Beer Guide - Wheat Beers

An Introduction To Wheat Beers

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Grains of barley are one of the key ingredients of making beer. They are left damp to germinate and the dried or roasted to stop growth before being used to provide the sugars for fermentation. However the same principal applies to other grains such as oats, rice, maize and wheat. Of these wheat is the grain that most likely to be mixed in with barley and has spawned a range of distinctive beers. The first thing that will strike you about most wheat beers is that they are cloudy. This is because the yeast left in the bottles is traditionally poured into the glass, usually with the bottle being swirled just before the final beer comes out to pick up and distribute the yeast. This leaves the beers feeling much heavier than other counter parts. The beers will also typically have big creamy heads

Due to their pale colour wheat beers are often called White beers. Due to how similar White and Wheat sound the two terms are often confused, whether in English, German (Weiss or Weizen) or by folk guessing wrongly what a Belgian Witbier is referring to. At least the French term for White beers - biere du Blanche - sounds nothing like the word wheat. Whilst German beers adhere to their purity law the Belgian counter parts have coriander and orange flavour thrown into them with almost wanton abandon. The English beers are less distinctive, often coming across as bready versions of golden ales.

Wheat beers are usually regarded as being a refreshing summer beer with many brewers producing Belgian style wheat beers in as seasonal specials. However the German styles can lend themselves to being effective winter warmers – especially the stronger weizenbocks. The success of beers like Hoegaarden shows that there is a still a mainstream audience for beers that would never make it through a modern market research session. That in itself is something to be optimistic about.

Witbier (Belgian White)

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The current popularity of Witbiers is down to one man. Pierre Celis worked as a boy at the local Tomsin brewery. The brewery closed in the 1950s but a decade later, using second hand equipment installed on the family farm, he started brewing Witbiers, a style which had fallen out of production following the closure of breweries such as Tomsin. The beer was initially to people in the town of Hoegaarden and was thought to have limited appeal. However sales steadily grew and by the 1980s, following a fire at the brewery, one of the major Belgian brewers offered investment and eventually took over. Celis retired at 65 but wasn’t finished. He moved to America and set up a new Celis brewery that Miller ended up taking over. Returning to Europe he has got the Van Steenberge brewery to produce a Celis Witbier to the original Hoegaarden recipe and there is a Celis signature edition of St Bernadus Wit. In short, Celis is the pope of Witbier.

The Celis blueprint is a descendent of medieval beers that used a "gruit" of spices and plants for flavour in place of hops. The modern Witbier uses hops but it is the coriander and orange peel gruit that gives the beer it's distinctive refreshing taste. Brewers can play around with the gruit mix to give varying levels of spice or citrus - some are subtle, others feel like they thrown a whole spice rack in.

Other white beers of note include Biere Blanche De Corse which uses maquis herbs to give flavours of lemon vanilla, pepper, strawberry and juniper and Jean Cloudy Van Damme which has a sophisticated sour apricot flavour. Over in America bland lager merchants Miller now produce their own Witbier called Blue Moon – that would be happening if Pierre Celis hadn't decided to start brewing in a stable.

Five To Try -
1. InBev Hoegaarden
2. Moortgat Veddet White
3. Le Moulin De Saint Martin Blanche
4. Tunnel Jean Cloudy Van Damme
5. Colomba Biere Blanche De Corse


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Bananas. The first thing you taste in a German wheat beer is bananas. And cloves. Possibly a hint of vanilla too. Given that German brewing laws prohibit the use of fruit, spices and flavourings you start to wonder how those flavours got there. The answer is in the yeast. The strains of yeast used in German wheat beers produce esters and phelonics as a by product of fermentation. These have the flavour of bananas and cloves respectively. The same flavours can be achieved in beers that don't contain wheat, but few brewers do this.

The traditional beers are served unfiltered and are called Hefeweizen. The Weihenstephan and Schneider Weiss are great examples of the basic style. The Lowenbrau, Reidenberger and Erdinger add orange, blackberry and honey to the mix respectively. Filtered wheat beers are known as kristallweizen and usually feel like neutered versions of Hefeweizen, though they may appeal to those wanting something lighter or more akin to a lager. There are also stronger Weizenbocks such as Weihenstaphen Vitus that clock on at 7 or 8% abv. These can have a toffee or caramel malt flavour coming from the higher alcohol content. All these should be served in tall, thin tulip glasses that have a perilously high centre of gravity.

