What Makes A Wheat Beer?


When you see the words weiss, wit, wheat, white, or weizen on the tap handle or bottle of beer, it’s telling you that some portion of the grain bill for that brew – sometimes all of it – is wheat rather than barley. This is no accident, and wheat isn’t a second-choice grain for many brewers, at home or commercially.

While we think of light, fruity wheat beers like Blue Moon, wheat is used in many styles. Some of the oldest wheat beer recipes are Hefeweizens (“yeast-wheat”) from Germany or Farmhouse Saisons from Belgium. Gose beers, a classic German style that nearly died out at the end of WWII, seems to be making a comeback thanks to American craft breweries. Gose is a soured wheat beer brewed with a perceptible amount of salt, producing a light and distinctively-flavored beverage.

Wheat beers tend to accentuate yeast flavors and are usually unfiltered. Additions of spices like coriander and orange peel are associated with the popular Wit style, but wheat beers offer a lot more than summer sipping. Color for wheat beer styles can run the gamut from a light yellow up to amber and brown, and sweetness, bitterness, sourness and other flavors are as varied as they are for the rest of the craft.

Wheat, like barley, is diastatic, meaning it contains enzymes to convert its own starches to sugars. It is typically processed with a standard infusion mash, and will convert starches in specialty grains and other adjuncts that lack enzymatic action. The preferences of early brewers appear to have been dictated simply by what the local agricultural stock was. If barley was readily available, they brewed with barley. If wheat was the town mainstay, they developed wheat styles instead.

For a more thorough run down on many of the excellent German offerings out there (many of which are wheat beers), check out this Serious Eats piece.

What is Malt?

What is malt?

If hops supply a beer’s characteristic bitterness, malt is where a beer derives its sweetness. But what is malt, exactly?

Malt is the last stage of processing for a grain, usually barley, which has been germinated and then dried while the native enzymes and sugars are at their peak. Home brewers typically buy malt in one of three forms. As a whole grain, malt is typically crushed or lightly ground to open up more surface area during the mashing phase of all grain brewing. (For more on the malting process, see ‘How Do You Get Sugar From Grain?‘)

As extract, home brewers may buy cans or jars of liquid malt extract (LME) or bags of powdered dry malt extract (DME). Brewing with extracts doesn’t carry the same gravitas that all grain brewing confers, but plenty of award winning homebrews were sweetened with LME or DME.

Many grains can be malted, including wheat, rye, and even corn. Malted barley holds a special place in the brewer’s mash tun for a few reasons. Because of its high enzymatic activity, barley does an excellent job of converting not only its own starches into sugar, but helps liberate the sugars in specialty malts which may have no enzymatic activity. Barley is also lower in protein than wheat, which contributes a certain amount of cloudiness to various styles of wheat beer.

When you hear the term “diastatic,” it is in reference to the enzymatic activity of base malts like barley and wheat. Specialty malts and grains are often non-diastatic, meaning that they lack the enzymes to convert their starches into sugar. By limiting specialty malts and grains to a low percentage of the total grain bill, non-diastatic malts can be used to contribute various flavor, color, and texture elements to the beer, while the enzymes in the barley or wheat base malts convert the available sugars in the non-diastatic ingredients.

Georgia’s Dumb Beer Laws, Part 1283

This is how Creative Loafing’s Wyatt Williams described brewery tours in Georgia this spring.

You must know that you can’t just walk into a brewery in Georgia at any given time and pay for your pint like any old pub. Owing to a bizarrely specific set of regulations set by the Georgia Department of Revenue, attending a brewery tour in Georgia is like performing a complicated mating ritual specific only to the indigenous beer drinkers and brewers of our region. Most importantly, the brewery is not actually allowed to sell beer. It can (and does) sell soap made from beer, dog treats made from beer, beer branded cozies, specially shaped bottle openers, T-shirts with Grateful Dead references, Frisbees with foil-stamped beer logos, and commemorative pint glasses into which a brewer may pour many free samples of beer. Remember, the beer is the part they’re not allowed to sell, so you can ask for a free plastic cup into which your free sample of beer will be poured. You may bear in mind that the regulations do not prevent anyone from being called an asshole.

The rules don’t end there. The brewery may not give away free beer for a period of longer than two hours in a single day. During those two hours, the total amount of free beer poured into a commemorative pint glass may not exceed 32 ounces, though the brewery may subdivide that total into however many samples they like. All of this must happen under the contrived pretext of a free brewery tour, despite the fact that the people attending don’t seem to really do much actual touring of the brewery. It is simply the rule: no free tour, no free beer. Look up Chapter 560-2-7-.01 if you want the full accounting.

Frankly, the state of Georgia is safer when the legislature isn’t in session, but since it has to happen annually, maybe the 2015 Horror Show Under The Gold Dome will finally see some brewery-related reforms pass.