Summer is high season for wheat beer, a thirst quencher extraordinaire. The complex yet light beers pair naturally with summer foods like ripe vegetables and assertive grill fare.
Beer, normally made with barley, becomes “wheat beer” when brewed with wheat (and sometimes special yeasts). Wheat beer is characterized by a complex flavor and aroma and lighter body and color than most barley-based beers. Often more carbonated, many wheat beers develop a thick foamy head when poured. Without filtering, wheat beer is cloudy with suspended yeast and proteins.
There are three main styles of wheat beers:
German-style hefeweizen is unfiltered. (Kristallweizen is the filtered version, but
is harder to find in the U.S.) Round and mellow-tasting with very little bitterness, hefeweizens are brewed with weizen yeast, which has a bold bakery smell with hints of banana, orange, clove and cinnamon.
Belgian-style witbiers, filtered or unfiltered, are similar to hefeweizens but may
be flavored with orange peel and coriander during the brewing process.
American-style wheat beers often use classic ale yeasts, so most lack the distinctive fruit and bread aromas of German- and Belgian-style brews. Hoppy bitterness, similar to that in a typical American ale, is more common. We prefer the smoother, fragrant European styles, but American wheat beers have their merits—the best are crisp and well balanced.
We tasted 23 wheat beers and winnowed them down to three favorites in each style. We included as many nationally available brands as possible as well as American microbrews distributed outside of their regions.
Style: German Hefeweizen
Flying Dog Brewery, In-Heat Wheat, Denver, CO. Golden amber and moderately cloudy, with an ample head. Aromas of fresh-mown hay, meadow flowers and apricot are a pleasing prelude to balanced flavors of malt and lightly toasted bread. A medium body and clean finish.
Pinkus, Hefe-Weizen, Münster, Germany. An organic German amber-to-yellow hefeweizen with light cloudiness. Bright and cheery aroma without too much yeast. Notes of tart fruit, coffee and butterscotch, with fresh acidity and a smooth, silky feel.
Samuel Adams, Hefeweizen, Boston, MA. A slightly cloudy, deep golden-amber brew with a fruity nose: blueberries, strawberries and orange. Caramel aromas are echoed in the beer’s flavor. Lively bubbles and muted wheat flavor make it a natural with fruity dishes, such as our Chicken & Blueberry Pasta Salad.
Style: Belgian Witbier
Ommegang, Witte, Cooperstown, NY. A frothy, cloudy head, smooth body and grassy aromas of fresh summer meadow along with orange and spice. Delicate and refreshing, but still complex, the tasters agreed unanimously that it was the best of its flight.
Unibroue, Blanche de Chambly, Quebec, Canada. A sustained, foamy head and inviting aromas of straw and yeast. Solid wheat flavor with traditional orange and clove accents. Easy-drinking with soft bubbles and a short, dry finish. Grilled seafood or poultry would complement this quaff.
Wolaver’s, Wit Bier, Middlebury, VT. Organic beer, brewed in the Belgian style with coriander and orange rind. Pours golden and clouds up when wheat sediments from the bottom of the bottle are decanted. Aromas and flavors of apricots and citrus balanced with a touch of bitterness.
Style: American Wheat beer
Left Hand Brewing Company, Haystack Wheat, Longmont, CO. Hazy orange; the ample head dissipates quickly. Wheat, yeast and orange aromas are followed by bold clove; the brew is balanced with plenty of tartness and a lingering finish.
Redhook, Blonde Ale, Woodinville, WA and Portsmouth, NH. Golden, clear, with mellow aromas, a medium body and fast finish. A crowd pleaser crossing between ale and lager styles.
New Belgium Brewing, Sunshine Wheat, Fort Collins, CO. Spiced with coriander and orange like a Belgian witbier, but with a more bitter and sour edge. Lemon notes, with a light floral hint. A good counterpoint to grilled seafood like our Cilantro-Lime Shrimp & Plum Kebabs.
Tasting Panel: Lindsey Bolger, Susan Buchanan, Carolyn Malcoun, Jessie Price