Brewers have been brewing with wheat for as long as they have brewed with barley. Like barley, wheat has high diastatic power, which refers to the malt’s ability to break down starches into fermentable sugars. This attribute is important because it gives wheat an advantage over other grains with low diastatic power. Wheat is also high in protein and starch. These qualities provide a creamy texture, hazy appearance, and great head retention to a finished beer.
Brewing wheat beer has been a tradition in Bavaria for hundreds of years. However, the brewing right was only reserved for Bavarian royalty, due to the restrictions put forth by the Reinheitsgebot or “The German Purity Law.” The Reinheitsgebot first appeared in the city of Munich in 1447 as an ordinance asking all brewers to use only barley, hops, and water for brewing (yeast had not yet been discovered). The idea was to limit brewers to barley, leaving precious grains like wheat for bakers. As a result, the ordinance would prevent price competition, keeping bread affordable for everyone.
Traditional Bavarian wheat beer was often dark, like most German styles of that era. However, the modern day Weissbier, often referred to as Hefeweizen, originated in 1872, but gained popularity in the 1960s. The word “Hefe” translates to “yeast” in German, which is derived from the style’s iconic banana-and-clove yeast characteristics. A classic example of a German Weissbier is Paulaner Hefe-Weizen
; a sweet, crisp, and refreshing ale with a touch of clove.
Brewing with wheat was also a practice in neighboring countries, like Belgium. The Witbier is a 400-year-old Belgium beer style that nearly died out in the 1950s. Thanks to Belgium brewer Pierre Celis, the style was resurrected and brought to America in 1992. Witbiers are characterized by their tart, lemony finish from the spicy Belgium yeast. They are often brewed with curacao orange peels and coriander. Witbiers have become a summertime favorite in the United States. A great example of a Belgian-style Witbier is Ommegang Witte
; a soft and hazy ale with flavors of orange, lemon, and coriander.
Craft brewing in the United States is still relatively young. Several beer styles have emerged since the beginnings of the craft beer revolution in the 1970s. These styles were greatly influenced by the brewing techniques and traditions brought over by immigrants. Hence, the American Wheat Beer is an adaptation of the German Weissbier, but with a cleaner yeast and more hops. Different variations of this style range from an easy drinking, relatively sweet beer, to a dry, aggressively hopped beer with a strong wheat flavor. A modern example of an American Wheat Beer is Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat
; a lively, refreshing ale with a natural citrusy flavor and distinctive cloudy appearance.
Beer drinkers today seem to love wheat beers. They are soft and refreshing with high carbonation and a fluffy mouthfeel. Wheat beers even taste great with the addition of fruit. Whether it’s a German Weissbier, Belgium Witbier, or American Wheat Beer, something about wheat lends itself to the perfect summertime libation. Here’s to many delicious wheat beers in your near future!