Because beers made with wheat are lighter in color and more delicate in flavor, they are sometimes thought of as less interesting.
In the early days of American craft brewing, many brewpubs offered a simple, often boring American wheat beer on tap. However, today’s brewers use wheat as the basis for interesting sour beers (Berliner Weisse or Belgian lambics), lighter ales featuring spicy or fruity notes (Witbier or Hefeweizen) or brews that showcase fruit or hops.
The glutens in wheat beer lend substantial body, a fluffy mouthfeel and outstanding head retention. As a result, many wheat beer styles make for refreshing summer brews.
Following is a roundup of noteworthy wheat beers.
• San Jose’s Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen is a hazy orange-gold, with a large, foamy white head that crackles like a bowl of Rice Krispies cereal. The aroma features the classic banana, citrus and bubblegum esters of German Hefeweizen yeast, as well as hints of sweetness and toast. The banana ester flavors dominate the palate, along with a delicate floral hop character. The hops combine with subtle spicy clove notes to provide an interesting interplay with the fruity, yeast-derived flavors. Despite the suggestion of sweetness, the finish is medium dry, with a lasting carbonic bite. With a grain bill of 65 percent malted wheat, the beer is medium bodied, with a soft, smooth mouthfeel.
• Modern Times Beer out of San Diego describes its Fortunate Islands as a “hoppy, tropical wheat” beer, and the brewers achieved their goal. While the beer contains no actual fruit, the Amarillo and Citra hop aromas of fresh orange, mango and pineapple definitely bring to mind tropical fruits. The beer is golden in color and slightly hazy, with a medium, dense white head. At 46 International Bitterness Units (IBU), the beer is fairly bitter, especially for its 5 percent Alcohol By Volume (ABV), but it does not taste out of balance. The hop flavor includes some pine to accompany the tropical fruit character against a neutral wheat malt backdrop, and the smooth bitterness lingers well into the finish. With medium body and refreshingly high carbonation, Fortunate Islands is a great beach beer.
• The Petaluma-based Lagunitas Brewing Co. has brewed its Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale since 2009, well before hoppy wheat beers came into vogue. Part American Wheat Beer, part India pale ale (7.5 percent ABV and 65 IBU), the beer’s aroma provides the entire spectrum of hop characteristics, from citrusy to earthy, floral, dank and tropical, yet somehow it all melds together well. The taste is quite similar, with a complex combination of hop flavors and a bracing bitterness, along with a slightly tangy wheat malt element. The beer has a pleasant, fluffy mouthfeel that lends a refreshing element to such a hop-forward brew, and the dense, moussy ecru head lasts several minutes atop the golden liquid.
• Sea Rose tart cherry wheat ale from San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing Co. pours a very light pale orange in color with a medium white head. The aroma is subtle and delicately fruity, reminiscent of underripe white peaches. The flavor does highlight the promised tart cherry character, though it tastes somewhat watered down. The beer lacks the expected body of a wheat beer, with a very light body, low carbonation and an unremarkable mouthfeel, perhaps due to the very sessionable 4 percent ABV. Hop bitterness and flavor are minimal enough to be undetectable, and the addition of pomegranate does not seem to contribute much. The cherry flavor persists through the semi-dry finish, and does not come across as artificial, but doesn’t portray a particularly fresh character, either.
Derek Wolfgram is a Certified Beer Judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program and an officer of the Silicon Valley Sudzers homebrew club. For more information, visit sudzers.org.