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.