The history of Wheat Beer
Most beer lovers know what wheat brings to your beer: a somewhat creamy – sometimes even wee – taste with a subtle sour edge. Although barley is now the dominant brewing grain, this was not always the case. The history of wheat beers is in fact the history of beer itself.
Through Sumerian records we know that more than 8000 years ago people brewed beer with spelt. This is a variety of wheat, so you could say they earliest known beers were Wheat Beers. The next couple of millennia are a little clouded, but we know it was a popular beer in Europe around the 14th century.
Having one of the richest beer histories in the world, it may come as no surprise that Belgium made Wheat Beer its own. Brewing with all types of grain since at least the 6th century, recipes were bound to certain regions. In the 16th century Witbier became an important style across the country, when brewers started experimenting with more wheat.
Almost impossible to believe, Witbier was nearly declared dead 300 years later. We can thank dairyman Pierre Celis for its revival. Finding it harder and harder to drink his favorite beer, he just started his own brewery. The now legendary Hoegaarden brewery to this day makes one of the most beloved Witbiers in the world.
Wheat beers were immensely popular in Bavaria in the Middle Ages. In the 15th century however, war and crop failures were responsible for a huge decline in raw material. As bread was more important than beer, it led to the Reinheitsgebot which forbade the use of wheat in beer. Some exceptions were made, but it made sure barley became much more popular. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that wheat beers became popular again.
Nowadays beer is always brewed with barley, even the Wheat Beers. Only part of the recipe consists of wheat malt, because this has insufficient enzymes. There are many different styles, but they have some things in common. They often have a cloudy appearance, and prominent yeast flavours. The presence of hops is low to non at all.
Also known as Blanche, Witbier is one of the most famous beers of Belgium. The biggest difference with its German counterpart Weizen is that Belgian brewers are allowed to add herbs. Therefor Witbier often has coriander and lemon peel among its ingredients. This may sound like a minor adjustment, but the outcome is totally different.
Many of the “normal” Wheat Beers can be attributed to an entire country at least. Sour Wheat Beers are often much more locally made. Take Lambic for example. This can officially only be found in the Belgian Zennevallei or Pajottenland. It is made by putting wheat, malted barley and hops into an oak barrel. Then it is spontaneously fermented by the outside air.
Weissbier / Weizen
This typically German beer style is top-fermented and has a yeasty character, with notes of banana in the aroma. The original cloudy variant is called Hefeweizen, while the filtered type is known as Kristallweizen. The third main variety is Dunkelweizen, which uses roasted malt – like Black Swaen Chocolate Wheat – to add more character to the beer. A stronger version that combines two of the most popular German beer styles is called Weizenbock. There are some other distinctions like Hopfenweisse (more hop-forward) and Hefeweizen Leicht, but these take up only a fraction of the market.
While related to Weissbier, Berliner Weisse deserves their own chapter. It has dry and sour flavours, so present it will make your mouth pucker. It was originally created by brewers in Berlin to have their own beer style, like Cologne had its Kölsch.
Often forgotten, the German town of Goslar also created their own Wheat Beer. What made this sour beer stand out, is the addition of a little salt – and sometimes herbs – to the recipe. It is therefore one of the few German beers that is not made according to the Reinheitsgebot.
American Pale Wheat
Always looking to make global beer styles their own, American brewers came up with American Pale Wheat. You could call it their version of a German Hefeweizen. The big difference is that the flavour profile is moved from banana and clove to orange and lemon.
As the popularity of IPA grew in the last decades, so did the range. One of the things brewers tried, was to brew with other grains. It didn’t take long before White IPA was born, with a combination of hoppy and floral flavours. Some say this beer takes the best of both worlds. All we can say is that it tastes like summer!
Don’t worry, you didn’t change websites. This is still very much about beer. When high alcohol beers started to pop up, they were called Barley Wines. This was merely a way to tell these were stronger than the regular beers. Of course, this was transferred to other grains. That is why wheat beers with a lot of alcohol – sometimes up to more than 17% – are known as Wheat Wines.
Another very local Wheat Beer is the Polish Grodziskie, also known as Grätzer. This historical beer style is made with smoked wheat malt, which is very prominent in the flavours. Another contributor to its unique taste is the high mineral content of the water.
Brewing with wheat
The many proteins ensure that the beer is often cloudy. Because wheat has no hull, it has no natural filter bed. This isn’t a big problem, because you can add rice hulls when you are brewing. These have no flavour, so they act as a natural filter system without changing your beer.
If you want to brew with wheat, you can choose our base malts Swaen Wheat Classic and Wheat Dark. Adding a little colour and caramel flavour can be done with Gold Swaen Wheat Light and Dark. Darker beers can be made with Black Swaen Coffee Light Wheat, Black Wheat and Chocolate Wheat. Going green? Then you might want to check out Green Swaen Wheat Classic, a completely biological malt. Check out the realm of possibilities here.