Wits, weizens and weisses were all but down and out 40 years ago, but now these continental wheat beers are among the hottest styles out there. Flems, Germans, countrymen, lend me your ears, says Adrian Tierney-Jones
Looking for a beer to stand out at the bar, but not one that will holler and howl about its bitterness, hoppiness and alcoholic heft? Perhaps you’re also eager to find a beer with its own elegant glassware and flavours that engage both regular beer drinkers and those who maintain that beer is not their kind of thing, as they sip on a spritzer? You might also have discovered beer and food matching and need a brew that’s able to wrap itself around as many dishes as possible, from grilled chicken and pizza to pad Thai.
If so, then whet your customers’ whistles with a wheat beer. Whether it’s a Bavarian weizen (or its filtered counterpart, kristal), a Flemish witbier or a Berliner weisse, beers made with wheat have an appeal that brings together connoisseurs, occasional tipplers and even wine drinkers.
This trio of premier league beer styles gleam in the glass and are as sunny and golden in colour as the most optimistic of moods, while a crest of egg-white foam invites the drinker to dive in as if they were on a poolside springboard on a hot sunny day (though dark and fruit-infused wheat beers are also available).
Weizen was on its last legs in the 1960s, but has thrived ever since
All three styles, in their different ways, are quenching on the palate, and brisk and crisp in their attraction, while the glasses in which they are poured all help to create a sense of bar-top glamour. You should always have one ready to serve, whatever its origins.
First of all, the knowledge: if asked what a wheat beer is, the answer is simple. Even though many brewers add a pinch of wheat, usually for what they call head retention (ie foam), wheat beers can have up to 50-60% malted wheat in the mix. This provides a slightly tart and refreshing edge on the palate (though other sensory factors also come into play), as well as adding a slight haze. Talking of the latter, given the current craft preoccupation with hazy beers, you could say that wheat beer makers have always been ahead of the curve.
Looking at all the different styles, it’s clear that wheat beer has, for a long time, banged the drum for diversity.
Hold the lemon
Over in Flanders, it’s a witbier, a thirst-quenching drink with a soft acidity on the palate alongside the jingle-jangle of spices such as dried Curaçao orange peel, grains of paradise and coriander.
Hoegaarden is the daddy of this style. A native of the eponymous town, it was extinct in the 1950s before being revived a decade later by milkman Pierre Celis.
You will have served it in a chunky glass, though hopefully no one still makes the mistake made by bartenders in the 1990s, who attached a slice of lemon to the lip of the glass (oils and acids from the fruit can overwhelm other flavours). The spices are the icing on the cake, giving sweet, peppery and grown-up citrusy flavours.
These days, Hoegaarden is seen as a gateway to the world of witbier; other examples available include St Bernardus Wit, Watou’s Wit Bier and the light and lemony Blanche de Bruxelles. The latter is a favourite of Stuart Chapman-Edwards, landlord at the award-winning north Wales pub, The Albion, who says it is 'delicate, slightly perfumed and sits ideally with the Belgian drinking notion of 'the sipping beer'.'
Witbier is also brewed throughout the world, with Blue Moon perhaps the most famous; examples in the UK have come from Brew By Numbers and Magic Rock. Given that it comes from a part of Europe well-known for its gastronomic enthusiasm, it’s perhaps no surprise that witbier is also a natural fit for seafood. Think the classic moules marinière, but also fish and chips, where the carbonation cuts through the fat and scrubs the palate clean in time for the next mouthful.
From Flanders we move to Bavaria, where the wheat beer is deep orange in colour, hazy (a sunset after a sandstorm perhaps) and laced with an urgent slipstream of bubbles rising to its creamy-looking surface. Called weissbier, hefe weissbier or weizen, it’s a bracing, refreshing beer with hints of banana custard, cloves and vanilla on the nose and palate. No spices are used (neither are bananas or custard), with the signature fruitiness coming from the yeast. It’s the kind of beer a summer’s day is made for.
And it’s a survivor. Even though it has spread out from its Bavarian fastness and is brewed throughout the world, it, too, was on its last legs in the 1960s, seen as fit only for elderly drinkers. It has since thrived, however, and now there’s even a hoppy riff on the style – Hopfenweisse.
It’s such a popular beer style that even the high priests of hoppiness, BrewDog, collaborated with Weihenstephan, one of the most traditional (and oldest) weizen breweries in Bavaria. The result was India Pale Weizen, which, according to a BrewDog spokesperson, 'was epic, and gathered a little cult following of its own!'
As well as India Pale Weizen the BrewDog bars also stock Weihenstephan Hefeweissbier. The spokesperson says, 'Weihenstephan is the oldest brewery in the world, and not without good reason. They have existed for so long by creating some of the best weizens on the planet. As far as traditional German beer styles go, they are an excellent example – and this adds an awesome string to our bars’ bows as people can try some really classic, incredible beer.'
Weisse is nicer
Once called 'the champagne of the north' by Napoleon’s troops as they passed through the beer’s hometown of Berlin en route to Moscow, Berliner weisse is a completely different creature from the first two wheat beers. It is tart-tasting, quenching in its effect on the palate, low in alcohol and, in Berlin, is often mixed with sweet syrups. Napoleon’s troops were right on the money, though: if you want to enthuse a dedicated wine drinker with a wheat beer, then a Berliner Weiss is the one to use. Its effervescence is champagne-like, while its tartness would appeal to a lover of Sauvignon Blanc.
