American Wheat – Style Profile

I remember the times when Craft Beer was still called Microbrew, when all breweries seemed to have a few mainstays in their beer portfolio — a blonde ale, a pale ale, a brown ale, maybe a stout, sometimes an IPA, and always a wheat beer. Often this beer was a summer seasonal style (sometimes with added fruit), but many brewpubs carried them year-round. Nowadays they can often be hard to find, lost in the sea of experimental Goses, soured fruit beers, and faddish hazy inventions.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy creative beers and new styles, but I also like some of the styles that seem to have been left behind. With the desire to push the envelope and be ever-more aggressive, I sometimes miss the more traditional choices we used to have where balance, flavor, and drinkability was favored over uniqueness, buzz, and how it looks in an Instagram photo. So before American wheat gets relegated to the “Historical Styles” section, let’s take a look at this once-ubiquitous style that really deserves a second chance.

American Wheat History

In 1984, Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco, California claims to have produced the first wheat beer in the United States since Prohibition, Anchor Summer Wheat. Fair enough, the United States was emerging from the beer Dark Ages and rediscovering beers of the world as well as what we had once lost. The cultural appropriation of classic European styles and giving them American twists was taking root, and Anchor is as good a banner-holder as anyone for this movement. Think of the American styles they helped create – IPA, porter, barleywine, Christmas beer, and their classic steam beer. Being the forerunner of the modern American wheat style certainly fits their heritage.

Around the same time as Anchor, the Widmer Brothers in Portland, Oregon were developing a similar concept — what they call the Original American Hefeweizen, Widmer Hefe. Widmer did more to popularize the style since this beer is their flagship product. Pete’s Wicked Summer Ale was also a popular version at the time, although that had a splash of lemon added to it.

As with some of the other European-inspired styles I mentioned, American wheat beer starts with the classic German hefeweizen or weissbier, and starts Americanizing it. While Germany had a long tradition of brewing wheat beers, the modern pale versions only started becoming popular in the 1960s. So it wasn’t long after this that the migration to the US happened.

The first things to change in the style was the yeast – out with banana-and-clove German wheat beer yeast and in with a more neutral American ale strain. The hops had to change, of course, as they went more American (which at the time meant Cascade), and generally became more bitter and hoppier. The stronger flavors of German Pilsner malts were generally toned down. So while the large percentage of wheat malt was retained, most of the other aspects were tweaked.

The style became something of an experimentation ground for brewers, with fruits often being added (similar to American blonde ales of the time). Some versions were clear, while others were naturally cloudy. Most were pale, but some were darker. Some brewers even used lager yeast. Most of these options are no longer found, with the pale versions using ale yeast as the most common — some haze is common, but many commercial examples can drop bright in the bottle.

American Wheat Sensory Profile

The BJCP Style Guidelines places American wheat beer in the Standard American Beer Category as Style 1D. That is the first hint that the American wheat is intended as an easy-drinking beer, along with American lagers and cream ales — the “lawnmower” beers.

As a wheat beer, we expect to find a wheat character in the beer, but how is this expressed? Often I get a bready or doughy flavor, sometimes grainy if the beer is very dry. Think of freshly baked bread. The other malts can add some maltiness, but generally should be clean. You don’t normally get toasty, biscuity, or roasted flavors. Some malty sweetness is possible, depending on the balance, as is a bit of crystal-like sweetness. However, the style can range from fairly dry to moderately sweet, to allow for some stylistic interpretation from the brewer.

The aroma and flavor can have a wide range of hop character, from light to moderately aggressive; most are noticeable and balanced. The quality of the hops tend to be floral, spicy, citrusy, or fruity. The bitterness is generally moderate, but can also be lower and softer. The overall balance is generally even between the malt and bitterness but the range isn’t narrow. Some bitter examples exist, and some are a bit maltier. The dryness and balance often are adjusted together so that the beer is relatively neutral in balance on the palate.

The body is often moderately light, maybe up to medium; the beer should not be heavy since it is meant as a refreshing beer. Carbonation can be quite high. As with other wheat beers, sometimes a soft, “fluffy” or “pillowy” mouthfeel will be present. However, the overall impression should focus on drinkability.

Clarity can be brilliant to hazy, so it’s really a wide-open choice, and often varies based on age and yeast choice. More powdery yeasts will tend to stay in suspension longer, while many traditional ale yeasts will flocculate very well. The beer can also be filtered, although most are naturally hazy, at least when young. There is no need to rouse the yeast into suspension. Color is pale, with a yellow to gold color; when combined with haze, it often has a pleasant glow. Wheat helps give a moussy, rocky head, so certainly a well-formed, persistent white head is desirable.

The yeast character in the beer can be neutral to lightly fruity, but should avoid the banana and clove qualities from the German yeast strains. Some people have described these beers as tart, which I always felt did them a disservice. Old beers tend to get tart when they start going off, and some people like to put lemons or oranges in their beer. I advise against this citrus approach though.

