By Lauren Duffy
Wheat beer is actually a catchall term for a variety of styles that incorporate wheat into the brewing process. These beers are known by a variety of names around the globe, each with subtle differences in style. In Berlin, the berlinerweiss is tangy and a bit sour, in other parts of Germany the weizen or hefeweizen has characteristic flavors of banana and clove. In Belgium, the witbier is made citrusy and crisp, often with the addition of coriander and orange peel. In America, the wheat beer takes a variety of forms as well, paying homage to its European heritage and plowing forward into modern styles, as American breweries so like to do.
Regardless of their subtleties, wheat beers are the quintessential summer beverage, at once refreshing yet intriguing; effervescent and cool. Most have a hazy, golden color, as proteins from the wheat make these beers cloudy, not clear. Most are mild in alcohol, high in carbonation, and bring a range of unique flavors that often prove surprising considering beer’s basic ingredients: grain, water, hops and yeast.
While wheat is responsible for these beers’ name, it is the yeast that lends their unique flavor characteristics. The temperature of fermentation and yeast strain chosen produces fruity esters that bring distinct flavors such as banana, clove, and even bubble gum. In fact, in a well-made wheat beer, the flavor comes entirely from the yeast; hops barely have a presence in aroma or bitterness.
When serving a wheat beer, make sure it is well chilled but not frozen—storing them in the fridge is better than an ice bucket. Pour them into the tallest glass possible, and sit back as the frothy white head emerges from the bottle. (If your glasses aren’t tall enough to fit the entire beer plus the foamy head, try wetting them slightly before pouring the beer in—the water will tame the foam.)
Now, before you head to the supermarket and grab a case of Blue Moon (did you know Blue Moon is brewed by Molson Coors?) or Shock Top (that one’s Anheuser-Busch), I urge you to check out what local breweries are doing with this versatile style. For wheat beers are best enjoyed fresh, and there is no fresher beer than that which is brewed locally. Here are three area breweries’ wildly different interpretations of the style.
Orchard White, The Bruery
This beer explodes from the bottle with everything but a champagne-cork pop. A frothy head gushes forth, settling to reveal an effervescent pour and a gorgeous, saturated gold color. The aroma of citrus lingers in the air—exploding from the bottle almost as fiercely as the carbonated liquid. But on the nose, this beer reveals more subtle yeast and bread notes. In the mouth, carbonation couples with a silky backbone, thanks to the use of oats in the malt. Flavors of coriander and orange emerge, and a slight citric tang lingers on the finish, begging the palate for another sip. This would make a wonderful start to a celebratory meal, and a good pairing to mild cheeses, or seafood: think scallops, clams, or oily fish. (5.7% ABV; available in 750-mL bottles year-round)
Orange Avenue Wit, Coronado Brewing Company
The fact that Coronado Brewing Company is located on Orange Avenue is a delightful excuse for the brewery to play up the orange flavors in this beer. Brewed with orange peel and honey from orange blossoms, this beer is citrusy and mild, a very approachable wheat beer that is smooth, and even a tad sweet. Honey notes greet the nose, followed by a mild, sweet palate that is a balance between creamy and effervescent. If you’re turned off by traditional hefeweizen banana and clove flavors, this is a beer for you—a very approachable, American interpretation of a wheat beer. (5.2% ABV; available in 22-oz. bottles)
Wahoo Wheat, Ballast Point Brewing Company
This is your classic witbier. While brewed in the Belgian, not Bavarian, style, an unmistakable whiff of banana greets the nose and follows through on the palate, melding with smooth lemon and citrus notes. A crisp, effervescent finish brings a spicy tang to each sip, rounded out by smooth lemon and spicy coriander flavors. This is a wonderfully well-balanced beer, a wonderful example of a modern witbier style. Plus, at just 4 percent alcohol, it seems perfectly suited for quaffing, especially during that glorious summer hour when the sun is still shining but the evening has begun. (available year-round in 22-oz. bottles)