Flavor Fever: Why We Embrace Wheat

Malted barley is the backbone of beer as we know it. And why not? It’s delicious and versatile, and it has a satisfying sweet aspect. But it’s not the only grain in the brewery. Since its earliest days in the Neolithic Middle East, when cereal grains were still being domesticated, beers incorporated not only barley, but emmer and einkorn wheat and spelt as well.

In Northern Europe, wheat or “white” beers started spreading about the same time as hops, roughly a thousand years ago. Today we can still recognize similarities to these ancient white beers among many classic wheat styles: Berliner weisse, Belgian witbier, gose, Lichtenhainer, and even Scandinavian farmhouse brews. As a group, white ales are typically of everyday strength, employing normal or lactic fermentation. They’re universally pale in color, often attributed to the use of air-dried malt and unmalted grains. These also typically add substantial haze—hence the term “white.” Many are enjoying revivals, especially with added fruit.

While we rarely associate wheat with British brewing, it was once a more popular and valued ingredient. William Ellis, in his 1774 The London and Country Brewer, writes that “the ale or strong beer made with wheat malt is thought by many that have proved it to be the very best of all liquors.”

Wheat, of course, is fabulous for baking bread, and there has often been competition for its use in brewing; wheat requires good land, and there are no real substitutes available for the light and springy qualities that it brings to bread. Exacerbated by inconsistent wheat harvests in Bavaria, this scarcity had apparently reached crisis level by the mid-15th century. After many interim measures, the ever-crafty Wittelsbach royal dynasty in 1602 took control of an exclusive—and profitable—monopoly over the brewing of wheat beer, which lasted for the next couple of centuries.

About Wheat

The evolution and history of wheat are quite complicated, with many hybridization events among ancestral grains, including spelt and emmer. Today, there are two main species of modern wheat: Triticum aestivum—“bread” wheat, broadly—and Triticum turgidum, or durum wheat, largely used for pasta and dishes such as bulghur.

While Ellis in The London and Country Brewer mentions a durum-type wheat called “Dugdale” that made excellent brewing malt, for the most part it is the bread-type wheat that is commonly malted. The main types of this wheat depend on whether they are winter or spring varieties, hard or soft, and white or red. Red wheats have a reputation for being slightly more flavorful. While brewers haven’t always prized it, Bavarian wheat malt is traditionally red wheat.

For the brewer, the most important characteristic is protein content—generally, lower is better, whether malted or not. Winter wheat, planted in the fall, has longer to absorb nutrients from the soils and is generally “harder” or higher in protein than spring varieties. The gluten protein that forms the stretchy network of bread can be a gluey mess when mashing, as it traps a lot of water and makes runoff challenging. If you’re buying unmalted wheat at a homebrew store, it should be no problem, but if you’re buying from a grocery, get the softest, lowest-protein wheat available.

Why Wheat?

Why make beer from wheat instead of solely from barley malt? Historically, it may have been just a matter of availability or economics.

In Belgium, for most of the 19th century, Dutch rule taxed the capacity of the mash tun—but it allowed a second tun for unmalted grains, which was taxed at half the rate. Belgian brewers figured out how to deal with this (even if English-born, Belgium-based brewing consultant George Maw Johnson in 1916 declared this tax law to be “one of the most ridiculous and vexatious excise laws that ever disgraced the annals of fiscal interference and fiscal stupidity.”)

But really, there are better reasons. Wheat brings a softer, less malty nose to beer compared to barley. This comes with more body and mouthfeel for an experience unlike any barley-malt beer. Grains such as oats, rye, and spelt can do the same, as can unmalted flaked barley. Some have subtle flavors as well. Wheat is fairly neutral, sometimes with a whiff of bread. Oats have a slight nuttiness, especially if they are lightly toasted before brewing. Rye confers a pleasant mix of woody spice and a hint of indefinable fruit, maybe somewhere between cranberry and plum.

Wheat generally has more protein—especially glucans—than barley, and that increases body (see table above for a comparison of various brewing grains). Much of the creaminess comes from certain gluey-textured carbohydrates: pentosans and beta-glucans. Like starch, these are polymers of sugars: pentose in the case of pentosans and glucose in the case of beta-glucans, linked with chemical bonds (or glycosidic bonds) that resist saccharification in the mash. Barley also has plenty of both of these weird carbs, but malting dramatically reduces their levels, since brewers demand it to help avoid slow runoffs and inefficient mashing.