The alcohol level is moderate, in the 4.0 to 5.5% range. I like lower alcohol versions in the heat, and higher alcohol ones when not. Both can be quite good, but this is generally an average-strength style. When you add in the bitterness range (15-30 IBUs), you can see that you can produce beers with the general balance of an American blonde ale, or something approaching an American pale ale. Personally I tend to like the ones more like blonde ales since you can more readily taste the wheat.

The overall impression for the style is refreshing, often dry and somewhat crisp, highly carbonated, with a bready wheat flavor and a complementary hop character. Clean to lightly fruity, the emphasis is on drinkability and flavor. While it can serve as the base for many beer styles with fruit, honey, and other adjuncts, it can also do well presenting the clean flavors of the authentic ingredients.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

As they are wheat beers, American wheat must contain malted wheat. There is no expectation, as in German wheat beers, that the malted wheat must be at least 50%. Many are in the range 30-50%, although the percentage can certainly go higher (maybe up to 70%). I often go with 50% as my starting point. Some commercial examples, such as the influential Boulevard Wheat, use some unmalted (raw) wheat in their products.

The remainder of the grain bill tends to be somewhat neutral, with American two-row or pale malts taking up most of the non-wheat part of the grist. I would avoid British grains that can have too much of a toasty, biscuity flavor since I find this interferes with the perception of the wheat character – they just have too much flavor. For that reason, I also tend to avoid using too much German Pilsner malt. It can give a strong flavor but also pull your mind more towards the German weissbiers.

I don’t have a problem with including some Pilsner, Vienna, or Munich type malts as a way to boost the maltiness without overly impacting the flavor, but I’d keep the percentage lower (10-25%). I wouldn’t add much else to the grist, although some low-color crystal type malts can add some interest if kept to less than 10% of the grist. Avoid creating an overly complex grain bill that could result in indistinct flavors that hide the wheat and clash with the hops.

If you have a good recipe for an American blonde ale, consider swapping out half the base malt for malted wheat and see if you like it. They are related styles, and if you have a flavor balance that works for your palate, that could be a great starting point for your own recipe.

The mashing technique can be selected based on the type of finish and body you want in the beer. If your preference is dry and crisp, consider using a step mash like in German Kölsch or altbier. If you want something easy, use a single infusion mash around 151 °F (66 °C). Adjust the mash temperature up or down depending on whether you want more body or more dryness. I will sometimes use the non-traditional decoction mash since I like what it does for German wheat beers. The point is that you have considerable control over your mash choice depending on your system and your available time.

The hop balance of the beer varies, so the hop choices and techniques can vary as well. Classic European noble hops are often used (Saaz, Hallertauer, Tettnanger, Spalt) as are their American equivalents (Sterling, Liberty, Mt. Hood, Santiam, Crystal, Vanguard). Old school American hops like Cascade were traditional in many of the first beers of this style, but other fruity or citrusy American varieties would also work (Amarillo®, Centennial). I would avoid going dank, piney, resiny, woody, or rustic with the hop choices; think ‘gentle’ in your hop usage.

The hopping techniques can really be anything you choose, from the traditional bittering, flavor, and aroma additions, to hop bursting, first wort hopping, and whirlpool hopping. Dry hopping is also a viable choice. Many of the varieties I mentioned are low in alpha acids, so could be used in many ways to contribute bitterness, flavor, and aroma. I tend to allocate hops first based on the aroma and flavor attributes I want in the finished beer, with the remainder coming from bittering or first wort hop additions.

Wyeast 1010 (American Wheat) or White Labs WLP320 (American Hefeweizen) are natural yeast choices for this style, as are any of the neutral American ale strains (White Labs WLP001, Wyeast 1056, Safale US-05). Attenuative German ale yeasts such as those used in Kölsch and altbier would also work, particularly if trying to pay homage to the Widmer brewing heritage. I find that slightly fruity American ale yeasts will also work nicely, depending on the grain and hop choices. Don’t choose a German weizen yeast or any other strain that produces phenolic off flavors (POF+). Yeast that produce banana-like esters are generally undesirable as well, since you don’t want to confuse the drinker.

Water isn’t a major driver of this style, so many profiles would work. I prefer the cleaner, softer water that allows the flavors to come through, and I often will use calcium chloride as my calcium source to provide a rounder mouthfeel. The sulfur in calcium sulfate can clash with some noble hops in my experience, but a little bit of that flinty dryness can accentuate the crispness of certain interpretations. But use calcium sulfate very sparingly.

American Wheat Homebrew Example

My recipe is towards the upper end of the strength range for the style since I don’t think of the style as purely a summer quencher. Feel free to scale it down to around 4.5% ABV if you do want it more sessionable.

I’m going with 50% wheat malt, and I do prefer the flavor from German wheat. I don’t want it to taste too much like a German weissbier, so I’ll avoid using German Pilsner malt and select the more flavor-neutral American two-row malt instead. A little bit of Munich malt will boost the maltiness, and some light crystal malt will give it a touch of sweetness to balance the grainy notes.

