Beer Styles: German Wheat Beer

Wheat beer has come back from the dead. In the 1970s, a German newspaper described it as “fit only for old ladies and those with nervous stomachs.” There must be many ancient women and dicky tummies in Germany, for the style now accounts for almost half of beer sales in its Bavarian heartland and is growing in popularity in the rest of Germany.

The resurgence of interest in wheat beer is due in large part not to elderly ladies but to young people. They consider that beer that contains live yeast and is rich in protein must be a healthier alternative to mass-produced lagers. What young people are drinking, without question, is a beer with both a fascinating history and method of production.

For centuries the Bavarian royal family and the aristocracy drank wheat beer, controlled its production and made it their own.

It was the Bavarian royals, the House of Wittelsbach, that drew up the famous Reinheitsgebot or Pure Beer Pledge of 1516 that laid down that only barley, water and yeast could be used in the production of beer. Hops were added later when the contribution the plant makes to beer was better understood but wheat was firmly excluded. The royals were happy for the masses to drink brown beers made with barley malt but pale wheat beer was their sole preserve. The reason was simple: the royals, in feudal fashion, held the monopoly to grow barley and wheat and they refused to release wheat for general use. In Munich in 1589 the Royal Court Brewery, the Hofbräuhaus, opened to make wheat beer for the nobility. At one time there were no fewer than 30 royal brewhouses in Bavaria dedicated to making the style.

Wheat beer only became available for general consumption in 1859 when the royal family licensed a Munich brewer, Georg Schneider, to brew it. Sales soared and Schneider was forced to move to bigger premises in Munich and then to open a second plant at Kelheim in the heart of the Bavarian hop fields, the Hallertau.

In spite of the name, wheat beer is made with a blend of wheat and barley malts. Bavarian law stipulates that half the grain used in its production must be wheat, but barley malt is essential as it has a greater level of the enzymes that turn starch into fermentable sugar. It also has a husk that acts as a natural filter during the mashing process, while wheat lacks a husk and can become mushy and clog up the brewing vessels.

The main contribution wheat makes to beer is an appealing hazy gold/yellow colour, and a characteristic aroma and flavour of spices and fruit. Clove is the dominant spice, while apple and banana are typical fruit aromas. Bavarian wheat beers also have a flavour characteristic that resembles bubble gum or Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

This is the result of the special yeast cultures used in its production. During fermentation, the yeast produces natural compounds called phenols and guaicols that resemble the sap from tropical trees used in the manufacture of chewing gum. Hops are used sparingly as the plant’s bitterness and floral, resinous aromas and flavours do not blend well with wheat and its yeast cultures.

Article continues in Issue 21 of Beers of the World magazine

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