Like an accelerated kid dropped into remedial math, American wheat beer’s potential has been squandered. It lives in the shadow of its German forebears. It warms the bench as IPAs enjoy the spotlight. It’s been wrongfully ignored, and it’s high time to unlock it’s hazy powers and experience the full flavor of one of American craft brewing’s finer liquids.
If you associate wheat beer with Blue Moon and a slice of orange, this is your primer to the world of American brewers doing something more with their wheat malt. They’re adding aromatic hops. They’re open fermenting. They’re cultivating a beer that’s front-palate friendly with a full finish. So throw out the notion that the wheat beer’s just another low-ABV, soft beer to pass by on the way to another tap. The wheat beer offers a session pour that’s high on taste, low(er) on alcohol, and gives you the reward of long, slow liquid satisfaction, beer after golden beer.
Thinking globally and drinking locally is a good adage to adopt, and Brooklyn Brewery is helping support the practice. The Greenmarket Wheat’s only available in NYC, and 70 percent of the wheat and barley that goes into the brew is from New York state. It’s a local disposition, with global appeal.
Tasting Notes: All the traditional wheat beer flavors (honey, banana, clove) are here and performing at their ultimate potential. This was our pick for our favorite traditional wheat beer, and it’s worth the trip to NYC. (ABV: 5.5%)
Three Floyds Gumballhead
Gumballhead’s the wunderkind of the wheat beer world, one part elusive, two parts worth the chase. The master brewers out in Munster, IN, have laced the American red wheat base with Amarillo Hops, so the beer takes on a mildly hoppy nature, giving a slightly bitter note to the smooth fruit-strong flavors.
Tasting Notes: The beer’s delicious. But it doesn’t taste much like a wheat beer. There’s honey sweetness and the lemon zest (especially on the end), but the wheatiness only operates to create a roundness to the flavors, rather than being a major presence. It’s a Grade-A beer, but not distinguishable as a traditional wheat brew. (ABV: 5.6%)
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis
Bavaria, Germany and Chico, CA are a long way apart, but a stubborn belief in brewing “the right way” unites the two. Sierra Nevada takes the traditional Bavarian approach to brewing wheat beer, flipping the lid off the fermenters and letting the liquid breathe free. The result is a cloudy brew that’s a perfect pair, unsurprisingly, for bratwurst and wieners.
Tasting Notes: For a beer that’s widely available, it’s surprisingly complex and satisfying. The banana flavor is rich but not overpowering, and the mouthfeel is balanced (weighty, but also not too heavy). As an affordable, everyday wheat beer, you won’t find a better flavor. (ABV: 4.8%)
We’ve spoken of the great Oberon before. The now-canned wheat ale is the bread-and-butter of Kalamazoo, MI, and it’s refreshing, delicious, and difficult to stop drinking. It uses Bell’s house yeast to chow down on the delicate balance of hops and wheat. It’s fruity, smooth, and outright intoxicating (and that’s just the sensory side).
Tasting Notes: The most distinctly American tasting wheat beer, in that it has a distinctive fruit flavor (we got some pineapple flavor) and a touch of hops. It doesn’t taste like a traditional Bavarian, but it’s still wheat beer through and through. (ABV: 5.8%)
Boulevard 80 Acre Hoppy Wheat
Like most powerhouse unions, the Hoppy Wheat takes two strong families (hops + wheat) and brings them together for impressive fruition. The beer sports an IPA funk for the nostrils, while retaining the bright, refreshing lightness of a wheat beer.
Tasting Notes: Hoppy on the nose and, at first taste, lands like an IPA. But as the flavor settles on the palate, the wheat elements come through. It’s like a thicker, muted hop beer. IPA fans will agree with my scribbled tasting note: “I could drink multiples of these.” (ABV 5.5%)
THE SECOND ROUND
Round out your fermentation fest with a few “little bros” to the big boys up top. These are the less renowned, yet equally enticing brews of the wheat world:
Bell’s Oarsman Ale: a session beer through and through, the Oarsman focuses on a strong batch of wheat, and tosses in a few citrusy hops for a tinge of tart. ABV: 4.0%
Golden Road Hefeweizen: not your middle-of-the-road hefe. The brewers from LA cultivate a tart citrus flavor and a dry finish to give a golden touch to the Bavarian-style beer. ABV: 4.6%
Three Floyds Drunk Monk: a Bavarian-style hefeweizen made with traditional brewing techniques. A great throwback hefe. ABV: 5.5%
Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat: an easy-drinking beer that plays nicely with dinner. Incredibly drinkable, excessively smooth. ABV: 4.4%
Building off the Belgian wit-style ale, Ommengang’s Witte adds more than just a few letters to the name. They take both malted and unmalted wheat to cull a balance between a rich maltiness and a dry, crisp sweetness. And, if you’d like to do as the Belgians do, use the Witte in the kitchen for steaming seafood or whisking together a light sauce.
Tasting Notes: Of all the beers we tried, the Witte was the most citrusy and sweet. It was a touch dry, very smooth, and not overbearing. A true session beer to drink all day long. (ABV: 5.2%)
Dogfish Head Namaste
The Namaste’s all about good karma. After the Belgian brewery 3 Fonteinen lost a third of its production after a thermostat broke and ruined 100,000 bottles of lambic and gueuze beers, the good brewmasters out in Delaware decided to honor the witbier tradition with a brew of their own. It’s a full palate pleaser that washes strong over the tongue, but stays light with predominantly fruit flavors.
Tasting Notes: A complex union of flavors, with orange leading the charge. It washes over the mouth smoothly, with a good balance of wheat density and citrus tartness. (ABV: 4.8%)
Two Brothers Ebel’s Weiss Beer
The two brothers (Jim and Jason) of Two Brothers started their brewing off with the hefeweizen, aiming to make the German tradition more widespread in the states. They brought their cross-pond brewing know-how to smack in the middle of the US (Chicagoland), and since 1996, they’ve done good work to create a reputable name for the American version of the traditional German brew.
Tasting Notes: This is the big hitter hefeweizen. It’s full (almost syrupy) on the tongue, and sits heavy in the stomach. It’s an after dinner drink, and tastes something like drinking banana cream pie. If you want big banana flavor, this is the holy grain. (ABV: 4.9%)
Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’
If, on a slow autumn day, you tire of the landmark Lagunitas IPA, there’s a softer middle ground to quench your thirst. The L.S.S. offers a little sumpin’ extra for a wheat beer — higher gravity. The quick bounce of hoppy flavor goes a long way to add complexity. Still, it holds onto that perk of wheat beers the world over: you can drink it from sunset (or sunrise) long into the night.
Tasting Notes: It hits first with hops, then balances with fruitiness. Peaches come through and some spice, but the initial register on the palate is that hops are on the scene. If you fancy the IPA, this is a nice foray into the wheat world. (ABV: 7.5%)
Harpoon UFO Hefeweizen
As the hefeweizen picked up momentum out West, the brewers at Harpoon saw that the East lagged a little in producing the hazy German beer. So they started producing a cloudy concoction of their own. The UFO hits full in the mouth like any self-respecting wheat, but finishes with a crisp citrus flavor to cleanse the palate, readying you for the next sip.
Tasting Notes: A clear, crisp wheat beer. Very drinkable, and the flavors come through with a tart fruitiness, rather than the butteriness of banana. It’s refreshing and light, and makes for a great session beer. (ABV: 4.8%)