoy an amber hue in a wheatwine, so my recipe has just a dash of German Carafa from Weyermann to help impart a coppery color. Another solid choice, and nicely appropriate for the wheat show, is a small percentage of Briess Midnight Wheat or other dark-roasted wheat malt. However, steer clear of darker crystal malts—and take it easy with lighter ones, too—because they can add too much sweetness to an already sweetish beer. Small amounts are okay to round out the bready flavors and add complexity—I like a bit of Gambrinus Honey Malt for that reason.
As for hops, the bitterness can be significant but should be balanced. Aiming just a bit high here can help a wheatwine cellar nicely, as the bitterness fades and rounds out with time—and you want some bitterness to help balance the sweetness and alcohol. The hop flavor, meanwhile, shouldn’t be sharp or aggressive; it should complement and support the wheat character—our star of the show—and not push her off the stage. Old World hop varieties that feature more floral qualities, such as East Kent Goldings, are enjoyable here. However, I particularly like the flavors and aromas that New World hops can bring when limited to that supporting role: stone fruit, gooseberry, and lychee are notes that pair wonderfully with a bready wheat base. Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, Topaz, and Motueka are few that come to mind.
To put this another way: Think of wheatwine as a thick slice of freshly baked bread. Which fruit jam do you want to spread on there? Hop character that is overly citrusy, piney, or resinous will overwhelm the wheat, tilting the balance more toward American barleywine or imperial IPA. That’s not what we’re brewing—we want our wheatwine to have its own strut.
Fermentation & Finishing
There’s a reason we want to think of our wheatwine as an imperial version of an American wheat beer: That cleaner profile will allow the wheat to shine (while those carefully selected specialty grains and hops will lend support).
That means our choice of yeast is important, and phenolic-spicy Belgian or German strains are not appropriate; clove and banana notes would be distractions. (Or you may be looking for weizenbock, just down the hall.) We want a clean-fermenting strain that can also impart a subtle fruitiness. We also want high attenuation, to avoid the cloy and keep the finish on the drier side, so a big, healthy pitch of an American or English ale strain is key to not ending up with wheat syrup.
Fermentation should start on the lower side of 64°F (18°C), with a bit of variation depending on the yeast strain. As the yeast consume the sugars, you can allow the temperature to rise as much as 5°F (about 3°C) or a bit more. Don’t go too high, or the fermentation could produce fusel alcohols, which are a headache—literally. So be kind: Start low and finish higher.
If wheatwine tends to finish drier than barleywine, it first offers a more full-bodied and luscious texture. This is a big beer, in the 8 to 12 percent ABV range, with a high viscosity that often exhibits “legs” on the side of the glass. Personally, I would not add fruit or spice, but an accent of oak can be pleasant, especially if you intend to age this beer. Medium-toast French oak imparts wonderful vanilla notes, while the tannins from the wood mellow over time and add a creamier impression to the texture. I tend to shy away from American toasted oaks here, as the char can be too heavy—but if that’s your favorite, try using a lighter toast that doesn’t detract from the wheat character.
Wheatwine is a wonderful style to enjoy with friends and family, especially after it ages a bit and the alcohol has mellowed. This is another one that I like to package in smaller bottles, passing out a few as gifts. It makes a great sipper on a weekend evening, enjoyed from your favorite fancy glass with your feet up by the fire, warming your toes as well as your belly.