The modern style known as American wheat beer has only been around since 1984. That’s when Anchor produced its first batch of Anchor Wheat Beer (now known as Anchor Summer Beer) as a limited edition offering for the fifth anniversary of its new San Francisco brewery. Other West Coast brewers soon followed with their own wheat beers. Pyramid introduced its Wheaten Ale (now Pyramid Hefe Weizen) in 1985, calling it the “first year round draft wheat beer made in America since Prohibition.” Portland, Oregon’s, Widmer Hefeweizen (Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.) came along in 1986.
American wheat beers commonly contain a proportion of wheat malt (40 to 60 percent) similar to that of German hefeweizen, and, when unfiltered, they look like their cloudy, golden European cousins. But the similarity stops there. What mainly differentiates Bavarian-style wheat beer from American-style wheat beer is yeast. American-style wheat beers use a more neutral, American ale yeast, one that produces much subtler flavors and aromas and yields a cleaner, drier, more stripped-down malt taste. American wheat beer doesn’t strive to be complex – it’s more about refreshment than sophistication.
Harpoon and a few other wheat-beer brewers, including Pyramid, have worked hard to promote the style as a product worthy of year-round appreciation (as is the case in Germany and other parts of Europe), not just a summer thirst-quencher. But for many other craft breweries, wheat beer is synonymous with warm weather. Anchor Summer Beer, Samuel Adams Summer, Bell’s Oberon Ale, Shipyard Summer Ale and Full Sail’s Hangtime Ale—all are wheat beers, but their labels and marketing focus more on their seasonal appeal than on their grain bill.
With its neutral malt character and its freedom from traditional flavorings, such as dried orange peel and coriander in Belgian-style witbier, American wheat beer is an ideal canvas for experimentation. Some breweries are making wheat beer with a prominent hop character (Southern Tier’s Hop Sun, Three Floyds Gumballhead). Others flavor their wheat beers with fruit, including apricot, raspberry, blueberry, and, of course, citrus. Adding citrus flavor by squeezing a slice of lemon into your glass is a matter of controversy among wheat-beer drinkers. The anti-lemon lobby points out that lemon kills a beer’s head and argues that a quality brew shouldn’t need extra flavoring. The pro-lemon camp says, “Whatever. I think it tastes good.” No matter which side you take, follow this rule: if a wheat beer tastes bad without lemon, switch to another brand.
This is the season of the wheat and the time to experiment. With this innovative, American-style, wheats sitting next two classics from Europe and the States, all who appreciate flavor – complex and subtle – have an undiscovered territory to explore. Each glass of wheat beer, redolent with herbal, fruity flavors and aromas, reflects centuries of tradition, heritage and culture.
Be bold. Be adventuresome. Gather beers, foods, even wines and take an odyssey. Life will never be quite the same after the season of the wheat.