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
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
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