A “wheat beer” refers to really any beer where a substantial portion of the grain used in brewing is wheat. In general, they’re hazy, citrusy, and have fuller mouthfeel. They’re also kind of a pain to brew.
Most craft beers you’ll find in a bar are brewed primarily with malted barley. The reason is straightforward: barley malt is easier to brew with. Wheat beers are exceptionally hard to brew because the proteins and starches in the grain want to bind, making it trickier to extract the sugars. These same proteins make wheat exceptional for baking (think stretchy pizza dough).
Some of the styles of beer that tend to use a high portion of wheat are hefeweizens, American wheat beers, and witbiers. We actually wrote up an entire blog dedicated to disentangling these three similar (but distinctly different) styles of beer. To make it simple, if you see “wheat beer” on the menu, here’s a feeling for what you can expect.
Hazy: most wheat beers will have a noticeable amount of haze to them. In the case of a wheat beer like our Allagash White, the haze is mostly made up of suspended proteins from the malted red wheat, raw white wheat and yeast. Not that every hazy beer has wheat in it; there are other ways to get haze. And for that matter, not every wheat beer is hazy; there’s one notable exception.The German kristallweizen is brewed with wheat and then filtered, making it bright and clear. But that’s definitely the exception, rather than the rule.
Creamy texture: In combination with barley, wheat creates a silky, creamy texture and a big, beautiful long-lasting head on your beer. You’ll often find oats in wheat beer. Oats are great at creating more of a rich texture in beer.
Citrusy/Bready flavor notes: Wheat also tends to impart a bready, bright, lemony character to beer. In the case of a hefeweizen, that citrusy note is augmented by the banana/clove/bubblegum notes in the yeast. But while not all wheat beers use a fruit-forward and aromatic yeast, they’ll all share that nice citrusy, bready note.
White wheat from Buck Farms up in Aroostook County, Maine.
Wheat beers aren’t made with 100% wheat. In Germany, to brew a “weissbier” there needs to be at least 50% wheat malt. Witbiers like Allagash White are generally made with around 20% unmalted wheat in the grain bill. American wheat beers, like a Bell’s Oberon, can have anywhere from 10% to 35% wheat. One of the main reasons no one brews with 100% wheat: you’d have a rough time emptying the lauter tun. In malted wheat, the wheat kernel doesn’t have husk material, so the wort (unfermented beer) can’t filter itself like barley. If you hypothetically brewed a beer with 100% malted wheat, the wort would get caught up in a sludgy mess. Additionally, unmalted wheat doesn’t even have enough enzymes to convert its own starches into sugars. Again, barley to the rescue. Barley has the enzymatic power necessary to convert unmalted wheat starch into the simple sugars that the yeast can actually eat.
Interestingly, many breweries use wheat in their beer and don’t describe them as wheat beers at all. Many hazy, “New England-Style” IPAs have wheat, or oats, or both, to lend their creamy texture. In addition, plenty of farmhouse, or saison-style, beers may also have a relatively high portion of wheat, or other grains such as rye or spelt.