So, if you want the effects of these specialty grains, there’s a price to pay in the process. Most brewers use rice hulls to provide extra filtration, which definitely helps.

Working with Raw

There are huge differences between malted and unmalted grains. Malting breaks down the walls of the starch granules, making them much more accessible to the mash liquor and its enzymes. Unmalted grains, traditionally preferred for styles such as witbier, require a gelatinization process to render their starch soluble in the mash.

There are two strategies for this.

The first is a type of mashing that was popularized in the mid-19th century, known as the American adjunct mash. Similar to the witbier and lambic mashes that Belgians have long used with raw wheat, American brewers adopted the process for rice and corn. Using a decoction-like cooking alongside a conventional mash, the adjunct is mixed back into the malt mash after a brief boiling. This raises the mash to saccharification temperature and converts its starches into fermentable sugars. In a brewery designed for this, it’s not burdensome, but it may require a little extra time.

The second strategy, preferred by smaller breweries, is to use pre-gelatinized, unmalted cereals in the form of flakes, grits, or torrefied (i.e., puffed like popcorn) grains. Gelatinization is a non-reversible heating process. When grains reach a critical temperature, the granule walls burst and allow the starch to absorb water, changing its crystalline structure into an amorphous, glassy state. Rapid cooling and dehydration stabilize this, allowing flakes or other pre-gelatinized grains to be directly added to a conventional mash with no need for a special mash-cooking procedure.


So, Let’s Talk Styles

For a clearer idea of what wheat brings to the glass, let’s look at where it stars in some of our favorite brewing traditions, old and new.

Bavarian Hefeweizen

Hefeweizens rely on malted rather than unmalted wheat, usually at 50 percent or as high as 70 percent of the grain bill. Their unique aroma comes not from the wheat itself, but from the specialized ale yeast that produces a lot of clove/spicy aroma and banana esters. High carbonation adds to the fluffiness. Generally unfiltered, they come in pale, amber, and dunkel versions, as well as stronger bocks. A similar roggenbier features rye instead of wheat.

Berliner Weisse

The “Champagne of the North” is a low-gravity, lactic-fermented ale. In modern times, German drinkers traditionally cut its acidity by adding raspberry or woodruff herbal syrups or liqueurs such as kümmel (caraway schnapps) to the glass. Wheat percentage is often about 30 percent, the rest being pilsner malt. These were once quite popular in America’s Germanic heartland more than a century ago.

Belgian Witbier

Witbier is traditionally made from 50 percent high-protein malted barley, 45 percent unmalted soft wheat, and 5 percent raw oats using a long, complex mashing procedure. Before fermentation, it’s pretty similar to lambic wort. In addition to massive creaminess, bitter/sour/Seville orange peel and coriander push the yeast aromas into interesting territory, but getting the flavor and balance just right can be tricky.


For gose, a mix of air-dried barley malt and some wheat malt and oats, seasoned with coriander, gets a lactic fermentation—this is kind of intermediate ground between Berliner weisse and witbier. The lightly salty local water was reported to originally be responsible for the lightly saline taste, but this was later a conscious addition.

American Wheat Ales

We’ve moved on, but American wheat ales were once a staple of the American microbrewing scene, especially in the Pacific Northwest, possibly because they made pretty good bases for fruit variants. They’re basically unfiltered blonde ales with enough wheat to make them cloudy, plus a modest but noticeable amount of American hop character.

Hazy IPAs

In terms of their grist, hazy IPAs have little to do with classic IPA grain bills and should be thought of as highly dry-hopped wheat ales. Second to hop aroma, their creaminess is a prized component, and their haze—although more a result of early and frequent dry-hopping—is a visible marker of authenticity.

For its entire history, beer has looked beyond barley to wheat and other grains. For quaffer and brewer alike, they can take beer to places that barley simply can’t go. These treasured ingredients help create the astonishing breadth of personality that is a deliciously fascinating feature of the wide, wide world of beer.

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