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:
- Schneider Weisse 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!
- Unibroue 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.
- Brasseurs Du Temps Dumduminator: Named in honor of its creator, Dominique Gosselin (Dumdum to his friends), this dunkelweizenbock has dark malts, a heady foam, and a strong, rich wheat flavor. And like most good, strong weizenbocks, it has distinct notes of banana and some additional spicey notes. I managed to sample this beer when in Ottawa for the Winterlude Winter Beer and Wine Show in 2012, and the experience left me with a lasting desire to seek out products by the BDT brewery whenever I found my way back east.
- Schneider Weisse Mein Nelson Sauvin: Another fine product from the venerable Munich-based brewery, the Nelson Sauvin is a recent addition to their product lineup, a limited reserve that combines a traditional hefeweizen with Nelson Sauvin hops. And the end result is a beer that possesses all of the characteristics of a fine Bavarian bottle-fermented wheat beer as well as a complex, spicy flavor that oftentimes tastes and smells like Riesling grapes or a barley wine.
- Russel Nectar of the Gods Wheat Wine: Part of Russel’s Specialty Series, this beer is made using fifty-percent wheat malts and fifty-percent Munich and Pilsner. This wort is then aged in Bourbon Whiskey barrels for four months, resulting in a beer of wonderful complexity with high alcohol content (10%), strong fruit esters, notes of vanilla and oak tannins, and a smokey, whiskey finish.
- Moon Under Water Year One Wheat Wine: Much like a barleywine, this wheat wine is darker in color due to its high gravity malts and is unfiltered. It is also generously flavored with Citra hops and fermented dry with three different strains of yeast, resulting in a beer that is a deep orange-red, is cloudy to the point of being opaque, and very strong (11.5% alc/vol). The rich malt and hop flavors combined also lend it a slightly sweet and citrusy finish, making for an all around interesting and very pleasing drinking experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!