I like the mouthfeel effects I get from decoctions when I’m making German weissbiers, so I’ll keep that part in my recipe. However, I’ll not use a lower temperature rest since I don’t need ferulic acid to be converted into clove flavors by the yeast. A single decoction is enough for me to notice the “fluffy” mouthfeel, so that’s what I chose. I’m not really looking for much color development, so I don’t need a more intensive mash program. If you’d rather use an infusion mash, try a single infusion rest at 151 °F (66 °C). No, it won’t be exactly the same, but it will still be a good beer.

The hopping program I’m using emphasizes flavor and aroma while having moderate bitterness. I get most of the hop character from noble German and Czech varieties, while giving it a classic American dry hopping with Cascade. These aren’t extreme hops, but do play together nicely. First wort hopping and late hopping give a smooth bitterness while allowing more hop flavor and aroma to be developed.

The water is relatively neutral, and uses my standard reverse osmosis (RO) program with all the brewing liquor adjusted to pH 5.5 at room temperature. A little calcium chloride in the mash helps with the enzymatic reactions while keeping the finish soft. I try to avoid calcium sulfate when using noble type hops as I don’t like the interaction of sulfur with those hops.

For yeast, I’ll pick one of my favorite ale yeasts, Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II), as a nod to Anchor Brewing (it reportedly comes from them). I like that it is mostly neutral with a little fruitiness and performs well in some of my hoppy favorites. I like to ferment it around 68 °F (20 °C) to bring out some of its fruitiness.

The dry hopping should be done after fermentation is done, and I like to run it for about 3 days at the same fermentation temperature I mentioned. I keg my beer, so I normally dry hop by pushing beer back and forth between purged kegs using CO2. I purge the oxygen from an empty keg, put my dry hops in a mesh bag in it, and push the beer from conditioning keg into it. After waiting three days, I repeat the process, pushing the beer back into a clean and sanitized keg, where I then will force carbonate it for service in my kegerator.

I hope you relax and enjoy this beer in nice weather with friends, like I will be doing.

By the Numbers
American Wheat
OG: 1.040–1.055
FG: 1.008–1.013
SRM: 3–6
IBU: 15–30
ABV: 4.0–5.5

American Wheat Recipe

American Wheat

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.054 FG = 1.013
IBU = 21 SRM = 5 ABV = 5.3%

5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) German wheat malt
4 lbs. (1.8 kg) North American 2-row malt
1 lb. (454 g) Munich malt
8 oz. (227 g) caravienne malt or caramel (20 °L) malt
2.25 AAU Czech Saaz hops (first wort hop) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.0% alpha acid)
2.6 AAU Hallertauer hops (20 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.5% alpha acid)
2.6 AAU Hallertauer hops (10 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.5% alpha acid)
1 oz. (28 g) Czech Saaz hops (5 min.)
1 oz. (28 g) Cascade hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) or Mangrove Jack’s M36 (Liberty Bell Ale) yeast
3⁄4 cup (150 g) corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 1 tsp of calcium chloride to the mash.

Mash in all malts at 131 °F (55 °C) and rest for 10 minutes. Pull a thick decoction (about 1⁄3 of the mash volume, thick part only) and heat it through the following steps: 149 °F (65 °C) rest for 15 minutes, 158 °F (70 °C) rest for 15 minutes, boil for 15 minutes. Use direct heat or infusion with boiling water to raise temperatures.

Meanwhile, after pulling the decoction above, raise the temperature in the main mash to 149 °F (65 °C) and hold while the decoction steps are in process. Remix the boiled decoction into the main mash to hit a mash temperature of 158 °F (70 °C) and hold for 20 minutes. Mash out at 168 °F (76 °C) for 10 minutes, recirculating wort during this time.Fly sparge with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting 6.5 gallons (25L) of wort.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe. First wort hops are added directly to the boil kettle before lautering and sparging.
Chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete. Rack the beer, add the dry hops for 3 days at room temperature. Rack and package the beer, or rack and clarify the beer if desired with finings before packaging (prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate).

American Wheat

(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.054 FG = 1.013
IBU = 21 SRM = 5 ABV = 5.3%

6 lbs. (2.7 kg) weizen liquid malt extract
1 lb. (454 g) Munich liquid malt extract
2.25 AAU Czech Saaz hops (first wort hop) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.0% alpha acid)
2.6 AAU Hallertauer hops (20 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.5% alpha acid)
2.6 AAU Hallertauer hops (10 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g at 3.5% alpha acid)
1 oz. (28 g) Czech Saaz hops (5 min.)
1 oz. (28 g) Cascade hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) or White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V) or Mangrove Jack’s M36 (Liberty Bell Ale) yeast
3⁄4 cup (150 g) corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Heat 6.5 gallons (25 L) of water in the brew kettle to 158 °F (70 °C). Turn off the heat. Add the malt extracts and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. You do not want to feel liquid extract at the bottom of the kettle when stirring with your spoon. Add the first wort hops, and bring wort to a boil. Boil the wort for 60 minutes adding hops according to recipe. Follow the fermentation schedule in all-grain recipe.

Issue: July-August 2018