Wheat beers range from light, refreshing summer quenchers like the witbier or weissbier ,to caramel dunkelweizens and weizenbocks. Despite color differences, Belgian and German wheat beers have several commonalities: high carbonation from a second fermentation after bottling, a little sweetness, low hop flavor and aroma, and a dry finish. American wheat beers, however, don’t generally engage in second fermentation, nor are they afraid of aggressive hopping.
Many of the wheat beers listed below are from Germany, where their strict beer laws means all weizens need 50% wheat malt or more. Non-German wheat beers are not subject to the same laws, but generally, they follow the rule. Blended with barley malt, the wort becomes easier to deal with than using 100% wheat. Unlike German weissbiers, Belgian witbiers use unmalted (raw) wheat, but in similar proportions.
The high protein content from the wheat gives the beer a thick, mousse-like head. These beers also tend to be hazy from the wheat content and yeast sediment, though that’s not a requirement. Traditionally, when served from the bottle, weissbiers are poured carefully down the side of the glass. Then the yeast sediment is swirled in the bottle and poured straight down into the glass to form glorious foam.
With the exception of Berlinerweisse, wheat beers should not be aged as they are best consumed when young.
Pale to dark gold color and medium bodied, this beer is a thirst quencher. The characteristic clove, banana, or bubblegum flavor comes from a German strain of yeast, and it wouldn’t be a weizen without it.
In general, weizens should have a light wheat aroma and flavor, almost bready or grainy. The wheat content gives the beer a light, delicate flavor with some acidity. They can also be citrusy, maybe with some vanilla. There should be low or no hop aroma and flavor.
They are highly effervescent, almost creamy to start but should end in a light, tart finish.
Beers to try: Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse
Like the weizen, dunkelweizens have the same banana and clove characteristic, low to no hop flavor or bitterness, and maybe some vanilla or bubblegum.
What makes dunkelweizens unique from weizens is the use of darker malts (crystal, Vienna, or Munich), which give the beer a copper to brown color and a malty rich and caramel flavor. However, the maltiness should not overpower the banana and clove, and there should be absolutely no roastiness.
Dunkelweizens can be sweeter than weizens, but should end with a dry finish. They may also have some tart and citrus notes.
Beers to try: Schneider Weisse (Original), Franziskaner Dunkel Hefe-Weisse
Even darker and certainly more alcoholic, the weizenbock is the richest of all the German weizens. The use of Vienna or Munich malts gives the beer a dark amber or brown color, along with a rich, caramel, bready, and toasty characteristic. The beers range from medium to full-bodied.
The characteristic clove and banana should appear in the weizenbock, but the flavor and aroma profile lean towards dark fruit: plums, prunes, raisins, and grape, along with some vanilla.
You may also get some alcohol warmth, but it should not taste or smell astringent.
Beers to try: Schneider Aventinus, Alesmith Weizenbock (if you can find it), Victory Moonglow
The American wheat beer is similar to the other wheat styles, with light to medium body, high carbonation, and a little malty sweetness but a dry finish. You may also detect a low, grainy wheat aroma and flavor.
However, American styles differ in a typical American fashion—they can be aggressively hopped, generally with typical citrusy American hops or with spicy and floral Noble hops. You’ll also find no banana or clove, like in the German styles, since American wheat beers use American yeast strains.
Beers to try: Bell’s Oberon, Pyramid Hefe-Weizen, Sierra Nevada Unfiltered Wheat Beer
You’ll also find this style listed in the Beginner’s Guide to Belgians, but it deserves a mention here. Belgian wits may seem similar to German weizens at first glance—both styles range from pale to gold color and have dense, mousse-like heads when poured. They are also medium-bodied, highly effervescent, often tart, and finish dry with no hop flavor.
In Belgian wits, you’ll find light tartness and citrusy sweetness with a dry finish. Belgian wits also set themselves apart from German weissbiers with herbal, spicy, and peppery characteristics. This comes from the yeast they use, but Belgians are not afraid to add actual spices and oranges to their beer. Often, that means you’ll find coriander, curacao, and sweet orange peel, though the spices should balance with the zesty and citrusy fruitiness in the beer. Other less common spices are chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, and Grains of Paradise.
Beers to try: Allagash White, Hoegaarden Wit, Avery White Rascal, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly
Dry and effervescent, Berlinerweisse was once called the “champagne of the north” by Napoleon’s troops. However, this “champagne” was sour and acidic with a subtle fruity aroma and flavor, like a lemon spritzer.
Berlinerweisse should be light in color, almost straw-like and very light in body, with a very dry finish.
Unlike the other wheat beers, Berlinerweisse benefits from longer aging so the bacteria can add to the beer’s acidity. But the acidity may be too harsh for some, so the beer is often dosed with sweet syrup. Raspberry and woodruff are both common syrups used, woodruff being a bright green herbal syrup Garrett Oliver describes as “a startling blend of Robitussin and Jagermeister” in The Brewmaster’s Table.
Beers to try: Schultheiss Berliner Weisse, Berliner Kindl Weisse, Nodding Head Berliner Weisse