There is no denying the popularity of wheat beers these days, but they are as old as beer itself. Bavarian weizenbier, Berliner weisse, Belgian witbier, American wheat ales and lambic are all familiar wheat-based beers. Wheat even finds a supporting role in odd brews, adding complexity and lending its matchless ability to enhance head formation and retention. Summarily shunned or dismissed as an ingredient as being too crude, old fashioned, or simply too hard to deal with, wheat survives in beer and thrives today because of that same rusticity and uniqueness.
Though wheat beers may have been an ordinary quaff of the commoners throughout central Europe in the 1400s, this was not the case in the duchy of Bavaria. The noble Degenberger clan was the sole legal producer of weissebier.
Ironically, the most popular of them all, the unfiltered hefeweizens (alternatively weissebier, weissbier, or weizenbier) of Bavaria are those that use wheat most prominently. They feature a top-fermenting yeasty footprint, a product of an extraordinary and complex strain that may be a bona fide remnant of early Germanic brewing. At different times, Bavarian hefeweizen has been archetypal, domestic, monastic, noble, proletarian and trivial. This brings us to its rediscovery just a few decades ago and a style that may indeed be the symbol of beer as we enjoy it into the future—one that allows us to appreciate the originals.
Grains of Civilization
The cultivation of grain and the domestication of animals allowed ancient tribes to abandon their nomadic lifestyle, settle together, develop farming techniques and other skills and exchange ideas. The very birth of civilization depended heavily on the ability to raise crops, grain being the most important. Barley and wheat cultivation comes from the Sumerians, some nine to ten millennia ago. Brewing followed shortly thereafter. The familiar (and speculative) tale is of sopping loaves of bread or grain, fermented with wild yeast, which led to the serendipitous discovery of a sourish beverage that produced a pleasant, exhilarating and invigorating buzz.
Brewing became a staple endeavor, a way to further use the grains that were being farmed. Actual depictions and written accounts of brewing and beer date to the third millennium BC in Mesopotamia.
Agriculture gradually moved out of the western Mediterranean and Mesopotamia and into the more temperate and less arid climate of central Europe. The cultivation of barley and wheat for food and beer was especially embraced by Germanic cultures at least 3000 years ago north of the Alps. These rough-hewn, hearty people of the forests and surrounding open land developed affinity for their homemade beer, to the point where much of their life revolved around it. Probably these were ales made with a mixture of barley, wheat and perhaps rye. In fact, a crock discovered in 1935 near Kulmbach contained the remnants of a black wheat beer dated to 800 BC. It is the oldest concrete evidence of brewing in Europe.