This month's style sheet celebrates the frothy, fruity, yeasty pleasures of wheat beers. A wheat beer's lighter body and slightly tangy spiciness come from either malted or unmalted wheat. It replaces some of the hops traditionally used to counter malt's sweetness. Wheat also contributes to strong head retention, and when combined with the typically high carbonation of these beers can result in massively thick, lingering heads. Wheat beers are usually served in a tall, bulbous glass to accommodate this crown of foam.
There are a number of interesting styles based on the use of wheat including dunkleweizen (dark wheat), weizenbock (strong wheat), and Berliner Weisse (a sour, low-alcohol wheat that's usually sweetened with a shot of flavored syrup), but the two most common styles are the hefeweizen and the witbier.
Hefeweizen (literally "wheat with yeast") originated in Bavaria. It's unfiltered, giving it a cloudy appearance and a prominent yeastiness. The yeasts contribute the banana and clove aromas associated with the style. You might even detect some bubble-gum-like flavors. Lemon and apple tartness is common and this is sometimes complemented with a lemon wedge served on the side of the glass. Purists scoff at the addition of lemon, but I find it perfectly acceptable, no different than a lime in a gin and tonic. Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier is the gold standard of the style and is hard to beat, but Franziskaner, Paulaner and Ayinger all make excellent versions. Brooklyner Weisse and Victory Sunrise Weisse are good domestic examples.
American versions of the hefeweizen have become as ubiquitous as Hannah Montana, and most are nearly as bland. Working with cleaner yeasts, these American pale wheat ales retain the light body and tang imparted by the wheat, but without the distinct aromas and complex spiciness of the Bavarian versions. Among the best examples of the style are North Coast's Blue Star, Boulder's Sweaty Betty and Left Hand's Haystack Wheat. Because its light, crisp flavor makes it a natural summer quencher, fruit additions are common to American pale wheat ales, including Sea Dog Blueberry Wheat, Saranac Pomegranate Wheat and Kona Wailua Wheat (passion fruit).
While I generally prefer that brewers not add fruit to my beer (there are a few exceptions), I have been known to hang a slice of orange on a traditional witbier ("white beer"), more for aroma than flavor, though. This style was nearly extinct in Belgium until revived by craft-brewing pioneer Pierre Celis in the 1960s. He named his beer for his hometown, Hoegaarden, and it is still highly-regarded, despite some grumbling that quality has suffered since operations were taken over by InBev’s predecessor, Interbrew, in the late 1980s.
Known as bière de blanche in French-speaking Belgium, witbier is typically spiced with orange peel and coriander for a distinct citrus tang. Other spices such as white pepper might be used as well. Like the hefeweizen, it's unfiltered and hence cloudy and yeasty, but is even paler in color than the Bavarian wheat style. The wheat provides a crisp, grainy sweetness, and a bit of lactic sourness in the finish. Besides Hoegaarden (pronounced "Who-garten," incidentally), other witbier produced in Belgium includes Wittekerke, St. Bernardus Witbier and Blanche de Bruxelles.
The witbier style is one that American craft brewers have embraced, and there are a number of excellent domestic examples. Allagash White, Samuel Adams White Ale, Ommegang Witte and Atlanta's own Sweetwater Summer Hummer are all good choices. Even Blue Moon, a Coors product, is decent enough. I have yet to try Anheuser-Busch's recent entry in this category, Shock Top Belgian White. Canada's Unibroue also makes an excellent bière de blanche called Blanche de Chambly, like Hoegaarden named after the town in which it is brewed – Chambly, Quebec, not to be confused with Chamblee, Ga.
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