There’s nothing like a nice, cold, fermented-wheat soda on a hot summer day. Wheat beer gets its effervescent, refreshing qualities from its grain bill, which always consists of at least 50 percent wheat (most barley-based ales contain none at all).
The world’s oldest brewery, Brauerei Weihenstephan in Freising, Germany, claims it was the first to brew a style very similar to modern wheat beer, in 1040 (not just an income tax return form, but a year, too!). Originally, it was so much lighter in color than other beers of the time that the Germans named it weissbier—“white beer.”
Today there are four predominant varieties of wheat beer:
Hefeweizen: The original Bavarian style popular in the Munich area: It’s pale and cloudy (from the wheat malt proteins), made with yeast that lends notes of banana and clove to the beer’s aroma and taste.
Berliner Weisse: A much rarer German style, fermented with ale yeast and lactobacillus delbruckii—sounds like a Polish hockey player, but it’s actually a type of bacterium often used in yogurt—which causes a mouth-puckering sourness.
Belgian Witbier: Not as sour as Berliner weisse, but still slightly tart due to lactic acid. It is generally characterized by citrusy, spicy flavors, thanks in part to added coriander and orange peel.
American Wheat Beer: Brewed with a more neutral American yeast strain, allowing for a cleaner, maltier flavor, and often a bit of hops, which provide a slightly bitter kick.
But can any of the three latter styles face off with the classic hefeweizen? Well, while I love a good Berliner weisse (try Professor Fritz Briem 1809!), the sour style is too dissimilar to the others to contend in this event. So in addition to a German hefeweizen, a Belgian witbier and an American wheat beer, we’ll test the limits of a New Zealand witbier in this installment of the Beer Olympics. May the best beer win.
Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier; Germany: Boasting a hazy yellow hue, the weisse bier is the lightest of the four, accentuated by plenty of fizzy bubbles and a lightly foamy head. It’s not a remarkably special look, but I wouldn’t kick it out of bed in the morning either.
St. Bernardus Wit; Belgium: St. Bernardus’s offering features a ton of frothy, white head, with a hazy, golden peach complexion bordering on opaque. It has a density and thickness to it that almost makes it look like layer cake. Beery, beery layer cake. I think I just invented my new favorite food.…
Bell’s Oberon Ale; US: Oberon pours with comparatively little head, and nearly resembles a typical barley-based ale: a bit foggy, but not nearly as hazy as its European counterparts—which reminds me of my first trip to Amsterdam (though within a week, I looked just as hazy as the locals).
Moa Blanc Evolution; New Zealand: Moa’s wheat beer is the clearest of the bunch. Visually, it’s the crispest and the most lager-like, but also possesses the (relatively) darkest orange-amber hue. Kind of like Snooki after a nice, deep tanning session.
POINT: St. Bernardus
Weihenstephaner: Delicate aromas of banana, bubble gum and a touch of clove due to phenols, the chemical compounds produced by German yeast. I assure you it smells way better than an actual glass of banana–bubble gum–clove juice would.
St. Bernardus: Now, tha’ssa spicy meatball! The lemony, citrusy, slightly spicy qualities of St. Bernie’s wheat is a bit of a shock after sniffing the more traditional German hefeweizen, but it’s a very welcome surprise.
Bell’s: The wheat-y qualities are certainly discernible, as are some spice, cereal, and vague rice notes. But overall it’s quite muted compared with those European showboats.
Moa: The earthy yeast is overwhelmed by the fragrance of flowery perfume, that of an old woman fond of Chanel wafting by you in a supermarket. There’s a bit of spice and honey, too, but mostly sweet, sweet old lady.
Weihenstephaner: The traditional mouthfeel of a hefeweizen is somewhat light, with a bit of smooth creaminess to round it out. The Weihenstephaner is so well balanced it could get into Harvard (SAT scores alone aren’t enough these days, you know).
St. Bernardus: Thin to medium bodied, with a tanginess that coats the mouth and almost makes it pucker as a Berliner weisse would. Still, the mouthfeel left this imbiber about as uninspired as the series finale of How I Met Your Mother did.
Bell’s: With a medium body, Bell’s Oberon is a bit thicker than the other contestants, and that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, high carbonation allows for a refreshing crispness. Now there’s that thirst-quenching American trademark we all know and love!
Moa: Moa is lighter, smoother and silkier than Bell’s, coating the mouth with its flavor, which we’ll get to in a moment. Even stiffer carbonation is a bit surprising for the style, but certainly not a problem here…bring on the bubbles.
Weihenstephaner: There’s a reason this beer sets the standard for all others of its kind—and it’s not just because it’s the oldest. A touch of spice perfectly balances the sweet grain malt, and it goes down as smoothly as an entire German chocolate cake down the gullet of a certain orange cartoon cat.
St. Bernardus: Oh, yeah. Tastes just like it smells: citrusy and tart. The lightly sour orange flavor is deliciously balanced by Belgian coriander. This will be a tough call, but I guess it all depends on what you’re in the mood for.
Bell’s: The hoppy notes in this wheat beer catch me off guard at first—and then I remember I’m in the US, drinking American beer. It has an angularity and bitterness to it that I’m not prepared for, but could get used to!
Moa: Like its authentic Belgian counterpart, the Moa also tastes like it smells: of fresh flowers and citrus. While it lacks the equilibrium of complexity and smoothness that the other beers offer, it does offer—with an ABV of 6.2 percent—a nice little boozy wallop.
Weihenstephaner: A gulp of Weihenstephaner ends with a dry, clean, finale that doesn’t require much thought. Sometimes you don’t wanna think—you just want another drink.
St. Bernardus: This beer’s super tangy, citrusy conclusion might make you say wowza out loud. (I did.) The lingering sour flavor is quite nice, as long as you’re prepared for something different.
Bell’s: You know a beer is American when it leaves you thinking of hops. The fruity, hoppy, lingering finish is incredibly flavorful, but not what I’m always looking for from a wheat beer.
Moa: Quite an off-dry finish, featuring a touch of sweetness and a good amount of bitterness that tingles the tongue. And after all this drinking, I think I feel a tingle in my fingertips, too.…
If you’re looking for balance and tradition, look no further than the Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, which I crown the elegantly well-rounded champion of today’s competition. Our entrants from Belgium, the US and New Zealand are all exceptional in their own way, each offering a unique take on a wheat brew—but, really, how can you argue with the elite wheat that’s been the one to beat for the better part of a millennium?
Then again, maybe you can. Let us know in the comments below or tweet to me at @EthanFixell if you’ve got a different opinion. …I’ll be wheating for you. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I need to go sober up.)