In the diverse world of craft brewing, the kaleidoscope of beer styles offers a spectrum of flavors, aromas, and textures. Amidst this diversity, wheat beer stands out as a refreshing and often misunderstood gem—prompting the question, “What is wheat beer?” Today’s style guide will discuss this beer style and its defining characteristics.
What Is Wheat Beer?
Wheat beer is brewed with a sizable amount (usually more than 50 percent) of wheat malt added to the traditional barley malt. It has a characteristic malty taste, light aroma, and pale color.
There are numerous types of wheat beer, the most famous among them being German Weizenbier (also called Weißbier or Hefeweizen) and Belgian witbier.
Wheat beers are often cloudy in color and have a smoky taste. Many people find this type of beer to be somewhat sweet, often with notes of fruits, bananas, and cloves. These notes are the product of the fermentation process, as the overwhelming majority of the popular wheat brews are made from traditional beer ingredients only, without any additional flavoring. Other people tend to describe the taste of wheat beers as “herbal” or even “medicinal” or reminiscent of an apothecary shop.
Wheat beers are usually more-than-average carbonated and consequently tend to produce a prominent stand of foam. Not only that, the wheat brings in more protein, giving resulting beers a chunkier and weightier head. Many brewers also toss in a bit of malted or raw wheat in their beer to provide that foam with an extra boost.
What is Weizen Beer?
Weizenbier or Weißbier (you can listen to the pronunciation here) is probably the most well-known style of wheat beer. The name “Weißbier” literally means “white beer” and refers to this type’s most prominent feature—its much lighter color compared to the beer produced exclusively from malted barley.
Weizenbier traditionally comes from the southern parts of Bavaria, a region in southeastern Germany known for its rich cultural heritage, picturesque landscapes, and, of course, its renowned contributions to the beer world. It was initially introduced to Bavaria from Bohemia (part of modern-day Czech Republic) in the 15th century. Because of the German beer purity law, special permission had to be issued by the local duke to allow brewers to use wheat in their products.
Historically, Bavarian Weißbier was brewed either with a significant proportion of wheat malt or exclusively with air-dried pale barley malt, a choice popular among the less affluent. Widely recognized in Germany, it is commonly referred to as Weizen (“wheat”) outside Bavaria.
What is Hefeweizen and Kristallweizen?
Hefeweizen (literally “yeast wheat” in German), sometimes also called “hefe beer,” usually refers to traditional unfiltered wheat brew. Kristallweizen (literally, “crystal wheat” in German), conversely, refers to the same beer that was filtered to get rid of wheat proteins and yeast to make it transparent.
Basically, Hefeweizen and Kristallweizen are two different types of Weißbier.
What is Witbier?
Moving from Germany to Belgium and the Netherlands, we encounter another great style of beer—namely, witbier (once again, meaning “white beer” in Dutch). Other names for the same beer style are white beer, bière blanche, or just “witte“.
As with the previously discussed Weißbier, this beer gets its name from the typical hazy appearance of unfiltered wheat beer. In modern times, additional flavorings such as citrus or coriander can be added to witbier, often changing its color (depending on the specific spice).
In the past, this brew featured barley malt, unmalted barley, and oats, with hops as the sole addition as the chosen spice. Belgian yeasts contribute extra fruity and spicy notes to enhance the overall flavor profile. Currently, certain popular varieties of witbier opt for raw wheat instead of wheat malt in their production.
What is American Wheat Beer?
American iterations of this style employ American yeasts, distinct from the robust clove and banana notes in German weiss beers or a witbier’s fruity, spicy profile. Appearance-wise, American wheat brews vary from clear to cloudy. They boast a more pronounced hop character in typical American fashion, resulting in a crisp texture compared to a witbier or hefeweizen. American wheat beer can taste both malty and hoppy simultaneously because, of course, in the U.S., we want to have everything all at once in a single glass of delicious cold beer.
What Are Other Wheat Beer Styles?
Many other beer types contain wheat and can be technically called “wheat beer.” For example, Berliner Weiße, a light beer with intentional tartness (2.5% to 3% ABV), is often enjoyed with flavored syrups like lemon, raspberry, or woodruff. Leipziger Gose, akin to Berliner Weiße but stronger (around 4% ABV), includes coriander and salt. Belgian lambic, a distinctive wheat and barley brew, stands out with wild yeast-driven spontaneous fermentation. Originating in the U.S. in the 1980s, wheat wine is a barley wine variation with a substantial wheat mash bill.
However, these types of beer are not the first things that usually come to mind when “wheat beer” is mentioned, and they are generally referred to by their respective names.