In the following article, we will explore the world of wheat beers, a family of the oldest and best-known styles dating back to the Middle Ages and divided into two distinct “branches”: German wheat beers and Belgian wheat beers.
We’ll look at what wheat beers are, the different styles that there are, what kind of grains you should use to brew them, what kind of hops they contain and how they are used in these styles, their adjuncts, and more!
Without further ado, let’s get started!
What is a Wheat beer?
A wheat beer, broadly speaking, is an Ale beer with a clear look to it, which carries in its recipe a percentage of wheat close to 50%, completing the other half with traditional barley malts.
If we go back to their origins, wheat beers are associated with the monks and abbeys of the Middle Ages, and even though they were considered to be extremely traditional beers in Europe, the Second World War interrupted this due to the fact that all of the available wheat was intended for the production of bread.
There are two great schools when it comes to wheat beers: On the one hand, we have the German styles with the hefeweizen, or weissbier, which is characterized by its notes of clove and banana, and on the other hand, we have the Belgian styles with the witbier whose main characteristic gives us a pale and cloudy appearance with very spicy notes of coriander and orange.
Best Grains for Wheat Beer
In general, all of these beer styles have a large amount of wheat in addition to the base malts. As a complement, caramel malts can also be used in some more complex styles. Below is a list of the most commonly used grains and their percentages.
- Wheat: 50-70% (malted for German beers and raw for Belgian styles).
- Base malt: 30-50% (Pilsen or pale in light beers and Munich or Vienna in dark styles).
- Caramel malts: 5-10% (only in dark styles for adding color and flavor complexity).
Different Styles of Wheat Beer
- Weissbier: The Weissbier is a German wheat beer, pale in appearance, and refreshing, with high carbonation and a dry aftertaste, with a creamy mouthfeel, and notes of banana and clove from the yeast. According to German brewing tradition, at least 50% of the total grain recipe must be malted wheat, although some versions reach up to 70%, with the rest being typically Pilsen malt.
- Dunkles weissbier: This is a dark German wheat beer with a distinctive character of banana and clove, supported by toasted bread or caramel malt flavors. It is highly carbonated, with a creamy texture and smooth mouthfeel. Like the weissbier, at least 50% malted wheat is in the recipe, the rest is usually Munich, Vienna, dark wheat, or caramel malts.
- Weizenbock: A wheat-based ale, strong, malty and fruity, combining the malt and yeast flavors of a Weissbier with a rich, malty, intense, and full-bodied flavor. A high percentage of malted wheat is used (according to German brewing tradition, at least 50%, although it can contain up to 70%), with the rest being Munich and/or Vienna barley malt in the darker versions and more Pils malt in the paler versions. Some colored malts may be used in moderation.
- White IPA: A fruity and spicy American IPA version but with a lighter color, less body, and distinctive notes of yeast and spices typical of a Belgian Witbier. In its recipe we usually find pale and wheat malts, Belgian yeast, and citrusy American hops.
- Witbier: It is a Belgian beer of Ale fermentation based on wheat. It is refreshing, elegant, tasty, and of moderate intensity. As for its ingredients, it uses about 50% unmalted wheat and 50% Pilsen malt. In some versions, up to 5-10% raw oats are used. We can also find spices such as freshly ground coriander and Curaçao, or sometimes orange peel complementing the characteristic sweet aroma. Other spices (e.g. chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, grains of paradise) may be used for complexity, but are much less prominent.
Hops most commonly used in Wheat Beers
In this type of beer, hops are definitely not the main protagonist. While hop additions are needed for a balanced taste, for providing bitterness, and to enhance the aromas, they should never overshadow the qualities of the yeast and spices that are so characteristic of this style.
As for the types of hops used, the wheat styles usually follow German tradition, and therefore it is advisable to use noble hops from that region.
|Name||Taste and Aroma||Utility||% Alpha||% Beta||Substitutes||Beer Style|
|Magnum||Herbal, spicy||Aroma and bitterness||5||Columbus, zeus||Ipas, German|
|Perle||Herbal, spicy||Aroma and bitterness||7-9||3-5||Opal, hersbrucker||German and Belgian|
|Hersbrucker||Fruity, floral, spicy||Aroma and bitterness||3-5||4-6||mittelfruh||German and Belgian Lagers|
|Northern||Wood, herbal||Aroma and bitterness||7-10||3,5-5,5||Chinook, brew gold||American Ales|
|Tettnanger||Spicy, floral||Aroma and bitterness||4-5||3-4,5||Saaz, hersbrucker||German wheat|
|M. bavaria||Orange peel||Aroma||7-10||4-10||Columbus, nugget||Ipas and apas|
|Nugget||Citrus, herbal||Aroma and bitterness||11-14||4-5,5||Magnum, chinook||German lagers, pilsen|
|Polaris||Herbal, fruity||Aroma and bitterness||18-23||5-6||Magnum, nugget||American Ales|
|Tradition||Herbal, fruity||Aroma||4-7||3-6||Mittelfruh, hersbrucker||Weissbier, kolsch|
|Saphir||Fruity, citric||Aroma||2-4,5||4-7||mittelfruh||Weissbier, witbier|
|Herkules||Herbal, spicy||bitterness||12-17||4-5||Magnum, perle||German Lagers|
|H. melon||Melon, fruit tree||aroma||7-7,5||7-8||cascade||Ipas, weissbier|
|Blanc||Fruity, floral||aroma||9-12||4-5||cascade||Belgian ales, German wheat|
How many types of hops are used for a wheat beer?
