When it comes to brewing, barley is king. But barley isn’t the only grain in a brewer’s arsenal; there are plenty of other cereals that are integral to many classic styles, including wheat. If you are interested in brewing a German hefeweizen, dunkelweizen, weizenbock, American wheat, Belgian wit, saisons, or any other style that relies heavily on wheat in the recipe, however, there are a few considerations to keep in mind before you begin.
Similar in diastatic power (DP) to barley, wheat can bring a softer, crisp quality to a beer, and also help with head retention. Wheat can be used all the way up to 100% for certain styles. But a major departure when comparing wheat malt to barley malt is that wheat kernels have no husk. Husks found on barley create micro-gaps in the mash that allow liquid to move more freely through an all-grain brewer’s mash tun during lautering. Remove the husks from the mash and it becomes less porous and more cement-like.
When brewing with a significant percentage of wheat, the dreaded stuck sparge can occur, which may add hours to your brew day. If you are using a classic mash tun with false bottom or manifold system or other mash filtration system, it’s a good idea to use rice hulls to prevent the draining process from slowing to a trickle. The rice hulls will provide those micro-gaps required to drain the mash tun at a normal pace. Another option that has become more popular in recent years among homebrewers is to place the mash in a large bag and perform a brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) mash so that you don’t even need to bother with lautering/sparging process (read more about BIAB in the May-June 2016 issue). Rice hulls are not needed when using a BIAB mash.
Wheat also contains a significant amount of protein in the form of glutens, which if you’ve ever made bread you know can be very sticky — these proteins can really gum up a grain bed. On the plus side, it is the glutens that help with beer foam stability. These proteins are also what gives wheat beers their signature hazy appearance and provides a fuller body. Luckily, the same tactics used to deal with the lack of a husk on wheat malt will also help with the sticky glutens.
Wheat malt is most commonly made from winter wheat, as this has less protein (as compared to spring wheat). Most spring wheat is turned into flour for the food industry. Wheat malt kernels are smaller and rounder than barley malt kernels, and most wheat malts are lightly kilned (usually around 2 or 3 °Lovibond), with the resulting beers usually being pale to golden in color.
However, there are a wide range of crystal and roasted wheat malts, such as Weyermann CaraWheat®, Briess Caracrystal® wheat malt, and Briess Midnight Wheat just to name a few of the options available to homebrewers. The reason brewers in certain recipes look to add roasted wheat malt is because it is huskless. This time, the lack of husk is often seen as a benefit by reducing astringency in the beer and providing a milder roasted flavor with less bitterness than husked black barley malt.
For extract brewers, there are options for brewing all-extract wheat beers using liquid wheat malt extracts. Most wheat extracts are not made with 100% wheat malt, typically mirroring the wheat-to-barley ratio of traditional Bavarian hefeweizens. Check with the manufacturer to know what percentage wheat malt the wheat extract you are using contains.