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Dave Hoops column: Wheat beer, explained

Wheat tends to lend a mellow flour-like flavor with slightly tart acid notes. This makes beers brewed with wheat highly drinkable.

Dave Hoops
Dave Hoops
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Wheat beers are one of my top three favorite beers to enjoy, with pale ale and German lagers being the other two. I will plan on more in-depth looks at those styles in the future.

Of course, all the Twin Ports breweries brew these styles and many more. Per my last look at the Brewers Association guidelines, there are 111 unique beer styles with more being added each year. I remember my first taste of a deliciously banana, clovey hefeweizen from a Paulaner brewery in Munich, Germany — established, by the way, in the year 1634.

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Paulaner is an authentic Oktoberfest beer.
Contributed / Dave Hoops

Back in the late 1980s — the first time I attended Oktoberfest — I was impressed with the drinkability and thirst-quenching attributes of this beer and quickly started researching the style. I learned that in Germany, a hefeweizen must contain at least 50% wheat with top-fermenting yeast.

Wheat has been used in brewing since the beginning of known records 8,000-plus years ago. Wheat tends to lend a mellow flour-like flavor with slightly tart acid notes. This makes beers brewed with wheat highly drinkable.

Wheat does not possess a husk like barley and is low in enzymes that can convert starches into sugars to be fermented. For this reason, brewers usually brew with a percentage of wheat often 30%-60% and use malted barley to round out the recipe as the barley has husks that provide a filter medium in the mash and the sugar-converting enzymes can work their magic to help provide fermentable sugar.

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Blacklist Artisan Ales co-founder and head brewer Brian Schanzenbach draws a classic wit wheat beer at the Duluth brewery.
Steve Kuchera / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune

I am a brewer who uses quite a bit of wheat in my beers. I love the soft flavors and the lighter body that can be achieved. Wheat also helps with the formation and retention of the head (foam) of the beer. A great head of foam on a pint is a thing of beauty and much desired.

There are many subcategories of wheat beer. I will summarize with a brief description of the style characteristics:

Hefeweizen — The world classic wheat beer sometimes perceived as a summer beer, but is served full time in Germany and by at least three Minnesota breweries, including ours.
The appearance will be very cloudy. The hops will be low, and the flavors will have clove and banana notes and a full body with a tart, smooth finish.

Kristalweizen — filtered wheat beer, clear and bright yellow, with a simple approachable flavor.

Dunkelweizen — "Dunkel" is German for "dark" and this wheat beer is usually amber or brown. These beers often feature the banana flavors of the hefeweizen style with the addition of chocolate and toffee notes from the darker, flavorful caramel malts added.

Weizenbock — This is a strong wheat ale, sometimes a doppelweizenbock, and usually 8%-12% alcohol. Many breweries brew these beers as holiday beers often brewed in early spring and aged six months or more due to the higher alcohol the beer develops flavors as it matures. This beer is fruity and warming with a malty sweetness and a long lingering finish. It’s a sipper.

Berliner Weisse — Often called "Champagne of the North," this is a low-alcohol beer that is brewed then put through a lactic fermentation that that slightly sours the beer and creates a tart and very refreshing beer. Often a dollop of raspberry or woodruff syrup is added, creating a red or green glass of beer. This beer is tough to find, but I highly recommend it.

Steam rises from a large tank called a mash tun as Tim Nelson, founder of Earth Rider Brewery (left), along with co-lead brewers Allyson Rolph and Tim Wilson, check the progress of the steeping of the malts while making one of their first batches of wheat beer at the Earth Rider Brewery in Superior Thursday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Steam rises from a large tank called a mash tun as Tim Nelson, founder of Superior's Earth Rider Brewery, left, along with co-lead brewers Allyson Rolph and Tim Wilson, check the progress of the steeping of the malts while making one of their first batches of wheat beer in 2017.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

Wit or “White Beer” — This is another highly refreshing “summer” beer. Wit is a Belgian staple that has been brewed for hundreds of years, dubbed "white beer" because it is brewed with a percentage of unmalted wheat, which gives the beer an almost milky white color. This light and tart wheat beer is unique in that it is traditionally brewed with the addition of spices. Coriander (the seeds of the cilantro plant) and dried sweet orange peel are the standard. Some add small amounts of ginger and or nutmeg. The spices add a pleasant aroma, and the orange peel compliments the fruity yeast notes the high fermentation temperatures impart. I call this beer style "summer in a glass."

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American Wheat Beer — 30%-50% wheat brewed with ale yeast devoid of the banana and or fruity notes in the European yeasts. Hops are usually low; this style of beer is a perfect alternative to the blonde or golden styles seen at many breweries in the soft and approachable flavors.

Fruit Wheat Beer — Wheat is a great grain to marry fruit with almost all of them. We use raspberry, peach, pear, passionfruit, guava, lemon, blueberry, cherry, pomegranate, blackberry, orange, strawberry, rhubarb and apples.

Pale Wheat Ale or Lager — Brewed like a pale ale except with a high percentage of wheat. Softer flavors a mild bready malt profile that will support all manner of hop loads. Fun beers that are becoming easier to find.

Wheatwine — One of my favorite styles of beer to brew. It’s called “wine” because the alcohol content is in the 12%-14% wine range. These beers are brewed with at least 50% wheat malt and fermented with multiple yeast strains and high hop loads. Post-fermentation, they are cellared for one to three years, often in wood barrels, then released. Wheatwines are rare to find, but should be sipped and cherished.

Enjoy the wide world of wheat beers.

Dave Hoops lives and works in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge. Write to him at  dave@hoopsbrewing.com .

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Dave Hoops lives and works in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge.
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