Separating the Wheat

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 27, Issue 3
July 1, 2006 By

Temperatures rise. The ocean beckons. Baseball bats crack. Porch swings creak. Kids chase each other around the back yard. Fireflies dot the night darkness. Ah, must be the season of the wheat. Stop! Rewind. Did they say wheat? Yes, friends this is the season of the fabulous wheat, wheat beers in all their glory and splendor rule the hot summer months for the beer lover.

One of the oldest family of beers, before the days when brewers controlled their grist mix, wheat beers provide a range of light, tart, tangy refreshing flavor profiles that simply make for delightful summer sessions of beer appreciation. From sharp lactic flavors begging for a touch of syrup to lightly fruity tastes with a wedge of orange on the rim, this family of beers has something for everyone to make a summer day or evening just that much more memorable.

The story of wheat beers near death and rebirth spans two continents over two centuries and peels back the local history of a couple beer-drenched regions, not to mention provides welcome addition to the recent American craft beer renaissance. But what a revival! Over a dozen distinct styles have charged forward attracting acclaim from beer enthusiasts around the world. Those with a passion for flavor, including white wine aficionados, are in for a joyous adventure through a collection of beverages, which are, well, simply not very beery.

Historically, brewers have used a wide range of cereals to brew beer, constrained by what grew locally. Maize, rice, rye, oats, millet and sorghum have all been exploited for brewing, but the two leading grains have been barley, the dominant choice; and wheat, the distant second.

Wheat—in the form of emmer, a low-yielding variety—was one of the first crops to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. The Egyptians used emmer and barley as the main ingredients in both bread and beer. Ever since, these two potential uses for the grains—baking and brewing—have periodically led to competition over limited supplies.

According to Randy Mosher, by the medieval era, wheat beer brewing was established all along the North Sea coast, before becoming entrenched in Bavaria in the fifteenth century. The well-regarded 1909 history 100 Years of Brewing includes a tantalizing item on the source of these “modern” wheat beers:

In the first portion of the sixteenth century the so-called “weiss bier” came into prominent notice at Hamburg. It was known as Hamburg wheat beer, the original product having been imported from England in large quantities and acquired much favor in the Hannoverian city. In 1526, Curd, Broihan, who had been employed in one of the Hamburg breweries devoted to the manufacture of “white beer,” removed to the city of Hannover, where he commenced to brew a drink resembling the Hamburg wheat beer as nearly as the latter resembled the English variety. His, however, was so superior to either, that “Broihan” beer not only supplanted all the imported brews, but seriously competed with the darker and heavier German makes.

The notion of an English origin for wheat beer may be startling to Bavarian weiss beer enthusiasts, but the growing popularity of these beers around this time is undisputed. The resulting pressure on supplies of wheat may be the unstated motive behind the most famous piece of beer legislation: the Reinheitsgebot. The famous Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 is often sited as a benchmark in consumer protection, since it stipulates that beer can only be made from barley, hops and water (and later, yeast). However, one effect of this law was to preserve wheat for baking purposes—bread being more important to social order than the cereal content of beer.

Another unstated motive might well have been economic. There was one important exception to the Reinheitsgebot: wheat beer could be brewed in Bavaria under royal warrant. According to the Erdinger Brewery, today the world’s largest producer of wheat beer, Ludwig X granted the right to brew wheat beer to his steward, Hans Sigismund of Degenberg. The Degenbergs exercised that right until that line died out, when Duke Maximillian retained the privilege. This monopoly on wheat beer production enriched his family, the Wittelsbachs, as wheat beer consumption was the prerogative of nobility.

When the royal fancy for wheat beer waned, so did princely profits. Until the mid 19th century, weissbier production remained in the hands of the royal court of Bavarian. Although their were as many as 30 breweries making the beer style in Bavaria, including the legendary Hofbrauhaus, sales had continued to plummet, possibly motivating King Ludwig to sell the brewing rights to a commoner, Georg Schneider in 1872. Although the pilsner was becoming the fancied beer style of that era, Schneider managed to craft quite a business out of his wheat beers. (In fact, the brewery today is poised to welcome the sixth Georg to run the famous brewery.)

German wheat beer followed the course of many great beer styles during the 20th century. Relegated to near oblivion by mass marketers, stuck in the world of old people’s beverage, the style made a resurgence, moving from single digit share points to nearly a third of the German beer sales. During the 1980s young people gravitated to the turbid estery beverage as a healthier tonic more so than the dominant pilsner.

The key to successful weissbier brewing lies in the yeast. The venerable yeast bank, and reputedly the oldest continuing brewing site, Weihenstephan, maintains a collection of weissbier yeasts, all designed to impart that signature clove, and sometimes vanilla, phenolic aromas. The beers may also contain other fruity notes, such as green apples, blackcurrant, or lemon, which may be derived as much from the yeast as from the extensive amount of wheat in the mix.

While Schneider continues as a major player in the wheat beer legion, particularly with their internationally famous Aventinus, others have stepped up to the plate. IRI lists the Erdinger hefe-weissen as the best selling in German and around the world. Both Schneider Weiss and Erdinger Hefe-Weissen are also sold keg-conditioned, but not pasteurized.

