When I first started Beer Judging the beers that scared me the most were wheat beers, particularly the homebrewed ones. Often they were too sweet and had an uncooked bread dough-like taste. It often wasn’t limited to just the homebrew category either; even up to a few years ago some of the craft beer offerings were decidedly less than average.
But things have changed for the better. With the craft beer resurgence has come a push to embrace all different kinds of beer, beers like Kolsch, quality Pilsner and even Porter and Stouts are getting a good run these days along with the myriad of Pale Ales and their offshoots (Golden Ale, Copper Ales, Bright Ales etc).
And with them come the wheat beers.
Even the homebrew beers have gained a lot, last year’s Palm Cove Beer Festival we saw an excellent American style wheat beer by a bloke called Rob Callin. A beer that should have made some of the larger brewers sit up and take notice. U-Brew It in Cairns used to do a fantastic wheat stout, it took around 3 – 4 months to ferment properly, and made one hell of a mess while fermenting, but was by far and away the best stout I’ve had that’s been made in Australia….period.
Wheat beers are one of those love/hate beers. Those that love them have had the chance to try great examples that get that balance of fruit flavours from the fermentation right, those that don’t have often tried a bad style were the balance is completely out, the yeast completely dominating to give too much fruit and that bready/doughy taste.
When you walk into your bottleshop you will generally see one of two styles printed on the beer labels. Either you will see words to the effect of:
- “German styled wheat beer”, “hefeweizen (from the German “Hefe” meaning yeast, and “Weizen” for wheat) or Belgian Witbier.
- OR you will see American style Wheat Beer.
A true styled German wheat beer has a huge difference in flavours and aromas to the American style, and the problems start to arise when brewers/brew houses start to make an American style beer and label it with the European terms. Belgian Witbiers are very similar to their German cousins, but aren’t as quite as refreshing, probably making them a better choice for someone just starting to look at wheat beers.
American Wheat Beers are more about showing the malt characters in the beer, and have a much cleaner flavour, while the German styles are all about showing what that strain of yeast can do in a beer. This gives the German styles lashings of banana and clove like aromas and flavours that come from that yeast, often with a tart finish. That’s not to say that an American Wheat doesn’t have those fruity characters, they do up to a moderate level, but they are held in check by balancing the malts and hops. While German Wheats are barely touched with a hop so as not to disrupt that balance of fruity esters.
All in all, with the revitalisation of the craft scene, the style has certainly evolved. They are best enjoyed from a glass to let those aromas out. Love them or hate them, you at least need to try a few to see the differences for yourself.
3 of the best, easy to find wheat beers.
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis – a world class American Wheat Beer, which actually comes from America, actually all the Sierra Nevada beers are world class and should be on everyone’s shopping list a few times a year. This shows all the hallmarks of a great wheat beer, slightly clovey aromas, with just a touch of banana there. There are also unexpected touches of lemon leaping from the cloudy yellow beer. On the tongue it heads toward more of the dry and stylish end of wheat beers rather into that funk and clove. This wouldn’t be out of place at a lazy Sunday brunch.
Burleigh Brewing Co, Hef – more of a traditional style Hefeweizen here, and I think it’s one of Australia’s best. In fact the Hef won Gold at the 2012 Beer World Cup beating 85 other entries from around the world, yet as a country we still struggle with this style. Its chock full of banana and clove aromas from their specially imported German yeast. It has a great tangy finish to it too, which makes it, personally, a perfect match to prawns and grilled fish.
White Rabbit White Ale – a Belgian Witbier, made by an offshoot arm of Little Creatures. When Little Creatures got a new brew plant, they shipped their old one from WA to Victoria, where they now make brews like this, and their excellent Dark Ale. This is quiet a restrained version of a Belgian Witbier, perhaps marking a new style in brewing an Australian Witbier? It has good aromas of coriander and apricot, which follow through onto the tongue as well. It’s a great beer to start your journey into the style of wheat beers with.