A Berliner weisse is the one to use to enthuse a dedicated wine drinker
This beer has always been a minority beer in Germany, but, ironically enough, given British craft breweries’ interest in all things sour, this is the wheat-beer style most copied at the moment, especially with all manner of fruits chucked in for extra amusement. Examples worth hunting out include Buxton’s Red Raspberry Rye and The Kernel London Sour.
Finally, even though it doesn’t have the history, let us not forget the Anglo-American wheat ale, which is what happens when breweries add more wheat than normal to one of their standard ales. Although there is more hoppiness, they also have that tartness and mouthfeel that wheat brings.
Even though they don’t have the same complexity and carnal effect on the palate as witbier, weiss and Berliner weiss, they are still worth giving a try, as Barack Obama did when he exchanged beers with David Cameron after a World Cup match between the UK and the USA in 2010. The PM was sent a case of Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat, a great example of just how versatile this venerable and flexible beer style can be.
Why we like wheat beer
'Weihenstephan Weiss has got a great aroma and flavour, with tons of really distinctive clove and banana that really sets it apart. It’s really unexpected, and means we can open up a new option to customers who don’t necessarily class themselves as beer drinkers. Then again, for the hardcore beer geeks, it’s a reliable and recognisable brewery, so they know they’ll get an excellent weiss!'
'Our own West Hefeweizen is a SIBA Supreme Champion and, in 2011, beat all other craft beers to that trophy. Hefeweizen is brilliant for getting women into trying beer. It’s my go-to West beer to get women who drink cider to try a beer, and they love it. In Bavaria, it’s the quintessential summer beer garden beer. A true Hefeweizen has to be cloudy, with a hint of bananas and cloves, 5.2% and NOT served with fruit!'
Petra M Wetzel, West Beer Co, Glasgow
'With their trademark towering glassware, wheat beers make a tremendous statement in a pub. We all know that size matters, and the looks of curious envy that a wheat-beer drinker garners in a busy pub are worth the price of the pint alone. There’s almost nothing more satisfactory than working your way through the dense, glutinous foam on a pint of the stuff – stopping periodically to wipe the moustache – and quaffing the rich but refreshing beer that lies beneath. It’s a unique drinking experience.'
Charlie McVeigh, Draft House pub group, London
'Wheat beers are a very interesting family of beers; they have common elements but different characters. Wheat gives all sorts of flavour possibilities, providing a crisper counterpoint to other flavours deriving from wheat and spices. It tends to be brilliant with food too. At The White Horse in Parsons Green we served St Bernardus Witbier with crab linguine, and it was a bestseller. We still have it here at The Anchor. As for Bavarian weissbier, it’s always got to be Schneider Weisse. Belgian witbiers are great for young people who want a quenching, crisp beer with a good mouthfeel, good carbonation and no bitterness.'
Mark Dorber, The Anchor at Walberswick, Suffolk
'One of the great things about wheat beer is its wide appeal to everyone from curious lager drinkers to wandering ale connoisseurs and nostalgic hipsters. Its huge versatility with food is also a bonus: wheat beers soften spicy food, lift oily fish and sit quietly in the background of most British classics. Bavarian weiss is solid and dependable, while Belgian-style witbier is more intriguing, with plenty of citrus and spices to bring the beer to life. American wheats are all about aroma and a crisp finish. Berliner weisse is the punk rock relation to Bavarian weiss – tart, funky and loud, great with oysters and popular with people who like to explore beer styles. There’s plenty of reasons to have a wheat beer on the bar, but why stop at one style?'
Mitch Adams, The Bull, Highgate, London
Six to try
Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, (4.2%)
A faint hint of baked banana on the nose; crisp and light on the palate, with lemon and banana in the mix before a dry and crisp finish.
POA, AB InBev, 0870 1696969
Green Jack Orange Wheat Beer (4.2%)
English wheat beer with a fresh burst of orange on the nose. The palate boasts more citrus with a bittersweet finish. POA/12x500ml, Green Jack Brewery, 01502 562863
The Kernel London Sour (3.8%)
Refreshing and tart with a delicate hint of lemon; versions made with raspberries or sour cherries are also available.
Very limited brew; other beers available from The Kernel, 020 7231 4516
Meantime Wheat (5%)
Hazy light-gold in colour, with a citrusy, clove-like nose; crisp on the palate with lemon and spicy notes. Raspberry Wheat is also available.
POA, Meantime Brewing Co, 020 8293 1111
Schneider Weisse TAP 7 (5.4%)
Bubblegum, vanilla, cloves and ripe banana on the nose and the palate, alongside a sparkling but restrained carbonation.
£20.10/12x500ml, James Clay, 01422 377560
Thornbridge Versa (5%)
Munich comes to the Derbyshire Dales with this incredibly accomplished take on Bavarian weisse: crisp and appetising.
£17.43/12x500ml, £117.42/30l keg, Thornbridge Brewery, 01629 815 999
Illustration: Steve Caplin