Wheat beer is a very distinctive variety of beer which originated in Germany and the Low Countries. Even today, the names by which different varieties are known: Weissbier, Hefeweizen, Witbier, Kristallweizen, Kriek, etc, are all indicative of its roots. Compared to barley-based beers (aka. ales and lagers) wheat beers tend to be lighter, cloudier, smoother, and produce more foam. However, they are still made in the tradition of ales, fermented at warmer temperatures using top-fermenting yeast. The result is a highly malty beverage with a a distinctive taste that is fruitier and more complex than your average lager.
In addition, fruit and spices are often employed in the making of wheat beers. In many cases, this took the form of orange, cloves or coriander, though various substitutes and additional fruit and herbs have been known to make it into the mix. This is interesting considering that the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which was thereafter adopted everywhere in Europe and the world, forbade the use of anything beyond malt, hops, yeast and water in the making of beer. One can only speculate that wheat beers constituted a loophole in the clause!
In any case, one can find countless examples of wheat beer still being brewed today. Many are German, harkening back to the High Middle Ages and after, but craft brewers have also been known to make their own in recent decades thanks to renewed interest in this venerable type of beer. The following is a list of my personal favorites:
- Aventinus: No best of wheats would ever be complete without mentioning this signature creation by Schneider und Sohn, one of Germany’s oldest and most venerated breweries. This hefewiezen doppelbock delivers the goodness of both a traditional, unfiltered wheat ale with the rich taste of a double-fermented bock. The result is a complex, aromatic and delicious beer that has rich malts, a crisp hop finish and a multilayered flavor that is reminiscent of chocolate, plums, raisins and bananas. This beer is not only one of the best wheats in the world, but also a top contender for best beer of all time!
- Don De Dieu: Another great product which comes to us from Unibroue, the makers of such beers as La Fin Du Monde and Blanche De Chambly. However, the particular genius of this beer is that it combines the best of both these brands, being a wheat ale that is also triple fermented. The result is a strong ale that is a golden-orange color, has a distinctive Belgian-style flavor, but which is also smooth, foamy, has light fruit, and tasty, complex finish. Definitely one of Unibroue’s better products, and one which can be difficult to find outside of Quebec.
- Blanche De Chambly: Yet another product by the venerable Unibroue brewery. This time-honored wheat is a testament not only to Quebec craft brewing, but to traditional wheat ales. Golden and opaque, smooth and foamy, and with a light refreshing taste that contains discernible traces of orange and cloves, this beer has everything a traditional witbier is known for. Excellent when paired with food or just on its own as a hot weather beverage.
- Pike Dry Wit: Definitely one of the more complex wheats I have ever tried and definitely one of Pike’s more experimental creations. Upon drinking, one notices the strong, wheat malts right away and is gradually made aware of orange and coriander as well. However, the taste grows in complexity the more one drinks, with notes of chamomile and lavender becoming apparent before long. The uninitiated might find this odd or unappealing, but to me, it was a downright delight! I look forward to my next sampling.
- Schneider-Weisse: Schneider und Sohn’s flagship beer, at least where the export market is concerned, this wheat is a perfect example of a well-rounded and traditional hefeweizen. Smooth, with good wheat malts, a subtle hop bite, and a rich golden-brown body that is cloudy and produces a good head. In the course of drinking, one is made aware of notes of cloves, nutmeg, and a slightly sweet taste that is reminiscent of banana nut bread. As you can imagine, this beer is well paired with food or deserts too!
- Gutmann Hefeweizen: A favorite which came to my attention during Carla and my Eurotrip of 2007. Shortly after landing in Germany, having spent the previous few weeks walking the Camino De Santiago in Spain, we were looking for some good eats and some cold beer! We got the best of both, finding delicious food and copious amounts of wheat beer that was made locally by none other than this brewery. A true wheat, boasting a cloudy, golden hue, a rich, malty flavor that is subtle, complex, and highly refreshing. Notes of banana, fruit and cloves make this one an all around pleaser.
- Longwood Dunkelweizenbrau: A local brew, produced up north in Nanaimo, and one of my favorites due to its smooth character and infinite drinkability. In addition to being a wheat, its also a dunkel, and thus combines the aromatic and malty flavors of a wheat with the tawny, smooth taste of a dark. Whenever we’re in town, Carla and I will go on by to Longwood for some food and beer, and this is a recurring favorite of mine. Since its also available in bottles and growlers, I usually see fit to bring some home with me too!
- Cheval Blanc: Yet another fine brewery located in the heart on Montreal, Quebec, this brewery is renowned for producing craft beers that are both authentic and appealing. And their Cheval Blanc, aptly named since it is a white beer (which is typically how wheats are known in French), is certainly consistent with this reputation. At once smooth, clean and malty, it also possesses a lingering aftertaste that is loaded with citrus notes and spices.
- Erdinger: Having been established in the late 19th century, this brewery is a somewhat recent addition by German standards. Nevertheless, Erdinger has a reputation for delivering a wheat beer that is malty, smooth, refreshing and highly drinkable. Golden in color, smooth on the palate and with light fruit notes that are reminiscent of bananas and nuts, this beer is well paired with spicey food, meat and fish, or just on its own, especially as a summery drink!
- Belle-Vue Kriek: A uniquely Belgian-style of wheat beer, Kriek is a Lambic beer, which is a variety of wheat that is heavily infused with fruit. In the case of the Kriek, this takes the form of masticated cherries, which result in a tasty, yeasty beer that is deep red in color, possesses sweet malts, and a tart, cherry finish. Best when enjoyed as a dessert beer, paired with cholocate or creme brulee!
Honorable Mentions: St.Amboise Apricot Wheat, KLB Raspberry Wheat. Though they did not make the top ten list, these beers are both perfect examples of craft brewed wheat ales. Both are infused with fruit, are clean tasting and perfect examples of Kristalweizens (being clear). Also highly enjoyable and refreshing to drink!