I have always given as much respect to beer as I’ve given to wine—because beer is another primal product that results from artists working with nature, artists who are hoping to produce something aesthetically pleasing for human beings. But I have lots of friends who, perhaps influenced by one too many cheap and foul kegs at the frat, don’t share that opinion. “Don’t like beer,” they say. “Can’t imagine why I would drink that.”
Whenever this comes up…I give ’em fuel for imagination. I pour ’em a glass of wheat beer. To tell you the absolute truth…one sip usually changes everything. “Wow! What is that?” they almost always say. For me, I can tell you—despite my love of all kinds of beers—wheat beer is the single most exciting and delicious category on the beer map.
What is wheat beer? And why do I love it so much?
The definition can be extremely simple: beer made from wheat! So what is beer usually made from? Barley, classically—and, today, lots of cheaper grains around the world (a lot of that frat crap from big American brewers is made from rice, and/or corn, which gives the beer a kind of nauseous insipidity).
Wheat beer is different. Wheat beer, though the numbers vary according to the producing region, is usually made from at least 50% wheat (often less in the U.S., often more in Bavaria)—which gives the beer a kind of lightness, cleanness, that sets it apart from all other beers. As an added bonus, frequently, there’s a fluffy texture that is unique in the world of brew. Body-wise, it is the most elegant of beers—without veering into the empty-fizzy-water territory of beers like Miller Lite.
The flavor of wheat beer is also unique—for two reasons. Wheat beer producers—particularly in Germany but, increasingly, around the world—use a special yeast to ferment their products, called torulaspora delbrueckii which produces esters that have a fruity, banana-like flavor…and phenolics that have a clove-like spiciness! That’s a lot of flavor right there…but, due to the combo of esters and phenolics, these beers often end up tasting cider-y and floral as well! And that’s all before reason number two: in Belgium, one of the world’s best wheat beer countries, there is a tradition of flavoring the wheat beer further with spices! Such things as fennel, coriander and bitter Curacao orange rind may be added to give even more complexity to the brew, though the impact is usually subtle. Wheat beer production has really caught on in America in the last five years—and most American producers follow the Belgian practice by adding spices to their wheat beers.
Spices or not, what you typically end up with in wheat beer is one of the lightest, most refreshing beers on the planet—often with lemony acidity, to boot! Wheat beer has a distinct range of flavors that’s at great variance with the usual beer flavors. And I think these wheat beer flavors are, at once, more delicious and more complex than regular beer flavors.