By Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter
With the coming of the warmer (dare we hope for hot?) days of summer, it’s traditional to start thinking about drinking lighter beers.
When thinking about light beers, wheat beers often come to mind. Brewed with a greater or lesser amount of malted wheat substituting for malted barley, these beers are often the perfect choice for quenching your thirst on a hot summer’s afternoon.
Brewing beers using wheat is likely almost as old as brewing itself. We know that both the ancient Sumerians and the ancient Egyptians brewed them more than 5,000 years ago.
However, malted wheat is much more difficult to brew with than malted barley, as the qualities that make wheat so perfect for baking into bread — naked kernels and lots of gluten — make it a real challenge to deal with in the brewing process.
Still, over the years three very distinct styles of wheat beers have emerged, each named after its country of origin: Germany, Belgium and the United States. We’ll look at each in turn.
When many people think of wheat beers, the beer they think of is the classic German (or, more accurately, Bavarian) hefeweizen.
Most beer drinkers are probably familiar with this style of beer, traditionally served in oversized glasses and famous for its aroma of cloves and bananas. This aroma is not from the actual addition of spices or fruit, but from phenols and esters produced as a byproduct of fermentation by the specific strain of yeast used.
This style is lightly hopped and refreshing, and can be found both in the cloudy “mit hefe” version, which still has the yeast in suspension, and the “krystal” version, from which all the yeast has been filtered out. Besides the classic hefeweizen, there are several other styles of German wheat beers.
There are dunkelweizens, an older version of the hefeweizen that is dark rather than golden in color. There are weizenbocks, strong beers brewed with more than 50 percent malted wheat as an ingredient.
Finally, there is the style of beer known as Berliner Weisse. Brewed around its namesake city of Berlin, this style is low in alcohol (about 3 percent) and deliberately soured using a lactobacillus culture.
This produces a wonderfully tart beer, which is extremely refreshing on a hot summer day, much like a nice glass of lemonade. In fact, this style of beer so impressed Napoleon’s troops in the early 19th century that they nicknamed it “The Champagne of the north.”
Belgium also has a classic style of wheat beer, its famous witbier, Dutch for “white beer.” Traditional examples of these beers are very cloudy from the starch haze produced by the wheat malt and/or the yeast in suspension, giving them a milky, whitish-yellow appearance, hence the name.
This style dates back to the heyday of the Dutch Empire, which explains its usage of once-exotic spices such as coriander, Curacao orange peel, chamomile, cumin, cinnamon and even Grains of Paradise. These beers are also quite refreshing, but they tend to be fragile and do not travel very well, so American craft interpretations may actually taste better than the imported originals, unless you are lucky enough to visit Belgium and taste them fresh. Alaskan Brewing Company’s White Beer is roughly in this style, as is the ubiquitous Blue Moon from Coors.
During the renaissance of American brewing over the last three decades, our craft brewers developed a distinctly American take on brewing with wheat.
Utilizing clean fermenting ale yeasts and the more assertive American hop varieties, these pioneers produced beers that were light on the palate with the thirst-quenching properties of wheat married to the hoppiness favored by American palates.
The fruitiness of the German hefeweizen and the spiciness of the Belgian wit are both absent in this now classic style of American craft beer.
So if you’re looking for local examples of these wheat beers, what’s available? Kassik’s Brewery will be releasing its Imperial Spiced Honey Wheat in June. At 8.9 percent alcohol by volume, this beer is no light summer thirst-quencher, but it’s still delicious. Kenai River Brewing’s Honeymoon Hefe is a bit of a hybrid between the German and American styles, with a clean but slightly fruity taste.
St. Elias Brewing Co. is pouring its classic hefeweizen into 20-ounce glasses for only $5 all summer long. Any of the three beers would be an excellent choice to experience the outstanding pleasure of beer made from wheat.
Finally, I want to remind everyone that the second annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival will take place Saturday, Aug. 11, at the Soldotna Sports Center, from 4 to 10 p.m. If you attended last year’s festival, you know what a great time it was. If you missed it, don’t miss it this year. Mark your calendar now.
Until next month, cheers!
Bill Howell is a home brewer, teaches a beer appreciation class at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus and was named the 2010 Beerdrinker of the Year by Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver.