As an overarching label, “wheat beer” can mean an awful lot, and this is likely something that craft beer drinkers who are just beginning to explore the world of beer wouldn’t fully understand. Ultimately, all the term “wheat beer” really implies is a brew where more than 50 percent of the fermentables are derived from malted wheat, although some also make use of unmalted wheat, which delivers a subtly different profile. But beyond that, there are a plethora of styles: American pale wheat. Hefeweizens, both American and German in style. Belgian wits. Berliner weisse. Gose. The list goes on.
All of these styles are popular in the United States, where wheat ales (and even some lagers) have been standard bearers for the craft beer movement for decades. Many drinkers who today explore the extremes of the style first found their way into the world of craft beer through a pint of American pale wheat down at the neighborhood brewpub, or even an artificial, fruit-flavored abomination like Blue Moon. If I’m being honest, I can admit that Blue Moon was probably my own “gateway beer” as a college student, the first thing I tasted that made me realize that there were other facets to beer beyond Bud, Miller and Coors. I may not drink the likes of Blue Moon today, but I can’t deny that on some level, I’m indebted to it.
In organizing our own tasting of wheat beers, we had to decide which substyles were fair to compare. Rather than put on a tasting of simply American pale wheats, hefeweizens or Belgian wits, all of which seemed a bit boring, we therefore decided to combine those three substyles and simply rate them all on how strong an example of their particular style they proved to be. The results of the 39 beers tasted were intriguing.
Rules and Details
- The 39 beers were tasted over the course of two days. Yes, some of the ones you would want to see are missing. Sorry. We got what we could get, as always.
- Tasters included beer writers and professional brewers. Superior glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Styles included were American pale wheat (with or without adjuncts), hefeweizen and Belgian wit. Styles not included were Berliner weisse and gose, as we were attempting to exclude tart brews from this particular sample. Berliner weisse and gose will be included in future tastings.
- Beers were judged on how exemplary they were in their own style, and given 1-100 scores.
- ABV was capped at 7%, the top limit via BJCP for both American wheat and Belgian wit.
The Field: Beers #39-21
During our blind-tasting of 116 American IPAs, we came to the decision that these lists are truly about celebrating the best possible examples of a style, not condemning small breweries for beers that may have had something go wrong. Therefore, we’re once again not going to name a “worst” of the pack, because it would simply be mean spirited and not accomplish anything. Besides, we liked most of these beers—in the entire field of 39, there were probably only two or three that were strongly disliked. The field, #’s 39 to 21, are listed below in alphabetical order. They are not ranked.
Alaskan Brewing Co. White
Ale Asylum Unshadowed Hefeweizen
Angel City Brewery West Coast Wheat
Boulevard Brewing Co. Wheat
Cigar City Brewing Tropical Heatwave
Dryhop Brewers Gorilla Meets Hippie
Eagle Creek Brewing Co. Grass Roots Lemon-Lime Hefeweizen
Funky Buddha Brewery Floridian Hefeweizen
Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen
Great Northern Brewery Co. Wheatfish Lager
Harpoon White Ale
New Belgium Brewing Co. Snapshot Wheat
New Belgium Brewing Co. Sunshine White Ale
Red Brick Brewing Co. Hibiscuit
Red Hare Brewing Whabbit Wheat
Rogue Pumpkin Savior
Starr Hill Brewery The Love Hefeweizen
West Sixth Lemongrass American Wheat
Next: #’s 20-1, a winner is crowned
City: Bloomington, IN
Key ingredient: Coriander, chamomile
The verdict: Upland’s flagship beer is a little odd in the sense that it’s labeled “wheat” but doesn’t really mention anywhere on the label that it’s a Belgian wit in style, which means it could take you by surprise. Light wheat graininess is chased by some lemony citrus and notable coriander notes—there’s even an unusual spiciness that almost suggests cinnamon, which isn’t something that popped up in any of the other Belgian wits. This one likely earned a couple extra points for being memorably distinct.
City: San Francisco, CA
Key ingredient: Fresh watermelon
The verdict: It’s easy to understand why any given person would love or hate this beer—no matter the setting, it’s going to be divisive, because it’s so, so unusual. Your enjoyment of it will be entirely determined by how much you appreciate the presence of the odd watermelon flavor. Because that’s what it tastes like—a big, fresh slice of juicy watermelon, with a bit of creamy wheat. Like watermelon? Then perhaps you’ll like this, although you’ll still have to jump the mental hurdle of getting an aroma from the glass that you probably didn’t expect. But under any circumstances, you’d better know that you’re tasting Hell or High Watermelon when someone hands you the glass, or you’re liable to spit it out, thinking someone is trying to poison you. With a bit of forewarning, however, it can be surprisingly enjoyable.
City: Chicago, IL
Key ingredient: Prudently applied orange peel and coriander
The verdict: A very classic, reverential take on Belgian wit that isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel but simply nail the historical style, Revolution’s Bottom Up doesn’t commit itself too forwardly to any particular flavor influence. Predominantly orangey and citric, with an undercurrent of prickly spice, it’s deceptively complex, with enough sweetness to lend a little juicy oomph to the citrus flavors.
City: Portland, OR
Key ingredient: Piney northwest hops
The verdict: An archetypal example of the “hoppy American wheat” substyle, this beer packs an incredible amount of flavor for being under 4% ABV. That truly is remarkable, because it drinks with the fuller body of a pale ale or even an IPA, presumably because the wheat malt gives it more of a chewy, bready body. Flavors are dominated by hops, however, with tons of pine and spice—like the smell of walking in the woods when the sap is drying on the trees and the floors are littered with pine needles. Sessionable, as one might expect given the ABV, but punching way above its weight class in terms of assertiveness.
City: Akron, OH
Key ingredient: German hefe yeast
The verdict: One of several hefeweizens on the table with a German influence, Thirsty Dog’s entry nevertheless was one of the more reserved examples of the style. The typical banana and clove esters are present but subtle, which pairs nicely with a hazy bit of bready malt. Some tasters noted a bit of lemony citrus as well, but in general a very clean, well-executed example of the style that doesn’t reinvent the wheel.
City: San Diego, CA
Key ingredient: Orange peel and coriander, unsurprisingly
The verdict: Ballast Point’s take on the classic Belgian wit is strongly aromatic, with the usual citrus but an odd additional note that is almost smoky or like toasted spices—perhaps the coriander expressing itself in a way we don’t normally perceive. The flavors are much more in line with what one would expect, with a light body and crisp, refreshing, orangey citrus notes. A well-executed witbier that would pair great with say, a piece of grilled whitefish with lemon.
City: Fort Collins, CO
Key ingredient: Pure malted wheat
The verdict: Breweries like to use wheat beers as canvases of sorts—a blank slate to treat with fruit, spices and other flavors, but let’s not forget that a perfectly made American pale wheat can also be a thing of beauty. Of every beer in our tasting, Odell’s example was the most perfect encapsulation of malted wheat itself, and the deliciously creamy texture it imparts. Not lacking in flavor by any means, it’s a very grainy, doughy, bready beer—like a liquid loaf of fresh-baked wheat bread. This style of beer really benefits from perfectly controlled, neutral fermentation, and that’s what you get here—a super clean, crisp American wheat beer that highlights the best aspects of the malt.
City: Milton, DE
Key ingredient: Dried orange slices and lemongrass
The verdict: Dogfish creates a twist on the usual witbier formula by using slices of full, dried orange rather than simply the peel, together with the addition of lemongrass, which imparts citric and grassy flavors, as you might expect. Spices really pop in this one—it’s more complex in its aroma than a lot of the other wits, with many different notes duking it out for prominence. On the back end it’s grassy, like a freshly mowed lawn still clumpy with moisture. Simultaneously refreshing and contemplative.
City: Fort Collins, CO
Key ingredient: Pomegranate and pink peppercorns
The verdict: A bit of a difficult beer to rate, all the tasters could nevertheless agree that the pomegranate in this American wheat was well-incorporated in a way that doesn’t feel forced or artificial—this beer actually tastes like real pomegranate. It remains light-bodied, although unsurprisingly it’s mildly sweet, without losing its refreshingness. As one taster wrote, “Good idea, good execution.” We could easily see this sort of beer concept going terribly wrong, but Fort Collins managed to pull it off nicely.
City: Ipswich, MA
Key ingredient: Clementines and sweet orange peel
The verdict: This take on witbier isn’t really about trying to evoke complicated or sophisticated flavors—it’s just about being tasty. It’s very, very orange-forward—aromatics like a fresh-squeezed glass of orange juice. The spices, on the other hand, take a backseat to the refreshing (though fairly sweet) citrus-dominated flavors. As one taster wrote, “Bright nose, perfect execution, slight funk.” That about sums it up in a nutshell.
City: Kihei, HI
Key ingredient: Maui gold pineapples
The verdict: From another brewery, you might consider a pineapple wheat beer a little gimmicky, but considering this is Maui Brewing Co., it seems appropriate—”cool and apropos,” as noted on one taster’s scoresheet. It doesn’t jump out too strongly, and even adds just the smallest amount of tartness to the American pale wheat ale base, which makes this one insanely refreshing. Juicy, mildly sweet, full of character and crying out for a beach and possibly a tiny umbrella.
City: Tampa, FL
Key ingredient: Unmalted wheat, French saison yeast
The verdict: One would likely expect an interestingly novel take on witbier from Cigar City, and that’s pretty much what they’ve delivered here. “Subtle” is a word that shows up multiple times across tasters’ notes, as this beer leans on complexity and sophistication rather than giant, punch-in-the-face flavors. The unusual saison yeast contributes a pleasant funk and classic esters of mild spice and hay-like grassiness, while the more traditional orange peel and coriander remind you that it’s still technically a witbier that you’re drinking. It might even be just a tad tart as well—this is a beer that is “just a bit” of a lot of different things, held together with masterful balance.
