The Beer Primer: Wheat Beer

9 Jun

I’ve promised myself that one day I shall actually get round to finishing the first part of my primer on ale, but the weather is sunny and when the sun is out wheat beer is always the answer. There is also the fact that writing a primer on ale is incredibly daunting, and possibly too much work for my delicate arts student constitution.

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Wheat beer is a variety of beer which is brewed with a large proportion of wheat on top of the usual malted barley, and usually top fermented to boot (top-fermenting yeast forms a foam at the top of the wort during brewing). This defines wheat beer, in the same way that warm fermentation defines ale and low temperature fermentation defines lager. Needless to say it’s just a little bit different from many of the beers I’ve yet reviewed. In general it has rather less of the hoppy bitterness of many other beers, instead often having tones of malty sweetness that lends itself to an altogether softer experience.

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I’d be tempted to say I’ve fully described wheat beer and end the primer here, but that would take away the fun of it because like any other types of beer there’s a dizzying variety of styles out there, enough to satisfy the taste of most beer lovers. Well, I say dizzying, but there are really two main types – German weissbier and witbier from the Low Countries. If you run across draught wheat beer in your local neighbourhood bar (and you probably will), it will be one of these two different styles.

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Witbier, or white beer, is probably the more readily available of the two in Britain. As the name suggests, this is a white, cloudy and, exceedingly summery type of beer, often coming with a large foamy head. I mentioned that wheat beer generally has only a lightly hopped taste and nowhere is this more apparent than in the white beer. Instead of the bitterness of hops you generally get the sweetness of the malts, as mentioned, combined with a mixture of spices and fruity flavours. The details of this mix vary from beer to beer but in the quintessential commercial white beer, Hoegaarden, the extra taste comes from a combination of coriander and orange peel enhanced with a garnish of lemon on serving. The result is very refreshing and light on the palate – at times perhaps a little too light. On the other hand, the sweetness and fruity tones of white beer are perfect if you’re perhaps not overly fond of beer but want something rather mellower than wine or spirits to pass the summer months. I’ve already mentioned Hoegaarden, but other brands are available – Colorado’s Blue Moon is probably equally popular as the draft white beer if you’re in an upscale bar. There’s also a fair variety of bottled white beers – the Milestone Wheat beer is a good example of something a little less commercial and there are more Belgian wheat beers than can be reasonably counted, and the number increases when you include the myriad seasonal varieties of white beer.

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Less popular, but still readily available, are the German weissbiers. Broadly speaking, there are also two varieties of weissbiers – the unfiltered hefeweizen and the filtered kristallweizen – but in reality you’re most likely to get hefeweizen. The difference is simply that hefeweizen is cloudy because of suspended yeast and wheat proteins in the beer on serving, whereas kristallweizen is clear. Either way weissbier is darker in colour, unspiced and just a little less sweet than white beer, but with similarly fruity and herby overtones. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to sum up the difference, I’d probably say that it tastes more beery and robust than white beer, but it nevertheless remains a summery beer. The other thing that makes weissbier distinctive is the sort of tall and tapering glass it is generally served in. Whilst this might sound like a fairly cosmetic difference, it makes the large wheat beer head look even more extravagant to the point of mild impracticality. If you’re looking for a readily available wheat beer, Erdinger is most likely to be what you’ll come across, although I’ve also seen Franziskaner and Weihenstepaner, particularly in London. But of course this is a German beer, so there are a number of fairly obscure sub-varieties that you can seek out. For example, as with German lager there are dunkel and bock varieties of weissbier, but I’ve yet to see anything beyond the standard hefe or kristallweissbier served in Britain – but seek and ye shall find.

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So, those are the two common types of wheat beer, but naturally there are some wheat beers that defy easy classification. For example, British wheat beers can be especially confusing because brewers often use a combination of the white beer style and traditional bitter – Oakham’s lovely White Dwarf is a good example of this. Then again, wheat beer isn’t a traditional British style and we do love trying to shoehorn ale into everything. Similarly there are also traditional lambic wheat beers, such as the sour (and often flavoured with syrup) Berliner Weisse. Whilst we’re on the subject of Belgian archetypal styles, there are also white fruit beers, which take the sweetness of a white beer even further – Fruli is a popular example. I’m not a massive fan, and it’s perhaps only marginally beer, but it is both popular and readily available. Finally, on a general note wheat beer is often used as an adjunct of sorts in other varieties of beer, as the above examples show, so you may find it popping up in somewhat unlikely places. But if you want a light, refreshing and satisfying brew, you often can’t do better than the two main styles.

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So, over the summer treat yourself to a wheat beer, especially if you’ve never had one. You (probably) won’t regret it.

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