Whether it’s a Hefe, Berliner Weisse, Dunkel Weizen, American style, Krystal, or Belgian Wit, ordering a wheat beer is a solid choice at any time. In fact, due to their low hop profile, smoothness, and crispness, it’s the wheat beer that is a common “gateway beer” out of the world of domestic light lagers, and into the world of flavorful, delicious craft brews. I know that was the case for me, at least. Once I tried a Franziskaner, I knew my world was about to flip up-side down. I’m not alone here either, Wheat Beers are actually so delicious, that Bavarian royals made loop holes in the German Beer Purity Law, stating that beer could only be made from barley, water, and hops, so that they could consume their favorite Weissbier!
Since the term “Wheat Beer” is an umbrella term for any beer made with a large amount of wheat in it (usually around 50%), I’m going to break this down into three of the most popular styles: Hefeweizen, American Wheat, and Belgian Wit. These three styles are readily available, and show off just how diverse and delicious wheat beers can be.
Literally translated as “Yeast-wheat”, Hefeweizens are German brews that are made to be golden, fruity, and unfiltered, hence the emphasis on the word yeast. The main characteristics in a Hefe are the esters that the yeast produce. Notes of banana and clove are synonymous with Hefes both in the aroma and taste.
Because these beers are light, bubbly, and sweet, they pair up well with a large variety of dishes. The idea is to play on the lighter flavors, and not overpower the beer with heavy, spicy, or gamy flavors. Hefe’s pair well with creamy goat cheese, lemon zest, light seafood, fresh fruits, acidic salads, German sausages, pretzels, and, surprisingly, even Mexican food. What would be my winning dish to serve with a Hefe? Try this lobster avocado salad with a zesty lemon vinaigrette. The brightness of the lemon compliments the banana, cloves, and sweetness of the beer, while the vivacious bubbles cleanse the palette from the fatty avocados. The lobster won’t have strong enough flavor to overpower the beer, and the feta is a perfect pair.
My favorite Hefewizens: Franziskaner, Weihenstephaner. Both are world-class examples of the style.
What make American Wheat beers so special is that they are insanely drinkable. They’re light, sweet, bready, tangy, and can range from pale to golden in color. They are usually unfiltered, like their German counterparts, but they use a much cleaner yeast that gives off little to no ester fruitiness. You won’t find banana and cloves in most American Wheats, but you might find an earthy, woody, spicy hop note from noble hops, though hop presence should still be on the low side.
While these can be seen as more bland than German Hefes, American Wheats also pair well with lighter flavors. You’ll usually even see them garnished with a lemon wedge because the bright citric flavor exaggerates the notes of the brew. Think light cheeses, mozzerellas, provolones, and camembert, but avoid sharp cheddars, funky blues, and other pungent cheeses that will drown out most Wheats. Say yes to scallops, chef’s salads, pan-seared chicken, and mango salsa. Say no to spicy Thai, garlicky, herb-encrusted lamb, and beef stew. A good dish to pair with an American Wheat is Chicken Saltimbocca (my dad’s favorite). This dish will give the beer the lemony pairing it wants, the lightness of the chicken will let the beer shine, and the herbs will compliment what little hops the beer has to offer.
My favorite American Wheats: Bell’s Oberon and Goose Island 312.
Witbier, called white beer due to the cloudiness, and “white” appearance in comparison to the darker lagers of the time, are characterized by being light and undeniably refreshing. These Belgian ales are almost always spiced with good amounts of coriander and orange peel, but other spices are welcome to the party as well. You might see a Wit with chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, and Grains of Paradise. They are brewed to be tart and dry on the finish, with medium to low hop flavors.
These beers can have fruity flavors that are vastly different from the yeast-based fruit esters in a Hefe. The beer’s tartness,orange, and coriander lead it to be paired well with other citrus flavors. You might think there’s a major theme between all of these beers,and you’re right, but I’d go away from lemon and go toward orange with Wits. Hell, this is even a good beer for breakfast as they pair perfectly with eggs and bacon! Wits lend themselves toward slightly bolder flavors due to the tart finish. While lightness is great, sometimes you want a good hearty meal with a Wit, and for those times I’m going to recommend dick a l’orange. This classic French dish features roasted duck served with orange sauce, and if you’re going classic french, why not use this Julia Childs Recipe?
Favorite Wits: Hoegaarden Original White Ale and Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat.
Personally, I’ve never met a wheat I didn’t like. If you haven’t ventured into the Wide World of Wheat by now, I suggest you do so, and while you’re at it, add one of the delicious meals listed above. Trust me, you won’t regret it.