City: Brooklyn, NY
Key ingredient: Unmalted wheat, Bavarian weissbeer yeast
The verdict: Brooklyn says this is a witbier, although that aspect of it really doesn’t come through all that strongly—rather, there are some very nice grainy, pillowy wheat flavors to remind you of the commonality that all these beers share. Very crisp and clean, with a pure expression of wheat, backed up bit a little bit of lemon citrus. Per one taster’s notes, “tastes like what I imagine when I think ‘wheat beer.’”
City: Chico, CA
The verdict: What a classic of the genre this truly is—probably the first craft wheat beer that many drinkers experienced, and still a perfectly balanced example. The name would make one think it’s a classic German hefeweizen, but it’s not—not really. This is decidedly the American version of the style, which is much less estery and instead more clean and crisp. There’s just a bit of those banana/clove notes, but lots of bready malt and lemon citrus in the nose. It’s a good expression of how malted wheat differs from malted barley to create a softer mouthfeel and creamy texture—it’s like the beer equivalent of comfort food.
City: Cooperstown, NY
Key ingredient: An ages-old Belgian yeast strain
The verdict: Of all the Belgian wits in this tasting, Brewery Ommegang produced what was probably the “most Belgian” of the bunch, which is really no surprise—that is, after all, pretty much their MO. Very estery and spicy, this wit is awash in funk and complexity of flavors. If “sophisticated” is actually an appropriate adjective for describing a beer, that’s what this one is—you could pore over all the individual esters and chemical compounds produced by its yeast for hours. This kind of complexity does not happen by accident.
City: Kalamazoo, MI
Key ingredient: A fruity American ale yeast
The verdict: Bell’s massively popular summer seasonal may be the king of the American pale wheat ale substyle. It actually tastes a bit bigger, sweeter and more full of body than a lot of other beers in this lineup, which may be one of the factors that has made it so wildly successful. Aromas are strongly citric—like candied orange and lemon, set atop a base of clean, creamy wheat malt. It simply packs a higher volume of flavor than most American pale wheats do, which is integral in this substyle—there’s nothing less interesting than a bland American pale wheat. Oberon is anything but bland.
City: Boulder, CO
Key ingredient: Curacao orange peel and coriander
The verdict: This classic witbier from Avery may have been the spiciest thing on the table, in the most enjoyable possible way. Huge, pungent spice box aromas are the calling card, with tons of coriander and plenty of clove-like aromatics as well. It’s on the drier side, which in our minds pushes it further toward the “classical” end of the spectrum, supported by mild, grainy malt flavors. It’s an assertive wit where you can’t miss the spices involved, and should be appreciated by anyone who wants a high ceiling of flavor in their Belgian wit.
City: Munster, IN
Key ingredient: Tons of amarillo hops
The verdict: There’s really no denying that this beer is more “wheat IPA” than it is “American pale wheat,” but boy, is it delicious. Taking the concept of “hoppy American wheat” to its zenith, it’s hard to believe that Gumballhead has been around for 13 years now. A transformative beer for the genre, Gumballhead is dry-hopped aggressively with amarillo, which contributes its trademark combination of orangey citrus and grassy notes. A bit of wheat does manage to poke through from time to time, but really it’s a deliciously dominant display of American hops. Question whether it really fits in the genre, but don’t question whether it’s an awesome beer.
City: St. Louis, MO
Key ingredient: The most perfect Bavarian weissbeer yeast strain
The verdict: If there’s a better American-made take on the German hefeweizen out there, then we haven’t yet found it, because Urban Chestnut’s Schnickelfritz absolutely nails the style. This St. Louis brewery is doing incredible things when it comes to traditional German ales and lagers, and Schnickelfritz is really the standard-bearer. It’s very classical, very much what you’d expect, but so complex and assertive at the same time. You’ve got the traditional banana and clove aromas, but also a touch of spices—nutmeg, and maybe even vanilla? Each sip immediately begs for another sip.
City: Portland, ME
Key ingredient: Traditional Belgian wit yeast
The verdict: I hesitate to say that we took Allagash White for granted, but we totally took Allagash White for granted. It’s a beer we’ve had so many times, and for so many years, that no one looked at the assembled lineup, pointed at it, and said “Oh, that’s going to win for sure.” We thought we had an idea of what Allagash White tasted like by this point. And we were wrong.
This truly is exceptional beer, and it now makes all that much more sense why it’s the preeminent American standard-bearer for the Belgian witbier style. It’s just that good. Drinking it, we were blown away by how unique its aromatics were, even compared to the rest of the witbiers in the field—intensely spicy, with a distinct, peppercorn tingle that was unmistakable. Against all odds, it smells totally unique from anything else on the table.
The flavors, meanwhile, are in perfect balance—there’s a bit of that dry, citrus quality from the curacao orange peel, the aforementioned spice and some doughy, yeasty wheat malt. It’s still the quintessential American wit—a masterpiece. And it’s also our top American wheat.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’s glad there aren’t 116 beers to calculate scores for this time around. You can follow him on Twitter.