The World of Wheat Beer

"Think Beer, Drink Beer" colum­nist Tim Pat­ton de­fends wheat beer from those who don't be­lieve in its de­li­cious­ness.

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 brew­mas­ter@stben­jamin­brew­

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