Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wheat: The Other Beer Grain

We all know how beer "works," right?

Or, at least, the basic concept. Like so many other things in the world, beer gets infinitely more complicated when you look at it under a microscope; getting into the minutiae of the fascinating and incredibly involved chemistry behind beer - that is, how beer "works" - would quickly take a turn for the overwhelming and require volumes to properly explain (it requires science), and admittedly, more knowledge than I  (currently) - possess. I'm working on it!

That said, we don't need to know the chemical makeup of a beer to know if it tastes good, of course, but for the sake of this "beerducation," a small (incredibly abstracted) primer would probably be beneficial:

  1. Harvested grain is soaked in water, which in turn make the grains germinate - that is, begin to grow, ripe with starch. 
  2. The grains are heated to stop the germination and to activate enzymes within the grains. From here, the grains, now called malt, will be mashed with water in order to start breaking those starches into simple sugars - yeast food. 
  3. After a few (integral) steps, including boiling (again, much could be written on these matters alone), the beer will reach its fermentation tank, where yeast is introduced to the wort, and the delightfully named zymurgy (that is, the science of fermentation), takes place, where the yeast eat the sugars and converts into carbon dioxide (the fizzy) and ethanol (the fun). 
Again, this is almost insultingly boiled down (pardon the beer pun), but it does help to convey the message I'm getting at here: grains are the source of the sugars we feed to yeast. Barley is by far the most common grain utilized in the production of beer, but its not the only option. Oats and rye have found their way into many beers, each with their own unique elements to lend to a beer. 

But today, we're focusing on that other beloved grain, wheat.

Wheat Wars

Useful for crushing thin, or inspiring Athlete-themed breakfast cereals, and arch-nemesis of celiacs (and the completely bizarre celiac-wannabe/fad dieters, I guess), wheat has found its way into much of what we eat on a daily basis. In terms of beer, though, wheat's presence in beer extends back for centuries, and has become an integral ingredient in many styles for which it has become a sort of linchpin. Some countries traditionally eschew the grain altogether (See: England), while others fully embrace it as a cherished beer variety. Wheat is also a great ingredient for creating a rich, foamy, cloud-like head, so many brewers will throw in just a touch in order to achieve that effect.

Pictured: Corsendonk Trippel with a head so nice you could nap on it.

Wherever the styles sprout up, they tend to be attributed to the term white, due to either being lighter than other beers available at the time, or to the fact that white and wheat have the same etymological origin.What's interesting, though, is how much those styles vary between the countries in which the grain is utilized:

 An important footnote in wheat's pedigree includes the Reinheitsgebot, a (relinquished but still largely observed) German purity law that dictates simplicity in German beer, was actually enacted, in part, to outlaw the use of any grain but barley in beer, as to reserve the wheat exclusively for bakers. The other part was to stop brewers from putting weird herbs you've never heard of into their brews (we'll get to that in a second, Belgium). 

That aspect of the law was actually rescinded shortly after, meaning brewers were again free to put wheat in their beers to their hearts' content, but the other elements (that is, that beer may only consist of barley/wheat, water, hops and yeast) remained in effect until 1988, and is still observed by many breweries. To this day, any beer that utilizes wheat must be an ale. 

The most classic example of a German wheat beer is, of course, the hefeweizen (hefe- with yeah, weizen - wheat, so a wheat beer with yeast), a beer that remains unfiltered and garners a distinct cloudiness from the yeast still floating around in it. Reasonably sweet, a good hefeweizen should throw notes of pepper and citrus, with a very reserved hop profile. Most German wheat beers make use of a combination of both barley and malted wheat, and the wheat ale yeast should feature a distinctive "banana bread" aroma. Several variants include kristalweizen - filtered wheat beer, and dunkelweizen - literally "dark wheat," a wheat beer that features longer-roasted malts. Every significant brewer in Germany will brew at least one weizen for their lineup, with many carrying two or more varieties. Hopf, Erdinger and of course Weihenstephaner are just a few "big names" to consider, and each of their wheat offerings are dependable. I think the Hopf Dunkel weiss is particularly nice. 

I like this brewery because it keeps the number of  angry-sounding consonants to a minimum. 

Like most German beers,weizens are going to be very simple, very reliable and, usually, very tasty. Content with the classics, German brewers tend to adhere to that adage of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and while German beers are rarely distinctly fascinating, they are dependable.

That said, a few interesting wheat "oddballs" do exist. A Gose, for example, is a sour oddity from Eastern Germany that makes use of coriander and salt (seriously) - and as such, does not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot - but is indeed wheat based. Another is the Berliner Weiss, a quickly disappearing anomaly from Northern Germany that uses wheat and lambic-like sourness. A syrup, usually raspberry or woodruff flavored, is added. It has largely disappeared in its native homeland, but American breweries are trying their hand at the stuff. 

Also seen restoring health bars in your favorite video game. 


While Germany was clamping down on runaway ingredient lists, nearby Belgium took an "Eh, why not" methodology and added a veritable pantry's worth of herbs and spices to their beer recipes. Before the rise of the hop, Belgians (and, indeed, other brewers worldwide) made use of something called a gruut - a ground blend of different herbs that seemed to serve the same bittering and preservative aspects of hops. Hops replaced this old-world mash due to its reliability and better predictability, but the concept of the grist, and some of the herbs and spices associated with it, especially coriander, orange peel and cumin, were revitalized in recent decades.   

This owes largely to a man named Pierre Celis, whose invention (which harked back to a beer from his childhood) sought to reuse some of the classic spices associated with beer, and would come to be known as Hoegaarden. While that beer may hardly be what it used to be since being scooped up a multinational conglomerate, the trail was blazed for the style. Much spicier and often sweeter than their German brethren, Belgian wheats (called wits or weisse) tend to make use of a higher percentage of wheat in the mash, which may or may not be malted at all.

 They tend to sport the same cloudiness, with a creamy head and bread-like notes, and a very prevalent orange flavor (ditch that orange wedge; it isn't necessary if you're actually drinking a good beer). The flavors here sport a bit more of an impact, but rarely overwhelming, and the hop profile remains practically non-existent. Some good examples include St. Sebastiaan Grand Reserve and Blanche Des Honnelles. 

Of course, Belgium is home to one of the arguably "weirdest" beer styles out there, the lambic, which makes use of unmalted wheat before undergoing its spontaneous fermentation and barrel aging. They are though, in their own unique way, still wheat beers. 

So wheat has earned its keep in a large collection of beers from two of the biggest beer-producing countries in the world. American wheats have their own thing going on, of course, but many, including a few of the incredibly popular "summer beers" like Shock Top and Blue Moon owe their existence to a foreign concept (meanwhile, other breweries truly get the homage right, like Allagash White). A few others, like Lagunita's A Little Sumpin' Sumpin Ale are doing something distinctly American (namely, making the hop flavor very predominant, something vaguely unusual for a wheat-based beer). Still, wheat, whether a small portion with an intended purpose or a highlighted element, is an integral beer ingredient. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thoughts? Concerns? Pay my loans?! By all means let me know what you think.