As seen in the Burlington Free Press http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2016/01/26/wheat-beer-versus-witbier-coriander-versus-banana/79110354/
“Oh, I don’t like wheat beers,” is a phrase I’ve heard over and over again from patrons at the bar.
What I often find is that they do, in fact, like some beers that are brewed with wheat, but there’s a mountain of confusion regarding the wheat beer category. Some don’t like the coriander spiciness of a Belgian-style Witbier, but covet the banana- and clove-like phenols of a German-style Hefeweizen. With such a wide range of sub-styles, there’s a wheat beer out there for everyone.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the category header “Wheat Beer” is rather meaningless when it comes to understanding how a particular beer will taste in the glass. All this category tells a consumer is that one of the ingredients in that beer is some form of wheat. Many of the delicious IPAs that we worship here in Vermont are brewed with wheat, but they don’t taste anything like a traditional German Hefeweizen.
Therefore, I propose in Nietzschean fashion that we start off by ditching the term “Wheat Beer” from our collective vocabulary — it’s no longer helpful and therefore should be left by the wayside.
Now that we’re free of the baggage of Wheat Beer, let’s carve out some space for the subcategories.
Let’s start with Germany. Wheat beers brewed in Germany go by the name of Weissbier (“White Beer”), Hefeweizen (“Yeast Wheat”) and just plain “Weizen.” Despite the varied monikers, the beers are similar: all are top-fermented ales containing at least 50 percent malted wheat by law.
The traditional yeasts used to brew Hefeweizens produce unique fruity esters that smell like bananas (Isoamyl acetate) and a spicy phenolic compound that smells like clove (4-vinyl guaiacol). Most are unfiltered and are therefore hazy with yeast suspended in the beer (ergo “yeast wheat”). Being unfiltered lends the beer a rich mouthfeel, with frothy carbonation. There are also clear versions called “kristallweizen,” which have been clarified and have a more crisp mouthfeel.
There are plenty of great examples of Hefeweizen available in Vermont. For traditional German-brewed ones, pick up the ever-affordable Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbierand Ayingerz Bräu Weisse. Or look for the brand new Weissbier from von Trapp Brewing (Stowe), which should be hitting shelves soon.
In Belgium, Witbiers (“White Beers”) are made with 30 to 60 percent wheat in the grain bill, but they use unmalted wheat. Witbiers taste fruity like their German cousins; this isn’t as much from the yeast strain but rather from other additions to the brew. Typically orange peel and coriander seeds are added to Witbiers to coax out a fruity palate with a pleasantly earthy finish. Witbiers are hazy as well, and perhaps that’s why they’re called “white beers.” Because the wheat used is unmalted, meaning it hasn’t had its starches converted to fermentable sugar, these beers have a lighter-bodied mouthfeel than their German counterparts.
Check out Hoegaarden (Belgium), which claims to have developed the style in 1445. Or for one brewed a little closer to home, try Ommegang (New York) Witte.
There are other beers out there brewed with wheat that don’t fall into either of these styles. Generally these “plain” wheat beers are light in body and crisp on the palate. Pick up La Trappe (Netherlands) Witte Trappist, which contains no herbs or spices, to experience a high-quality straight wheat beer.
Belgian-style saisons also contain a portion of wheat in the grain bill, but that’s a category that requires its own column. More on that later.
While we’re on the subject of wheat beers, I’d like to make a plea to nix the fruit garnishes. Right now there’s a trend out there to garnish wheat beers with a slice of orange, lemon or other citrus, and it drives me a little batty.
This started as a way to doctor up cheap, poorly brewed wheat beers that were lacking the distinct citrusy flavor that Hefeweizens get from the yeast, and that Witbiers get from orange peel in the brew. Adding a slice of citrus covers up the flaws and makes the beer passable and seemingly more complex. Garnishing a cheap wheat beer with a slice of orange is fine, I suppose, but the trend has grown into garnishing all wheat beers, which is not OK. Stuffing an orange wheel in a properly brewed wheat beer whitewashes all the nuances that the brewer worked so hard to coax out of the yeast and ingredients. I believe that craft beers are blessed by the brewers and should be consumed as is. If I think a bartender is going to doctor up a beer with citrus, I call for no garnish. In my book, cocktails get garnishes, not good craft beers.
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf.