Profile of a Wheat Beer
One could be succinct in describing a wheat beer. They are top fermented, hazy, highly carbonated, low in hop aroma and bitterness, made with 50 to 70 percent malted wheat, and they exhibit a tart, fruity flavor and complex estery aroma. This straightforward description would not do a fine Bavarian wheat beer justice, however, especially when considering the flavor and aroma components.
Wheat beers, more than any other broad style of beer, may be defined by complexity rather than by a couple of distinct attributes. The use of wheat adds something to this profile, but the main contributor to the uniqueness is a special and unusual strain of yeast that is almost never used for anything but a wheat beer. A sampling of products from several different breweries would demonstrate a commonality among the various beers, but there are enough subtle differences among them to find a favorite and these are great beers to compare.
The aroma is a cacophony of vanilla, banana, clove, spices, and even apple and juicy fruit gum, all of which would be an unwelcome intruder in most beers but are quite at home in the sanctuary of a wheat beer. The malted wheat adds a tart/malty component that gives a wheat beer even more depth.
Wheat beers are generally cloudy. The use of wheat, which is very high in protein, and the unfiltered, bottle-conditioned nature of the beer contributes to this appearance. The protein precipitates readily in a wheat beer when cold, and results in a turbid “chill haze.” The yeast in the bottle, which can become resuspended, also will contribute some haze.
There is a noticeable absence of the noble hop character that accompanies most German beers. Wheat beers contain a hop bitterness rate that is about one half that of even a lightly hopped beer, barely perceptible. As the hops stand meekly in the background, the other flavors are allowed to come to the forefront. At least one component of a wheat beer demonstrates some modesty!
A Weizen by Any Other Name
Mentioned in the introduction were the various siblings of the weizen family, all of which are quite distinct. There are really four types of weizenbier—hefe weizen, kristall weizen, dunkel weizen, and weizen bock. Their pedigree loosely dictates that they are made with about 50 to 70 percent malted wheat and are top fermented, subtly hopped, and aggressively carbonated. They all have the “weizen” character to some degree.
Hefe Weizen or Hefe Weisse:
This is the most common variety of the wheat beers. It is bottle conditioned and sedimented, so it has the yeast either in the bottom of the bottle or in suspension. The yeast, along with the chill haze, give it a cloudy appearance. The prefix “hefe” simply means yeast. This is Bavarian wheat beer in its most traditional and unadulterated state. After fermentation, the beer is bottled with its original yeast or a second strain to provide a tertiary fermentation in the container. A hefe weizen is of standard strength for a beer, about 5 percent alcohol by volume (abv). Draft hefe weizen should also be cloudy.
Kristall Weizen or Kristall Weisse:
Kristall is the German word for “clear” and thus this is a filtered weizenbier. A kristall will retain the signature weizen character but have a more mellow, refined taste, almost lager-like. Kristall weizen has had all of the yeast, and much of the chill haze, removed, like most beers in Germany would have. This is not to say it is any less enjoyable than a hefe, just softer. These should be included in any “weissebier starter kit” and are also about 5 percent abv.
Dunkel is German for “dark,” so this is literally a dark wheat beer. Dark malts are used to deepen the color and character of the brew, and they complement the regular weizen character perfectly. Caramel sweetness, along with raisin and chocolate notes, can be detected, depending upon the brew. These are roughly the same strength as a hefe weizen and most German breweries include them in their portfolio.
You guessed it—bock-strength weizen. These are generally dark and are similar to dunkel weizen but much stronger, about 7 to 8 percent abv. Like all versions of weizen, they retain the fruity, spicy notes. These are somewhat rare and are not to be missed if available. Rich, with loads of malty sweetness, these brews are bursting with character beyond imagination.
Enjoying Wheat Beers
You should bear a couple of things in mind when pouring or serving a wheat beer. These are rambunctious brews due to the higher carbonation levels and demand some attention when pouring. They are itching to be liberated from the bottle and, if not delivered correctly, will erupt effusively.
They are best served in an hourglass-shaped German wheat beer glass that will hold a full half-liter bottle with plenty of room to spare.
One way to dispense them is to quickly invert the bottle in the glass. When the level of the beer in the glass reaches the bottle, slowly retract the bottle with minimal splashing until the bottle is empty. This will also disgorge the yeast in the bottom of the bottle if it isn’t suspended already. Wetting the glass with cold water before pouring will help reduce the foaming.
Method two is much less exciting. Tip the glass, and slowly decant the beer along the side of the wetted surface of the glass until the bottle is almost empty, leaving a half inch in the bottle. If a yeasty glass of brew is preferred, swirl the remainder and dump it into the beer.
It has become standard practice in some places to put a lemon wedge on the side of the glass, leaving its addition to the beer up to the drinker. Try it without the lemon. It is a shame to disguise the very things that make a wheat beer unique with a flavor as strong as lemon. Wheat beers are tart and quenching enough.
Hunting for Wheat Beers
The best place to get the full wheat beer experience, of course, would be Bavaria. Southern Germany is liberally sprinkled with breweries that make outstanding weizenbier of all types. The large breweries make some of the finest, but it would be worthwhile to seek out some smaller producers whose brews might be a little more idiosyncratic. I’d be willing to bet that the locals would be happy to give directions and share their preferences. Michael Jackson, Larry Hawthorne, Graham Lees and James Robertson all have written beer guides to Bavaria or southern Germany.
If Europe is not on your ticket, the popularity of wheat beers in North America has had a two-fold result—an influx of many German imports and a dedication to wheat beers by domestic microbrewers.
Tap houses that have a good selection of brews are sure to include draft and bottled German wheat beers on their menu. Don’t be surprised to see some domestic wheat beers, however. North American microbrewers, ever vigilant in their quest to keep up with public demand, produce some excellent ones. They can be found from sea to shining sea, from North Carolina to Washington, and many points in between. Great wheat beers are made in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and California, to name a few places.
If you’ve never had a wheat beer, try one. Then have another. It is an acquired taste for some and you might just find it to be an epiphany. These unique, utilitarian and versatile brews could hook you for life.