The Four Types of Wheat Beer

One of my locals, the Trinity Tavern, has a limited selection of beers (Coors Light, Bud Light, Stella Artois and Shiner Bock being the 4 on draught). They recognized this early on as a shortcoming, so they purchased a keg-o-rator at a local auction and they rotate specialty beers through that one tap. Their most recent acquisition is the excellent Hoegaarden Witbier from Belgium. A conversation ensued and I was asked a question to which I had no ready answer. Research was done, now I know, and I impart it to you, the PGNation, because we want you to be the most well-informed beer-drinkers out there. So, to that end, I discovered that what we know as Wheat Beer can be broken into four distinct types of Wheat Beer.

  • The Weissbier (Weißbier) is a specialty Bavarian beer in which a not-insignificant portion of the malted barley is replaced with a different cereal: malted wheat. Weissbiers are top-fermented (see Top 14 Beer Styles by Fermentation Type) as required by German law and specialized strains of yeast are added to produce the banana, clove and apple notes that are common to the style. There are sub-categories of the Weissbier also. For instance, the most common type of Weissbier in the U.S. is the Hefeweizen (vulgarly known as “Hefe“). In the Hefewiezen, the yeast is not filtered out which creates a thick, white cloudy appearance. Also popular in Bavaria (less so, here in the U.S.) is the dunkles Hefeweiss (Dunkelweizen elsewhere in the world). This beer is brewed with very dark malts and results in a very dark, bready beer. The Kristallweiss, on the other end of the spectrum, is heavily filtered resulting in a very clear beer. The last two sub-varieties of the Weissbier are the Weizenbock and the Weizen Eisbock. The Weizenbock is typcially a strong (Starkbier or “strong beer”) beverage enjoyed during the cold winter months; it can also be referred to as Weizenstarkbier (literal translation: “Wheat Strong Beer”). The Weizen Eisbock uses a freezing proces similar to that used in an Eisbock to remove some of the water thus concentrating the result.
  • The Witbier (White beer) is very similar to the Weissbier but is brewed primarily in Belgium. It, too, is a top-fermented beer and is generally served unfiltered leaving the yeast in a semi-suspension imparting a cloudy or hazy appearance to the beer. The primary difference between the Weissbier and the Witbier is a causality of the Reinheitsgebot which dictates, in Germany, that no ingredients other than water, barley and hops can go into the brewing of a beer (yeast was a natural by-product and was not known to be part of the process until the 1800s so was not included in the original text of the law). While the Reinheitsgebot has long since been replaced by the Provisional German Beer Law, many German breweries still abide by the standards set forth in it. A similar law existed in 14th Century France (Belgium was at the time, a French territory) outlawing the use of hops in beer. Therefore, the Belgians had to experiment with ingredients other than hops. The modern Witbier is descended from those experiements and replaces hops with gruit – a mixture of coriander, orange, hops and bitter orange – resulting in a much less hoppy, and slightly more fruity beer. Since it’s an unfiltered, top-fermented beer, it continues to ferment after bottling.
  • The Berliner Weisse is a sour beer (Sauerbier) of around 3% ABV. In the 19th century, this cloudy beer was the most popular alcoholic beverage in Berlin and it is estimated that nearly 700 breweries in Berlin produced it. That number has since dwindled to only two. The name is protected, so a proper Berliner Weisse is one that is brewed in Berlin. However, the protection only extends to Germany, so you may find a Canadian or U.S. produced Berliner Weisse if you look hard enough.
  • The last Wheat Beer type is the Lambic which is a very distinctive type of beer brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium. Most beers are fermented by using carefully cultivated yeasts and introducing them carefully to the process. Lambics, however, are produced through spontanteous fermentation by exposing the beer to wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Senne valley. This highly distinctive and unusal process gives the beer a dry, cidery, almost wine-like taste with a slightly sour finish. Most modern Lambics go through a second fermentation prior to bottling.

There you have it. The four parent types of Wheat Beer and their children. The next time you go have a Wheat Beer of any sort, you now know where it come from and what the proper name is. For what it’s worth, I place them in this order in terms of my palate.

  1. Dunkelweizen (Weissbier)
  2. Weizen Eisbock (Weissbier)
  3. Witbier
  4. Weizenbock (Weissbier)
  5. Weissbier
  6. Hefeweizen (Weissbier)
  7. Kristallweiss
  8. Berliner Weisse
  9. Lambic