From Germany and Belgium to the USA
By modern definitions, wheat beer is typically made from between 30 and 60% wheat. While there are variations between styles, wheat beer is generally light in color, hazy in appearance, and has a refreshing, slightly fruity or spicy flavor profile.
The use of wheat in beer brewing goes back thousands of years to ancient times. As long ago as during the days of Ancient Egypt and the Mesopotamian Empire, wheat was a key ingredient in brewing practices. As far as modern wheat beer goes, we can trace things back to Germany around 600 years ago. Around this time, brewers began mixing wheat with barley during the brewing process, thus laying the foundations for the wheat beer styles we enjoy today.
These beginnings were followed by a somewhat tumultuous time for wheat beer. An initial growth in popularity was followed by multiple hurdles. The beer purity law in Germany (Reinheitsgebot) initially excluded the use of wheat in beer brewing, while improvements over the years to alternative beer styles, such as barley malt beers and Bohemian lager, saw wheat beer suffer against competition. Wheat beer's popularity subsequently dwindled significantly during the mid-late 19th century, with many breweries closing as a result.
Despite these setbacks, wheat beer never entirely disappeared, and its popularity rose again following World War II thanks to evolving beer trends and the beginning of the craft beer movement later in the century. Fast forward to the present day, and wheat beer has cemented itself as a notable, beloved beer style. Its hazy appearance, fruity esters, and soft mouthfeel make it an accessible drink for beer enthusiasts and casual drinkers alike. Whether you're sipping a traditional German Hefeweizen, a Belgian Witbier, or a craft-brewed American Wheat Beer, one thing's for sure - this beer style is here to stay.
Speaking of different wheat beer styles, let's delve further into that subject.
We'll begin with the one that started it all. Weissbier, meaning 'white beer' in German, is a top-fermented beer known for its cloudy appearance, which gives it a refreshing, slightly spicy, and fruity flavor. This beer is made primarily with malted wheat (at least 50%), plus barley and a yeast strain that imparts signature banana and clove notes. There are a few popular types of Weissbier worth noting:
The arguably best-known type of Weissbier is Hefeweizen (meaning "yeast wheat" in German). Hefeweizen is the traditional variant of German wheat beer and follows the classic Weissbier brewing process.
Krystalweizen beer is made in the traditional Weissbier way with one exception - the yeast is filtered out of the beer. This results in a clear appearance that goes against the classic hazy appearance associated with wheat beers.
Dunkelweizen incorporates roasted malt into the brewing process, resulting in a beer that has a darker amber appearance and a more robust malt flavor.
Witbier, meaning 'white beer' in Flemish, is a Belgian-style wheat beer with a pale appearance that matches its name. Witbier is traditionally brewed with a mix of pale, unmalted wheat, and barley, which contributes significantly to its pale look - although malted wheat is also used in many recipes.
A key factor that distinguishes Witbier from Wiessbier is that Belgian brewers are given more creative license to add herbs and fruit to the beer-making process. This makes for beers that are often light, citrusy, and spiced with herbs such as coriander, making for a bright, refreshing, and layered outcome.
American Wheat Beer
American brewers have joined the wheat beer party in recent decades, putting their own spin on this beer style.
While American Wheat Beer still uses wheat as a key ingredient (at least 30%), the twist comes from its more pronounced use of hops. This gives American Wheat Beer a more clean and crisp profile, with the hops introducing flavors ranging from floral and citrusy to piney. These distinguishing factors make American Wheat Beer perfect for those who want a little extra zing from their wheat beer.
These are just a few well-known wheat beer styles. There are plenty of other popular types of wheat beer, including light and tart Berliner Weiss, strong and dark Weizenbock beers, plus different niche regional variations and hybrid creations that add exciting twists to the wheat beer family.
Selecting the right glass
At Spiegelau, we're passionate about the fact that the glass you use is crucial for communicating your drink's qualities to your palate. For wheat beer, we have the Spiegelau American Wheat Beer/Witbier glass. Designed in collaboration with one of the leading Wheat Beer brewers in the United States, John Mallett and Laura Bell from Bell's Brewery, we introduced this glass in 2015 to enhance the beer-drinking experience for wheat beer lovers by:
Enjoying wheat beer with food
Pairing wheat beer with food can be a delightful adventure. Thanks to its minimal hops and low levels of bitterness, wheat beer pairs well with a wide range of snacks and meals, including light bites, richer meals, and desserts.
For a light and crisp match, consider pairing your wheat beer with a fresh salad, seafood, or a classic chicken dish. The fruity and slightly spicy notes in wheat beer complement these dishes beautifully, particularly in the case of Witbier and the various floral flavors it can possess.
For something a little more indulgent, try pairing your wheat beer with a plate of bratwurst sausages, soft pretzels, and a dollop of spicy mustard. The wheat beer's effervescence cuts through the richness of the sausages, while the malt sweetness plays in harmony with the pretzels. These more potent food choices are particularly well-suited to the variety of Weissbier options you have at your disposal or a more hoppy American Wheat Beer.
If you have a sweet tooth, don't shy away from dessert! Wheat beer can be a delightful companion to fruity desserts like apple pie or a berry cobbler. The beer's subtle sweetness and effervescence provide a lovely contrast to the sweetness of the desserts. Stick to a lighter wheat beer in this instance, as more powerful wheat beers such as American Wheat Beer or Dunkelweizen could overwhelm your dessert of choice.
Wheat beer has overcome numerous setbacks over the centuries to stand as one of the world's premier beer styles today. Whether you're sipping a traditional Weissbier, a citrussy Witbier, or a hoppy American Wheat Beer, you're in for a refreshing and flavorful experience. Cheers to wheat beer!
Ideal for traditional Hefeweizen or Wheat Beer: