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All Wheat, All The Time

by Matt O'Connor

In my last column I had a mini-revelation that I hadn’t reviewed, nay, hadn’t even drank, a tasty wheat beer in a long time. Which is funny because wheat beers were one of my first forays off the reservation of bland “college beer.” One of my close friends and former roommates came back from Europe for the semester bringing liquid gifts. Some were strange, like chocolate with booze filled centers, but one was delicious: a Paulaner Dark Hefe-weizen. (Hefe in German means “yeast” and weizen is from the German word weisse, for wheat.) Paulaner is widely imported and found in liquor stores, but this particular beer, to my knowledge, isn’t imported into the US, for reasons of which I am unaware. It’s a shame, because it was a fantastic beer and much better than the fridge full of Corona that was my alternative at the time. Ahh, Cinco de Mayo 2007…

From there, I have expanded to many different types and styles of beer, but have always had a soft spot for a tasty wheat beer. So let’s talk about putting wheat in beer and what that means! As we’ve briefly covered in this column, beer has four traditional ingredients: barley, hops, yeast, and water. That first category, barley, can really be classified as "fermentable ingredients." These are the components of your beer that are full of sugars and starches that the yeast turn into carbon dioxide bubbles and alcohol. Examples besides barley are corn, rice, oatmeal, beet sugar (in many Belgian beer styles), fruit, and today’s star: wheat.

When grains are prepared for brewing they are put through a process called “malting” which begins the sprouting process and primes them for usage. This is why you’ll hear the term “malt” frequently. Since the majority of fermentable grains are be barley, it’s helpful to know the many varieties that you’ll see listed on beer labels: pilsner malt, Munich malt, Vienna malt, crystal malt, etc. Even if you have no idea what those mean, find a beer you like, find out what it’s made of and then you can go find others you might enjoy.

It’s worth noting that some experimental beers will add flavorings and spices. These are for taste and aroma and are beyond the scope of today’s column. Today we’re talking about switching the beer up and adding wheat to what’s called the grain bill of a beer, the collection of fermentable grains. Wheat can be added in small amounts to give fruity undertones or to make the foam head on your beer more long-lasting. This last feature results from dextrin, a compound that is not digested by the yeast and instead helps increase the beer’s surface tension (you remember chemistry, right?), allowing the tiny bubbles that make up your beer’s head to last all the way until you finish your glass. Some beers have this small amount of added wheat to create soft fruit tones, but the majority of the grain remains traditional malted barley. In today’s type of beer, a weizenbock, it’s a requirement of the style to be at least 50% wheat, but often breweries use up to 70% of the grain bill as wheat. So instantly you’ve changed the composition of your beer.

If you’ve ever had a bock-style beer, you’ll notice it’s usually a golden caramel color. Not so with Weihenstephaner’s Vitus weizenbock, which is a cloudy golden yellow. Here bock simply connotes the alcoholic strength of the beer. However, upping the amount of wheat only gets the beer half way to its signature style. Yeast plays a significant role in the taste and aroma of certain beers and a weisse beer is no different. The strains of yeast used produce certain organic compounds from the breakdown of fermentable sugars and give wheat beers what are invariably described as one of the following smells: bubblegum, banana, or clove. Just as a special yeast makes Belgian dark ale, or a French farmhouse wild saison, the yeast Weihenstephaner uses makes the beer true to its style. In fact, this yeast is so desired that it has been cultured and is available to home brewers commercially for a couple bucks a batch, to replicate commercial quality at home.

It’s easy to see why you would want to replicate beers from the esteemed Weihenstephaner brewery. Right on the label it makes the bold but well-supported claim: The World’s Oldest Brewery. Records from the Weihenstephaner Benedictine monastery, tucked away atop a hill in Bavaria, show that the inhabitants used hops as early as 768, presumably for brewing. Though putting guesswork aside the founding date is officially listed as a few hundred years later, when it became the official Royal Bavarian brewery, in 1040. That accounts for nearly a thousand years of documented history. Not too shabby.

It’s clear upon tasting that these people know what they’re doing. Vitus should be poured like other wheat beers: slowly, to contain the massive amount of foam, but with enough vigor to loosen up the yeast in the bottom of the bottle. These yeast will add a cloudiness and flavor to the beer that is a hallmark of the style. The head pours miles tall with small, neat bubbles on top of the beer’s cloudy golden body. The aroma has a touch of lemon, some nice bread-y smells from the wheat, and those well-known smells of clove. Maybe even a bit of the banana ester, but not as much as some darker wheat beers.

Upon first sip, it’s impressive how the mouth feel is creamy but the carbonation adds enough of a kick to make this refreshing. A weizenbock has no one set definition, but it is essentially a hefeweizen brewed to bock strength. This will remind you of a classic hefeweizen, but its 7.7% ABV does have a bit of a warming kick in the back of your mouth. This slight alcohol warmth does make you savor this a little more than some wheat beers which are much lighter, usually around 5% ABV. But Vitus is still refreshing, and it’s that managed duality that makes this beer a winner. I had never tried this before reviewing it, but just today I bought another bottle. It’s that good. Grade: A-



Weihenstephaner Vitus

Serving type: 16.9oz (500ml) glass bottle

ABV: 7.7%

Enjoy: Just above fridge temp, but still cold.

Style: Wheat Bock (weizenbock)


Also Try these Wheat Beers:

Paulaner Hefe-weizen, Paulaner Brauerei (Munich, Germany). I included this on my list of great summer beers in my last column, just to reiterate: Paulaner makes fantastic beers and this wheat is no exception. It’s fuller in body with a creamy touch from the wheat, but it’s refreshing with those signature yeast aromas of banana and clove. ABV: 5.5% Grade: A-

Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel, Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan (Freising, Germany). This uses wheat, like its sister Vitus, but the Dark Hefeweizen strays by using darker, toastier malts called Munich or Vienna malts. They're the same kind of malted barley you’d find in a dark, malty lager, like Sam Adams Boston Lager, for one widely-known example. This is a tasty spin on wheat beers. ABV: 5.3% Grade: A+

Aventinus, Schneider & Sons (Kelheim, Bavaria, Germany). A wheat doppelbock, pours dark and fragrant, with classic wheat beer banana aromas. Grade: A

Image courtesy of the author


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Matt O’Connor lives in Boston and is a proud graduate of Boston University. Explore beer with him as he quits his job in the sciences and starts law school. Send any requests, beer, or job offers to him at: matt.oconnor[at]