The afore-mentioned Weihenstephan has a full range of weissbiers that find their way throughout the United States. Berliner Kindl has become the better-known brewer of the Berliner Weisse, as has Ayinger for their Ur Weissen, a signature dunkles.

While German festivals give free rein to bottom fermented beers, ignoring their top fermented cousin completely, weissbier is sine quo non breakfast beer of Southern Germany. There are few beery experiences that rival stopping off at the stub at 9 am for a traditional Bavarian breakfast where weissbier makes up one leg of the traditional breakfast – Weisswurst and Brezen being the other two. Weisswurst is a veal sausage, served with sweet mustard, and brezen the soft, overly large pretzel, often seen in the company of the other two.

Beneath the Piorot and Tin Tin fastidious façade, Belgium offers the traveler, and beer lover, a range of idiosyncrasies unparallel in a country the size of Connecticut. Sitting astride trade routes, land-based and ocean going, Belgium has continually been awash with different influences and affects.

Amidst a bevy of exotic styles, wheat finds its place amidst a bevy of exotic styles. Here we want to chart the course of wheat in two brewing styles, the most conspicuous of which is the now infamous Belgian Wit and the more arcane and peculiar lambic.

While no doubt contributing its typical tart, dryness to the flavor profile, the delicate wheat grain may find itself overwhelmed by the intensity and complexity of the lambic maker’s approach to yeast.

Often described as the most primitive of brewing styles, lambics definitely harkens back to bygone days. A visit to some lambic breweries has more in common with a brewing museum tour than a tour of any other brewery in the world. The beer traveler is likely to find equipment from another epoch, creaking along amidst dust and cobwebs. Repairs are ignored, if not avoided altogether in an attempt to maintain the indigenous micro flora.

This distinctly unGerman approach to brewing calls attention to the heart of lambic brewing – spontaneous fermentation. Unlike every other brewing style and tradition, lambic brewing relies on wild yeast floating by and settling on the unfermented wort, having their way with the sugars therein.

The sour beer is racked into much used wooden barrels and there a rather unusual fermentation begins. Over extended time, the sour beers develop a lactic flavor from the brettanomyces yeast, which adds little to the alcohol content but a lot to the flavor.

Blending differently aged batches, relying on the skill of an artisan and not the data of a laboratory to produce the infamous gueuze, a rare flavor. Additions of sugar are another approach to mitigating sourness. Finally, steeping fruit in the casks creates krieks, a cherry lambic and framboise a raspberry lambic, to name just a few.

While lambics bury the subtleties of wheat, the Belgian wit advances it to the forefront. Here the German wheat beer lover might find the common ground so lacking with the anarchic lambic beers. The silky light color, the high carbonation, the frothy head, they all seem of a piece with the German tradition. However, the aroma and taste head off on another tangent altogether.

Whereas the spicy, herbal flavors of the German wheat beers come from the yeast, the Belgians have another angle. The white beer brewers also added spices—coriander, sweet and Curaçao orange peel, and brewers’ secret additions: not surprising, as this area was the crossroads of the spice trade during the Renaissance.

In the area that was to become Belgium, a commercial trade in wheat or “white” beer (witbier or bière blanche) grew up centered in the town of Louvain and the village of Hoegaarden east of Brussels. Unlike the German styles, these white beers, as well as the traditional Belgian lambics, are brewed with unmalted wheat. With a wheat grist of 30% to 60% (the remainder being malted barley), Belgian white beers or Wits, have the signature wheat beer coloration — hazy, lightish, yellow — with the thick, dense, huge head, similar to many of the German styles.

Belgian wits experienced the same fate and German wheats and, for that matter, most of the classic, traditional, non-lager beer styles. Beginning in the late 19th century they experienced a steady decline until near extinction in the 1950s. By the mid-20th century, they were endangered beer species. A young milkman, overhearing the nostalgic musings of the old folks, gambled that there would be a good business in reviving the old style.

Having lived next door to the last brewery to close, and working there from time to time as a kid, Pierre Celis believed there was still a market for this style and opened De Kluis in 1966, brewing white beers. It was not the old, but the young that took to Hoegaarden White, possibly because of reported healthful properties associated with live yeast in sediment. More dramatically, Celis introduced the style to the United States through a brewery he established in Texas. Without any American tradition to build on, the wit bier style went from totally unknown to brewpub darling in about ten years, including the well-respected Blue Moon, by Coors Brewing Co.

The establishment of wheat beer styles of all kinds in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon. Despite the dramatic impact of German immigrant brewers on the beer drinking habits of 19th century Americans, these brewers either failed to bring the wheat tradition with them, or the styles failed to take hold with American audiences.

So, American brewers of the 19th and 20th centuries used little wheat malt. A correspondent in 1877 wrote damningly in the New York Times, “Wheat is used in Germany more than here. In Munich, there is one brewery, it is said, that employs wheat malt almost altogether. In this country, however, it is little used except in the brewing of ‘weiss beer,’ a mawkish, frothy, flatulence-compelling, sourish stuff, sold in glasses like sections of stove-pipe, and incapable of intoxicating any one.”

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.