A Layman's Guide to Wheat Beer

Hefeweizen, Berliner Weiss, Dunkelweizen, Weizenbock, Krystal, and Belgian Wit

Hefeweizen beer with lemon wedge
Rita Maas/Photodisc/Getty Images

There are quite a few beer styles that reside under the greater umbrella of wheat beer. Like stouts, there are too many varieties of wheat beer to cover them properly in a brief beer style profile.

Instead of looking at every wheat beer, let's get a basic primer on the style and its most popular versions. This should give you a good idea of what to expect when a beer label indicates you're drinking a wheat beer.

What Makes a Beer a Wheat Beer? 

To be considered a wheat beer a significant quantity of the mash should contain wheat. Wheat beers typically contain 30-70% wheat malt. The remainder is regular barley malt, usually a pale variety like Pilsner.

Though there are many different styles and sub-styles that can be called wheat beers, they all share certain characteristics.

  • Wheat has a lot more protein in it than barley which contributes to thick, long lasting heads.
  • This protein also creates a haze in most wheat beers.
  • Wheat contributes very little flavor to a beer but it does contribute a distinctively silky mouthfeel.
  • Wheat beers are highly effervescent and most are light in flavor, making them great summer beers.

Hefeweizen

The best-known and original wheat beer is Hefeweizen. Using wheat as an ingredient in beer was the first exception made to the famous beer purity law, Rheinheitsgebot. That exception was made specifically so the nobility could continue to enjoy this style.

This Bavarian style of wheat beer is pale and cloudy. It is bottled and served unfiltered so the yeast used during fermentation is still present. This special strain of yeast contributes banana and clove notes to the aroma and flavor of the beer.

Wheat beer is an ale so it is heavier and doesn’t provide the smack of a lager.

But served cold, with or without a slice of lemon, it is no less refreshing.

Examples of Hefeweizen to try:

Berliner Weisse

While the brewers in southern Germany rely on the yeast for the flavor and aroma of their wheat beers, brewers in northern Germany use a different technique. Berliner Weisse is fermented with ale yeast and Lactobacillus delbruckii which creates an unforgettable beer.

The bacterium contributes a dominant mouth-puckering sourness. Otherwise, this beer is light in character and very effervescent. Some fans of this rare style like to sweeten it with flavored syrups. That may work for them but as with every beer, it's best that initiates try a Berliner Weisse on its own first.

Examples of Berliner Weisse to try:

  • Berliner Kindl Weisse
  • Schultheiss Berliner Weisse
  • Nodding Head ich bin ein Berliner Weisse

Dark Wheat Beers

There are two dark styles of wheat: Dunkelweizen and Weizenbock. However, it should be pointed out that early Hefeweizens were probably much closer to Dunkelweizen than today’s Hefeweizens.

Dunkelweizens are brewed very much like Hefeweizen except that the malt used is typically one of two darker varieties – Vienna or Munich malt.

These malts contribute a chestnut brown color and are the primary malts used the Oktoberfest style.

The combination of the rich roasted flavors of the malt and the banana and clove notes from the Hefeweizen yeast can create a wonderfully complex and satisfying brew. Weizenbock is made in virtually the same way except that it is a higher gravity beer so, in alcohol content at least, it’s similar to a bock.

Examples of Dunkelweizen to try:

  • Franzickaner Hefe-Weisse Dunkel
  • Ayinger Ur-Weisse
  • Tucher Hefe Weizen Dunkel

Examples of Weizenbock to try:

  • Erdinger Pikantus
  • Schneider Aventinus

Krystal Beer

Krystal wheat beer is what you would imagine – clear wheat beer. You often see wheat beers described as unfiltered and Krystal is just the opposite, it is a filtered wheat beer.

Filtering produces a crystal clear beer with none of the cloudy characters of Hefeweizen.

The process also removes the stuff that contributes the beer's flavor and character, so Krystal wheat beers are much lighter than regular wheats. They do retain the same banana and clove notes though these are far more subtle.

Examples of Krystal to try:

  • Edelweiss Weissbier Kristallklar
  • Weihenstephaner Kristallweissbier
  • Bayern Brewing Dancing Trout Ale

Belgian Witbier

Thanks to Hoegaarden, this once almost dead style has come roaring back. Brewed similar to Hefeweizen, Belgian Witbiers use a yeast that is similar to the Bavarians’ yeast in the way that it adds flavor and aroma but those characteristics are distinctly different.

This style, having grown up out from under the dictatorial eye of Rheinheitsgebot, also includes orange peel and coriander. Witbiers are at the same time fresh tasting and complex. Other Belgian beer styles contain malted and unmalted wheat but are not generally considered to be wheat beers.

Examples of Belgian Wit to try:

  • Blanche De Bruxelles
  • Allagash White
  • Fiat Lux

American Wheat Beer

The American craft brewers have their own spin on a wheat beer. This style takes the Hefeweizen recipe and replaces the distinctive yeast with much cleaner fermenting ale yeasts.

The result is a very subtle brew. It is a great transition beer for many beer drinkers who are new to the larger category of wheat beers.

Examples of American Wheat to try:

  • Sierra Nevada Unfiltered Wheat Beer
  • Pyramid Hefe Weizen

Fruit Wheat Beers

Wheat beer is the perfect base for many fruit beers. This is because the wheat contributes so little to a beer’s flavor while at the same time it produces some much-desired qualities such as head retention and a smooth, full mouthfeel.

There was a time when virtually every brewpub you walked into was serving a wildly popular raspberry wheat beer. Though this fad quickly passed, there are still quite a few of them around.

Fruited wheat beers aren’t limited to berries. Virtually every fruit and quite a few spices have found their way into a wheat beer recipe at some level.

While none have had the staying power and popularity to earn a separate style distinction, there are simply too many fruit wheat beers on the market to not acknowledge them.

This is Just the Beginning

No doubt you will find some wheat beer styles that seem into fit more than one of the categories laid out here. Consider this list of styles as simply a jumping off point for you to begin exploring wheat beer if you’re not already familiar with its variations.

Wheat beer will surely continue to expand and be reinterpreted by today’s innovative brewers.