One type of hop high in Alpha-Acids is commonly used to generate bitterness, and another one to take advantage of the aromatic compounds, although the same type of hop can easily be used for both purposes.
Wheat Beers with only one type of hops
- Northern brewer
Wheat beers with hop combination
- Magnum + blanc
- Perle + bavarian mandarin
- Herkules + huell melon
- Nugget + tradition
Best Hops to generate Bitterness
Best hops to generate Aroma
- Huell melon
- Bavarian mandarin
When to add Hops
There are different hopping techniques that can be used throughout the brewing process, each with its own rationale, pros, and cons.
Below is a detailed list of the most commonly used methods going from the beginning to the end of the brewing process.
- Mash hop: this is one of the oldest techniques and fresh hops (flower) were used to give flavor and aroma. Nowadays it is not used because it wastes a great part of the hops’ properties.
- First wort hop: addition of hops in the boiling pot during the grain filtering process. According to several studies, adding hops at this time generates a more pleasant bitterness.
- Addition of bitterness in the boil: The optimum moment to isomerize the greatest amount of Alpha-Acids possible is 60′ before the end of the boil, and this way we are taking advantage of and optimizing the bittering qualities of the hops to the maximum.
- Adding bitterness, aroma, and flavor: by making the hops addition between 40′ and 25′ before the end of the boil, the aromatic, bitterness, and flavor characteristics of the hops are equally taken advantage of, which is why balanced varieties are generally used.
- Addition of aroma during the boil: this addition is made 10 minutes before the end of the boil since a large part of the essential oils are solubilized and retained in the wort, providing mostly aroma.
- Hop stand: once the boil is finished, the temperature of the wort is lowered to approximately 80/90 degrees, and the hops are added while the whirlpool is done. This technique extracts all the qualities of the hops, but especially aroma since the least amount of aromatic compounds are volatilized.
- Hot dry hopping: this addition takes place inside the fermenter in the first 24 hours of the main fermentation starting or during the last moments of fermentation, or when the attenuation is at around 60%. This way, we get the most amount of flavor and aroma out of the hops since all the compounds are retained inside the tank and are not volatilized. A great advantage of this method is that the yeast is still active, so it will process any oxygen that may have entered during dry hopping.
- Cold dry hopping: it has recently been discovered that this is the way in which the aromatic compounds are best exploited without generating any bitterness. The hops must be added to the fermenter during the cold maturation stage, which makes the beer quite prone to oxidation and contamination, so special care must be taken.
As mentioned above, in wheat beers, hops do not play an important role, so additions are only made at the beginning of the boil to achieve the desired IBU, although a small amount can also be added at the end of the boil or during the whirlpool to enhance the aromas and flavors of the style.
Quantities to be used
What I’d recommend for wheat styles is to calculate the amount of hops needed based on their Alpha Acid percentage.
For this you must use the calculation explained below (in a second).
When brewing any of these styles, specific yeast strains are used for wheat beers, which are of the ALE type, which means that they ferment optimally between 18-23 degrees Celsius, although it is not recommended to take the fermentation to the extremes of these temperature ranges as they can generate unwanted aromas and flavors.
These types of yeast are highly sterile and phenolic, giving us the characteristic spicy and fruity notes present in this beer style.
The most popular Yeast used for brewing wheat beers is the Fermentis SafeAle WB-06, and if you’re making darker Wheat beers, then the Danstar Munich Yeast is the way to go.
What is IBU and what does it represent?
The IBU (International Bitterness Unit) is a value that quantifies the bitterness of beer. It represents the amount of dissolved alpha-acids in the beer, so 1 IBU is equivalent to 1 milligram of alpha-acid per liter of beer.
Something very important to take into account when calculating this is the time of addition of the hops, as the optimum time to extract all the bitterness possible is at 60 minutes of boiling them. However, if what we want is to take advantage of the aromas, the addition should be done 10 minutes before the end of the boil.
In essence, the longer the hops are boiled, the more bitterness they add, and since bitterness is the main characteristic we want to extract from the hops when brewing a wheat beer, you should aim to boil the hops for at least 60 minutes.
That said, how do you calculate IBU?
This would be very simple to do if you just take into account the Alpha Acid content that a hop variety has and how much of it is added to the beer, and then simply calculate the IBU using the number of liters left after the boil and the number of grams of AA according to the percentage of AA of that specific hop, but this isn’t the most accurate way.
If we want to make a more accurate calculation, we must calculate the amount of AA that are isomerized in the wort, and for this, we must add to the equation the utilization coefficient.
To measure this coefficient, the most commonly used method is the one created by Randy Mosher (See the graph below): It is a graph where different curves show how boiling time affects bitterness, aroma, and flavor, and when those hops additions should be made in order to extract those characteristics.
IBU of each type of Wheat Beer
- Weissbier: 8-15
- Dunkles weissbier: 15-20
- Weizenbock: 15-30
- American wheat: 15-30
- White ipa: 40-70
- Witbier: 8-20
Wheat beers in general are fresh and have high drinkability. They are widely known for their aromas and flavors coming from the fermentation itself and not so much from the hops.
Special care must be taken when making them, as having such a high percentage of wheat can cause clogs when mashing or make it difficult to filter the wort. It is also essential to control the fermentation temperatures as well as possible because if we go out of the optimum range it is possible to generate unwanted flavors and aromas.