Wheat beers

By Gregg Smith

What if you could go back in time to colonial America? Imagine visiting Monticello as the guest of Thomas Jefferson. Soon Martha Jefferson appears and asks if you'd like a beer, and she hands you one of her latest batches. It strikes you how refreshing this beer seems, surely Martha was a knowledgeable brewer. Indeed she was, and the beer she handed you was a wheat beer.

For centuries brewers have been making wheat beer. Brewers like Martha made their beer with wheat for a number of reasons. It gave them more raw material for making beer, provided good "heading" properties, and made a very drinkable beer. These remain just as important to brewers and beer drinkers today as they ever were.

Despite their resurgence in popularity wheat beers remain a mystery to most people. Let's try to clear some of that up. Wheat beers are very popular throughout Germany although there are local differences in the style. Even the names vary. They might be called wheat, weiss, weizen or hefe-weizen. Despite this they do share some common characteristics, so let's talk about those.

Though German style wheat beers come from the land of lagers, they are actually an ale. Therefore you'd expect to find some fruity "esters" in the aroma and indeed they are present, most commonly as the smell of banana. Another familiar "nose" character is the spiciness of clove. In some wheat beers the aromas of banana and clove are balanced in an unexpected, but much sought after complexity.

After evaluating the aroma, take notice of the head. The "heading" comes from the high amount of protein in wheat. The relatively long protein molecules break surface tension and results in a big, thick, creamy crown of foam. Of course, these protein molecules cause another often seen trait - haziness. The protein molecules are actually long enough to refract light and haze is not uncommon. However, some brewers filter the beer, so it is bright and clear, especially in the American versions.

Another notable aspect is a layer of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. Most frequently this is observed in the hazy versions known as "hefe-weizen". Translated this means "with the yeast" which is left in the bottle to naturally carbonate the beer. When pouring a hefe-weizen Germans will save a little beer in the bottle to mix up the sediment and then pour it on top of the head. An added side benefit is that the yeast contains a significant amount of vitamin B six and twelve.

What about the taste? It too varies, they can be light, bubbly, tangy or malty and in combinations of all these. They also come in dark (dunkel weizen) versions. The majority will haveconsiderable effervescence and a tangy palate. Combined with the haze and layer of sediment, people often conclude the beers have gone bad. But these are actually considered desirable traits in wheat beers, all derived from the protein and yeast. In fact when you consider all the benefits of protein, brewers yeast and vitamins in wheat beer you could think of them as health food.

For summer refreshment the tangy character is a natural thirst quencher. Despite all the variety wheat beers do share one universal trait; they are a popular favorite of the summer months.

Gregg Smith


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