Those outside Germany brewing Weizen beers generally stick to the purity laws. Some breweries are slavish enough to transport German strains of yeast half way round the world to make things just so. The use of wheat in weisse beers can also be optional as the 1516 brewpub in Vienna prove with their Quinoa Weisse which has a hint of citrus flavoured boiled sweets.

Five To Try -
1. Fischer Brau Weiss
2. Lowenbrau LowenWeiss
3. Weihenstephan Hefe Weissbeer
4. St Austell Clouded Yellow
5. 1516 Quinoa Weisse


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The terms Weizen and Weiss are used almost interchangeably with German beers. However for this style we have to be far more careful. Dunkelweizen means "Dark Wheat" and describes a wheat beer made with roasted malts. Dunkelweiss means "Dark White" and at best implies an intriguing, Spinal Tap-esqe contradiction in terms, and at worst implies an unappealing grey coloured beer. However some brewers are unaware of this, or choose to ignore it. The Emerson's brewery down in New Zealand produce a Dunkelweiss that tastes of caramelised chocolate bananas - good beer, poor name. Even German brewers such as Weihenstephaner use the term "hefeweisse dunkel".

Dunkelweizen retain all the fruit and spice flavours of their pale sibling. However the roasted malts add a sweet caramel note alongside the bitter chocolate you would expect. They usually feel heavier and richer than hefeweizens as well, though they still clock in at 5% abv. The Arcobrau, Erdinger and Weihenstephan dunkels are all typical of the style. Thankfully no-one bothers to make filtered versions of dunkelweizens - though like a number of weizen beers they are pastuerised which kills the yeast, meaning there is no fermentation going on in the bottle.

There are also dark Weizenbocks weighing in at around 8% abv and aimed at a fireside drinker during winter. Weihenstephan's Korbinian kicks in with huge amounts of coffee and rye bread whilst Erdinger's Pikantus feels subtle and restrained in comparison. The Weizenbock made by Kiwi brewers Emerson's has a dark fruitiness akin to a Belgian Dubbel.

Five To Try -
1. Hovels Original Bitterbier
2. Emerson's Weizenbock
3. Erdinger Pikantus
4. Weihenstephan Korbinian
5. Arcobrau Bavarian Winterfest Wheat Beer

Wheat Ale

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In comparison with the exciting flavours and romantic backstories of Belgian and German wheat beers, British wheat ales seem a tad dull. Instead of curious strains of yeast or enthusiastic shaking of a coriander pot, these wheat ales distinguish themselves from their peers by doing something as banal as tasting of wheat. Without any great fireworks to supply the marketing men with these beers occupy a quiet niche, often seeming a little confused as to what they are meant to be doing.

St Peter’s Wheat Beer is certainly confused. It is made by a Suffolk brewery using Belgian yeast and German hops yet doesn’t really taste like either of it’s continental counterparts. The taste is crisp, bitter and malty with the light gassiness of a lager with a dry, lip smacking finish that has a hint of hops. It also comes in a great looking oval shaped bottle based on a 18th century America design. Other beers such as the Cotswold Brewing Co Wheat Beer attempts to dress in the Lederhosen of a German Weisse but feels more like a familiar English friend showing off some holiday photos – enjoyable but not the real thing. The Sharps brewery decide to break some fresh ground with their Honey Spice Wheat Beer but the overall taste falls somewhat between a wheat beer and a honey beer.

Over in Iceland the Olvisholt brewery invoke the Norse goddess of fertility with Freyja, the first wheat ale produced in the country. Broadly similar to a Belgian White the beer is light crisp and quite restrained. Like many wheat ales it is subtle rather than strident, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Five To Try -
1. Cotswold Brewing Co Wheat Beer
2. Sharps Honey Spice Wheat Beer
3. Wye Valley Hazy Daisy
4. Olvisholt Freyja
5. St Peters Wheat Beer