As the weather starts to approach a more sweltering temperature, chances are you’ll be reaching for a beer that will deliver you back into the range of comfortable. A beverage that is skilfully balanced, like a tight-rope walker, between lightness and complex flavour How rude of me! I’m not sure if you’ve had the pleasure. Reader, meet wheat beer. Wheat beer, meet our reader.
This golden elixir, low in bitterness, and brewed with a mixture of wheat and barley, is thought to be one of the world’s oldest styles. Two traditional divisions of the wheat beer style are the weissbier in Germany and the witbier in Belgium and The Netherlands, both brewed with an increased amount of wheat in place of the customary grain of choice, barley. The result is a cloudy beer, due to the wheat proteins and the yeast that remain in suspension.
In the Netherlands, witbier is often seasoned with what might be thought of as unconventional ingredients. Orange peels and coriander? What gives? Well, as those that have experienced a chalice of this wonderful nectar already know, these spices are gloriously paired with the naturally imparted banana and clove flavours produced by the popular yeast strains of the style. Though the wheat is the star of the show, I beg you not to shrug off the amazing diversity of flavours imparted by the yeast strain.These tiny flocculating fermenters are as important as the grain itself and do far more than simply turn starch into giggle-juice.
In Germany, the wheat-to-grain proportion is commonly lower and the cloudiness can be filtered out to produce a Kristallweizen (crystal-wheat), or left in, called a Hefeweizen (yeast-wheat). Some beer prudes may grimace at the idea of suspended floaties causing a haziness in their beer, but you and I both know that this cloudiness brings with it a uniquely delicious set of flavours that defines the wheat beer style. Whether you want to go ahead and ruin/improve it by dropping a wedge of lemon in the glass is another story.
Though surely judged by the European originators of the style, here in North America, breweries have put their own spin on wheat beer. Since it’s a popular spring and summer beer, it can be infused with fruit flavours like peach, apricot, or raspberries. The result can be a godsend when facing the hot, dehydrating heat of summer. For myself in BC, Granville Island’s Hefeweizen and Okanagan Spring’s Summer Weizen come to mind.
Sometimes an existing style of beer can be modified to include a higher proportion of wheat: styles such as the wheat IPA, Saison, or even wheat wine. In my particular city of residence, a place called Longwood Brewery has whipped up an amazing version of the darker wheat style, called a dunkelweizen. Amazing flavours that I don’t believe could be achieved using malted barley alone. Sweet and toasty with notes of toffee, yet still refreshingly light. That my friends, is the real characteristic of a great wheat beer. A lightness with no compromise in flavour.