Despite a glut of watered down wheat beers, not to mention mass market duds like the now defunct Bud Light Golden Wheat – the kind you have to make better with a squeeze of lemon – the wheat beer is worth drinking, in quantities. You just have to know how to know what to order.
Wheat beers, known as weissbeir and weizen in Germany, are brewed with loads of malted wheat, an ingredient that adds a creamy texture and long-lasting heads to the brew. In the glass, many wheat beers glow with a gorgeous haze (if they're unfiltered) and hold the kind of foamy white heads that won't disappear until you drink them. They generally have smooth bodies, without much hoppy bitterness, and plenty of refreshing carbonation.
Most wheat beers sold in the U.S. fall into two categories: American wheat ales and hefeweizens. . "A true hefeweizen uses traditional hefeweizen yeast, which creates notes of clove, black pepper and banana," says Steve Dresler, brew master at Sierra Nevada's Chico brewery. (“Hefe” translates to “yeast” in German.)
But American brewers have taken liberties with the style, lumping any beer brewed with wheat into the hefe category – such as the iconic Widmer Hefeweizen, which uses a strain of ale yeast instead of a traditional hefeweizen yeast, instead relying on hops and wheat to create the crispness and fruitiness of the traditional beer. If you want a straight up American pale wheat ale labeled as such, don't miss the Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat, a perfectly cloudy, citrusy and bready beer.
Widmer's Hefeweizen hit the market in the 1980s and quickly became a best seller. Many craft brewers followed the model of making a hefeweizen with a non-traditional yeast, while others stuck to the tried and true. For example, you should seek out the hazy and banana-forward Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, which uses a true hefe yeast.
There are plenty of other styles of wheat beers to try. A dunkelweizen, a darker but still murky version of a hefeweizen will have more caramel flavors to go with your bananas and cloves – and tastes a lot like banana bread. Or try a Belgian-style witbier, a fruiter and more spice-forward wheat beer made with coriander and orange peel (yes, MillerCoors' Blue Moon qualifies). Because witbiers are still light, they go well with seafood and salads. The Allagash White Ale is perfect for those pairings.
As for that slice of lemon, Dresler calls the practice an Americanization. "In Bavaria, where hefeweizens originated, they would never do that," he says. Because the citrus kills the beer's head and can muddle the most interesting flavors in a good wheat beer, just say no.