When I mention wheat beer to people, I tend to get one of two reactions. People either think instantly of Blue Moon, the incredibly popular wheat beer made by Coors, or they say they don’t like wheat beer at all.
I’d like to dispel the myth that wheat beers aren’t good.
One thing people might not know is that they may be drinking wheat beer already. Wheat and oats are commonly added to beers to give them more body or aid in head (foam) retention.
For example, strong stouts often include wheat, otherwise the high alcohol content would make the head disappear rather quickly once poured. Lighter beers, like cream ales, kolsches and some pale ales will use wheat to round out the flavor.
There are also many styles of beer out there in which wheat is the primary focus, ranging from light and drinkable, to heavier beers, and even to sour beer.
In Belgium, many beers use a large portion of wheat. It is common even for abbey dubbels to use wheat. There is one main style in which wheat is the main character in the beer: the Belgian Wit.
This style dates back to 1445 and nearly disappeared before being revived in the 1980s. These beers are commonly brewed with coriander, orange peel and almost 50% wheat and are usually cloudy in color due to the protein in the wheat.
Blue Moon is a common example of this style, though far from a good one. It doesn’t appear cloudy, however, because it is filtered. Unfortunately though, filtering removes much of flavor. A better, more common, example of this type of beer is Hoegaarden. I find this beer much more satisfying than Blue Moon, and the finish is smoother.
The Philadelphia region produces it’s own local examples, such as PBC’s Walt Wit that is easy to find in most bars. Beers with words like “white” or “blanche” in them are also usually wits, such as Allagash White and Weyerbacher Blanche.
People often think all German beers are brewed according to a purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, which allows only barley, hops, yeast, and water to be used to make beer. This does not apply to all of Germany though. The country is home to many varieties of wheat beer, or weizen.
The most common is hefeweizen, which is a pale wheat-based ale. The beer tastes like banana and cloves. Unlike Belgian Wit, this flavor comes not from added seasonings, but from the yeast used to ferment it. Philadelphia has a few German beer halls, like Frankford Hall (1210 Frankford Ave.) and Brauhaus Schmitz (718 South St.) that always keep either Franziskaner or Paulaner Hefeweizen on tap. For an American version, the best I have found is the Flying Dog In-Heat Wheat.
Hefeweizen has a darker, heavier brother, called dunkelweisse or wheat doppelbock. Georg Schneider invented this style in Bavaria in 1872, and the brewery’s Aventinus is the best dunkelweisse I have tried. Dark malts are added to a hefe, which adds another layer of flavor. It’s almost like getting a little bit of chocolate with your banana.
American versions are hard to come by, but Philadelphians are lucky because two local breweries make this beer. Victory brews the Moonglow and Weyerbacher has the Slam Dunkel.
Berliner-weisse, as the name implies, is a wheat beer from Berlin. What sets this beer apart from most other wheat beers is that it is a low-alcohol sour beer. This tart beer is one of the most light and refreshing beers out there, but sadly hard to come by.
Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse (yes, it is a mouthful) is about the only German version I have consistently found on tap in Philly, turning up occasionally at Kraftwork (541 E. Girard Ave.). Luckily, Nodding Head Brewpub (1516 Sansom St.) makes a good Berliner Weisse, which tends to be on tap for much of the spring and summer.
Some serve wheat beers with fruit. In other countries, it is sometimes blended with banana nectar and even cola. The bottom line when it comes to wheat beer: just give it a try, and enjoy it however you like it.
Tim Patton is a Fishtown resident and the Brewmaster at St. Benjamin Brewing Company, a brewery opening in Kensington this summer. As a skilled brewer, he’s certainly partial to his own brew, but enthusiastic about all that the Philly beer scene has to offer. Got beer or brewing news he should be clued in on? Email him at email@example.com.