Germany has contributed so much to the beer world it is sometimes hard to keep up. The wheat beer, one of their better styles, was so popular that even the German beer purity law of 1516 (!) was changed to allow the addition of wheat.
Wheat Beer: A Brief History
To understand how wheat beer came to be, it’s important to first take a look at the German beer purity law (Rheinheitsgebot) enacted in 1516. Hundreds of years ago in little towns across Germany, especially the mountainous southern region of Bavaria, life was simple.
People tended to their land, grew crops, raised families, and from time to time stopped to enjoy a beer or two. Being northern Europe, grains like barley, wheat, and rye were plentiful. Not being much of a whisky people, the Germans preferred to use their excess stock for making beer.
Wheat beers had probably been around for quite some time, being noted for their unique flavours, but wheat and rye were crops that were also used for breads. Being the simple country life that it was, bread was a staple at every table, and brewers and farmers didn’t want to face competition with each other and drive up prices.
When the Rheinheitsgebot was introduced in 1516, the only ingredients allowed in beer was barley, hops, water, and yeast. Being one of the first food regulation laws ever, this was historic not just for beer, but for everyone consuming food products. But, it also lead to problems: with the 4 ingredient list, this excluded a lot of historic styles of beer including spiced and fruit beers.
It also kept out the popular wheat beer style that was common in Southern Germany. A few years later, the laws were changed (they have a few times since) to allow ingredients like wheat to be used in beer production.
With this minor adjustment, we now have hundreds of years of brewing tradition kept alive to enjoy today.
Wheat Beer Styles
Far from a simple switch of barley to wheat, wheat beers come in a broad range of styles that is sure to please almost anyone. Some of the most common include:
Weizenbeer: The classic Bavarian style. This is a mix of wheat and barley malt which gives the beer its characteristic golden colour. The traditional way is to leave the beer unfiltered (Hefeweizen) which also makes it cloudy, especially at colder temperatures. The yeasts used in the beer makes it take on flavours of banana and cloves, bringing out the spice from the wheat grain.
Witbier: Made nearby in Belgium and Holland, this wheat beer gets the added touch of coriander and bitter orange peels. A well known version of this is Hoegaarden, which is often served with a slice of orange. Great for summer as an alternative to light lagers or Pilsners, the addition of the spices (which dates back hundreds of years) and fruit makes this style very aromatic and floral.
Dunkelweizen: This dark wheat beer, and its cousin the Weizenbock are staples during the cooler months. Made with darker malts, which in turn makes a darker beer, this have the spice notes in a regular wheat beer with the added sweetness and caramel/toffee notes from dark beers. For a real treat, grab a few bottles of some Eisbock and see how well you can walk after drinking them.
Wheat Beer Food Pairings
With so many different styles to wheat beers, they can cover a lot of ground at the table. Here’s a couple ideas to get you started and trying some new things.
If you read the article on Jagermeister, you’d know that this means “Hunter’s schnitzel”. This is a catch all dish seen in France and Italy too with a sauce of cream, mushrooms, and bacon. Throw that on a nice fried pork schnitzel and you have a perfect pairing with a Dunkelweizen.
Tired of the same old boring mussels recipe? Throw some spicy Witbier to steam those shells in, and you’ve got a tangy and salty sauce to mop up with some bread. Grab another bottle of Hoegaarden and you’re set.
Chicken Cordon Bleu
Rolled up with ham and cheese then fried, Chicken Cordon Bleu is a natural match to the intense bubbles and crisp finish of a good Weizen. France and Germany go toe to toe in this great matchup of fried meats and laser crisp wheat beer.
Back to Belgium, where the spicy notes of coriander and bitter citrus come through, a shrimp curry is in order. Spice, bubbles, and florality all come together to offset the heat of a nice curry and are rounded out with the light sweetness of shrimp.
A perfectly cooked steak (medium rare please) with a side of fries and mayo is about as European as it gets. Pour yourself a tall glass of some Dunkelweizen, where the malty sweetness and full body matches a nice cut of beer with just enough bubbles to slice through the crispy fries. Don’t forget to dunk them in mayonnaise before hand.