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A Layman's Guide to Wheat Beer - Introduction to Wheat Beer

Hefeweizen, Berliner Weiss, Dunkelweizen, Weizenbock, Krystal, and Belgian Wit.


Hefeweizen beer with lemon wedge
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There are quite a few beer styles that reside under the greater umbrella of wheat beer. Like stouts, there are too many varieties of wheat beer to cover them properly in a brief beer style profile. So, here is a layman’s guide to wheat beers.

What makes a beer a wheat beer? Simply put, a significant quantity of the mash should contain wheat. Typically wheat beers contain 30-70% wheat malt and the remainder is regular barley malt, usually a pale variety like Pilsner. Though there are many different styles and sub-styles that can be called wheat beers they all share certain characteristics. Wheat has a lot more protein in it than barley which contributes to thick, long lasting heads. This protein also creates haze in most wheat beers. Wheat contributes very little flavor to a beer but it does contribute a distinctively silky mouthfeel. Wheat beers are highly effervescent and most are light in flavor, making them great summer beers.

Hefeweizen: The best known and original wheat beer is hefeweizen. Using wheat as an ingredient in beer was the first exception made to the famous beer purity law, Rheinheitsgebot, and that exception was made specifically so the nobility could continue to enjoy this style. This Bavarian style of wheat beer is pale and cloudy. It is bottled and served unfiltered so the yeast used during fermentation is still present. This special strain of yeast contributes banana and clove notes to the aroma and flavor of the beer. Wheat beer is an ale so it is heavier and doesn’t provide the smack of a lager. But served cold, with or without a slice of lemon, it is no less refreshing. Berliner Weisse: While the brewers in southern Germany rely on yeast for the flavor and aroma of their wheat beers, brewers in northern Germany use a different technique. Berliner Weisse is fermented with ale yeast and Lactobacillus delbruckii which creates an unforgettable beer. The bacterium contributes a dominant mouth-puckering sourness. Otherwise this beer is light in character and very effervescent. Some fans of this rare style like to sweeten it with flavored syrups. That may work for them but as with every beer I always encourage initiates to try it on its own first. Dark Wheats: There are two dark styles of wheat, Dunkelweizen and Weizenbock although it should be pointed out that early Hefeweizen’s were probably much closer to Dunkelweizen than today’s Hefeweizens. Dunkelweizens are brewed very much like Hefeweizen except that the malt used is typically one of two darker varieties – Vienna or Munich malt. These malts contribute a chestnut brown color and are the primary malts used the Oktoberfest style. The combination of the rich roasted flavors of the malt and the banana and clove notes from the Hefeweizen yeast can create a wonderfully complex and satisfying brew. Weizenbock is made in virtually the same way except that it is a higher gravity beer so, in alcohol content at least, it’s similar to bock. Krystal: Krystal wheat beer is what you would imagine – clear wheat beer. You often see wheat beers described as unfiltered. Krystal is a filtered wheat beer. Filtering produces a crystal clear beer with none of the cloudy character of Hefeweizen. Filtering removes the stuff that contributes the beers flavor and character so Krystal wheat beers are much lighter than regular wheats. They do retain the same banana and clove notes thought they are far more subtle. Belgian witbier: Thanks to Hoegarden, this once almost dead style has come roaring back. Brewed similar to Hefeweizen, Belgian witbiers use a yeast that is similar to the Bavarians’ yeast in the way that it adds flavor and aroma but those characteristics are distinctly different. This style, having grown up out from under the dictatorial eye of Rheinheitsgebot, also includes orange peel and coriander. Witbeirs are at the same time fresh tasting and complex. Other Belgian beer styles contain malted and unmalted wheat but are not generally considered to be wheat beers. American wheat: This is the American craft brewers’ spin on wheat beer. This style takes the Hefeweizen recipe and replaces the distinctive yeast with much cleaner fermenting ale yeasts. This creates a very subtle brew making it a great transition beer for many new good beer drinkers. Specialty: Because wheat contributes so little to a beer’s flavor while at the same time it produces some much desired qualities such as head retention and a smooth, full mouthfeel, it is the perfect style to use as a base for many fruit beers. There was a time when virtually every brewpub I walked into was serving a wildly popular raspberry wheat beer. Though this isn’t the case now, there are still quite a few of them. But fruited wheat beers aren’t limited to berries. Virtually every fruit and quite a few spices have found their way into a wheat beer recipe at some level. While none have had the staying power and popularity to earn a separate style distinction, there are simply too many fruit wheat beers on the market to not acknowledge them.

No doubt you will find some wheat beer styles that seem to fit more than one of the categories that I’ve laid out here. Consider this list of styles as simply a jumping off point for you to begin exploring wheat beer if you’re not already familiar with its variations. Wheat beer will surely continue to expand and be reinterpreted by today’s innovative brewers.
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