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The Summer Beer

Light, refreshing wheat beers are about to become your new favorite hot-weather brew.

by Stephen Beaumont

fromFine Cooking
Issue 111

In bavaria, there’s a popular brunch tradition of washing down sausages and pretzels with tall glasses of crisp, refreshing wheat beer. Beer for breakfast? Absolutely.

Wheat beer is brewed from barley—as are most beers—and wheat. The wheat both lightens the beer’s body and contributes different flavors, most often citrusy, yeasty, or toasty notes. Light and lively, with flavor to spare, wheat beers are not only delicious to drink early in the day, but they’re also among the most summer-friendly beers around.

The Name Game

There are three styles of wheat beer—Bavarian, Belgian, and American (the geographic reference helps beer drinkers identify the style of the beer, not necessarily where it’s produced). No one is quite sure why, but the Bavarian and Belgian styles have always been called “white beers” (American wheats are the exception—they’re simply known as wheat ales). Some attribute the nickname to the beer’s hazy appearance and pale hue, which is said to shimmer and look almost white in the sunlight. But whatever the back story, the white beer theme is reflected in the slew of names that appear on wheat beer labels: white beer, wit (white), or bière blanche (white beer in French) for the Belgian style, and weissbier (white beer) or weisse (white) for Bavarian-style wheats.

Slideshow: Check out our Buyer's Guide to Wheat Beers for top picks in each style.

The Bavarian style

Bavarian weissbier is a centuries-old style brewed today throughout Germany and, indeed, the world. It’s a typically cloudy brew, thanks to a nutritious and flavorful sediment left in the beer during production, and it boasts fruity, spicy flavors and aromas—think banana and fresh lemon, clove and black pepper. But don’t let these flavors mislead you—no fruits or spices are added to the beer during production. In keeping with German brewing traditions, all that goes into this style of wheat beer is wheat and barley (sometimes as much as 80 percent wheat to 20 percent barley), hops, water, and yeast. It’s the yeast that’s responsible for those fruity and spicy notes, and also for this style’s other popular name, hefeweizen (“hefe” means yeast, “weizen” means wheat).

The Belgian way

Unlike Bavarian-style wheats, wheat beers made in the Belgian style do have spices added to them, namely coriander seed and bitter-orange peel. Brewed from about two-thirds barley and one-third wheat, this combination produces very pale, cloudy beers with light body and fruity-peppery character. They’re incredibly lively and refreshing.Likely dating back to at least the Middle Ages, Belgian wheat beer fell out of fashion by the mid-1960s due to the popularity of lagers and other beers. But a young Flemish brewer, Pierre Celis, rescued the style from near-obscurity by creating Hoegaarden White, a global top-seller today. In fact, the Belgian-style wheat beer is so popular that having Hoegaarden or some other Belgian style wheat on tap is almost de rigueur for any bar that’s serious about its beer selection, particularly in the summertime.

Made in America

The American-style wheat beer, known as wheat ale, got its start in the 1980s, when American craft brewing was just beginning. Most of the new microbreweries of that day produced bold, British-inspired ales, primarily to differentiate themselves from the lager-brewing giants Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and Miller. As time went on, however, some of these microbrewery visionaries decided it would be beneficial to also offer a lighter, more mainstream brew. So they added some wheat to their ale recipe (anywhere from as little as 10 percent wheat to as much as 50 percent or more), creating a fresh, light-bodied wheat ale. These new wheat ales offered fresh, malty-grainy aromas and dry, lemony malt flavors.

Some brewery owners, trying to evoke the imagery of the iconic Bavarian beer hall, christened these new wheat ales “hefeweizens,” even though the beer wasn’t fermented with Bavarian yeast and had no notes of banana or clove. Although it’s much less common today, if you come across an Americanbrewed bottle labeled “hefeweizen,” also look for the words “Bavarian style” or “German style” if you want rich banana and spice flavors. If those words aren’t there, you’ve got yourself a true-to-style citrusy wheat ale.

Drink up

Thanks to their refreshing flavor, wheat beers are one of the fastest-growing beer styles on the market. Beer-drinking food lovers know why: Brunch traditions aside, wheat beers pair well with all sorts of summer fare, from quiches to chilled seafood, fruit salads to grilled meats. Light, fresh, and delicious, wheat beers are like summer in a bottle.

Photo by Scott Phillips

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