In Defense of American Wheat Beer
A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with a group of beer and food writers to sample our way through a large selection of wheat beers. Something quickly became apparent: I was the only one who liked the style. Granted, there’s plenty to dislike. Wheat beers often derive a lot of their character from yeast, an element that many drinkers prefer to be hidden, and on the extreme end of the yeasty spectrum, wheat beers can taste like liquid bananas or bubblegum. Take those yeast notes out, however, and wheat beers, which are typically low in hops, can be downright boring. On top of that, craft beer can be an image battle, and wheat beers simply aren’t cool – either to drink or to brew. Except maybe they are again. The evidence might surprise you.
In some ways, wheat beers are actually the O.G. craft beers.
During the first craft beer revolution in the ‘90s, most American palates hadn’t fully awoken to hops, and instead, wheat beers were one of the styles that led the charge driven by brews like Widmer Hefeweizen, Allagash White and some Sam Adams seasonals. To see the lasting effect of the wheat beer boom, look no further than MillerCoors’ Blue Moon Belgian White, which was first brewed in 1995 and is still, by far, the best-selling American beer that isn’t a lager.
Much like anything from the ‘90s, it’s no surprise that these things aren’t as cool as they used to be, but in the same way that people love retro, wheat is once again being embraced in places you might not expect.
New England-style IPAs, also referred to by names like hazy or juice IPAs, are the hippest beers on the market right now. Brewers have been using all sorts of unorthodox techniques to coax out this style’s signature soft flavors and haze – including supplementing barley with lesser used grains like oats and, yes, even our dreaded friend… wheat! If you look at the malt bill on beers from any of the best-known NE IPA brewers – from Modern Times Beer on the West Coast to Trillium Brewing on the East Coast to Cloudwater Brew Co across the pond and everywhere in between, you are going to find lots of wheat.
Do these beers fall under the Brewers Association’s definition of American wheat beer? Uh, not even close. But do they show the usefulness of wheat in modern beer styles? You bet they do. And more importantly, they point towards a trend that many people who don’t read beer labels closely might not realize: Wheat is cool again. Wheat snuck in through the back door of the NE IPA craze and is once again proving its worth – and plenty of breweries are ratcheting up their wheat bill. Not necessarily quite to true “wheat beer” levels, but to the point where wheat is affecting the flavors.
And even though these are far from your father’s American wheat beers, they are distinctly similar in a couple regards: First, unlike foreign wheat beer styles like Hefeweizens and Witbiers, these brews are hop-forward. Second, more importantly, they don’t rely on the yeast notes that can turn people against wheat-based brews. Even when we saw hoppy wheat IPAs before in the form of the fleetingly popular style known as “white IPAs,” those beers were essentially hopped up Belgian whites. Instead, these new wheat-accentuated New England IPAs actually utilize one of American wheats’ supposed weakness: their boringness. Those softer wheat flavors help create a canvas for hop placement that modern brewers are loving.
Does all this mean that you should go grab a bottle of a classic hoppy American wheat like Three Floyds Gumballhead to reflect on why you’ve been unfairly biased against wheat for all these years? Well, maybe, but that’s not my point. However, if you find yourself gravitating away wheat beers, preferring to go with New England-style IPAs instead, you may be drinking a lot more wheat that you realized.