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I've often heard people say that they don't drink beer because they can't have wheat. But the truth is that beer is made primarily with barley. Most beers don't contain wheat — or contain only minuscule amounts — and it's mostly intended to impact body and foam retention.

But there's a whole subset of beer styles that do have wheat as their main ingredient. As a whole, wheat beers are at once light in body and rich in texture due to extra proteins in the grain. Those same proteins give them a full, creamy head that can be almost like mousse. Malted wheat brings aromas and flavors of bread dough, crackers and wheat kernels that evoke, for me, memories of chewing on wheat during harvest on my grandparents' farm.

With their light, refreshing character, wheat beers are great patio sippers for spring and summer.

American-style wheat beer

American-style wheat beers are the simplest of the lot. Think of them as blond ales made with wheat. Light and easy-drinking, they make a more interesting substitute for standard American lagers.

Unfiltered Wheat Beer from Boulevard Brewing Co. out of Kansas City is about as straightforward as it gets for the style. This hazy, pale-yellow ale features notes of bread and bread crust. Citrus, lemon and herbal hop flavors ride over the top. Bitterness is moderate, so it won't tax your palate. Keep a cooler of this handy on summer trips to the lake.

For many, the release of Oberon Ale from Michigan-based Bell's is synonymous with the arrival of spring. This iconic American wheat ale is known for its tinge of orange citrus flavor. It's a lightweight beer, but the fluffy mouthfeel gives an impression of fullness. Bready wheat is topped with spicy hops. Each sip goes out crisp and clean, making you want another.

Those who love hops can look to A Little Sumpin' Sumpin', a wheat IPA from Lagunitas Brewing Co. High bitterness and high grapefruit citrus hop flavors mark this Chicago beer as an American-style IPA. The sharp, crackery, wheat character sets it apart. Wheat also gives it a lighter body than many barley-based IPAs, making it a fantastic summer sipper.

Gumballhead from 3 Floyds Brewing Co. of Indiana is another hoppy option. This light, bright and crispy beer features super-citrus lemony hops that pop out on top. Hop bitterness is medium-high — not as high as a pale ale, but enough to satisfy hard-core hop fans. Crackery wheat lends ample support. It goes out crisp and dry with lingering bitterness and lemon.

St. Bernardus Wit from Brouwerij St. Bernardus in Watou, Belgium, is a great example of a classic Belgian witbier.
St. Bernardus Wit from Brouwerij St. Bernardus in Watou, Belgium, is a great example of a classic Belgian witbier.

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Hefeweizens and witbiers

One of the interesting aspects of European wheat beer styles is the unique yeast strains used to ferment them. They impart fruity banana and lemon notes along with clove and pepper spice. It makes these beers immediately identifiable and eminently enjoyable.

"Hefe" in German means yeast; "weizen" is wheat. German wheat beers are known as hefeweizen, literally wheat with yeast. Suspended yeast gives hefeweizen its characteristic cloudy appearance.

Ewald the Golden from Utepils in Minneapolis is a fantastic local example of the style. This mouth-filling, bready brew favors the spicy side of the hefeweizen's characteristic clove and banana profile. But beneath the clove is a basket full of fruit. Bright lemon pairs with ripe banana and subtle stone fruit, making this a juicy treat.

Remedy Brewing Co. in Sioux Falls has another winner with Hefe-Metal. This one leans more to the banana side, with a flavor reminiscent of Banana Runts candy. Clove provides subtle overtones. Wheat malt gives a bread-dough base that lingers with banana in the sharp, dry finish.

There are many authentic German examples of hefeweizen available in the market. One that I find particularly tasty is Weissbier Hell from Kloster Andechs, a Bavarian monastery brewery. This is another banana-forward example, but the banana is amply met with fresh, yeasty bread dough and overtones of clove. Lemony highlights give it a lift that balances the rich, creamy mouthfeel.

Dunkelweizen is a darker and maltier version of German wheat beer. Although it does occasionally turn up in local taprooms, examples can be hard to find. Kloster Andechs comes through again with Weissbier Dunkel. Brown bread and banana go head-to-head in this beer. The balance of malt to yeast is spot on. Clove and a touch of lemon provide a counterpoint. It has a rich, creamy mouthfeel that is somewhat cut by effervescent carbonation.

Witbier is like the Belgian version of hefeweizen. Witbier tends to be lighter-bodied than its German counterpart. It is fermented with yeast strains that produce similar, though not identical flavor profiles. The addition of coriander and bitter orange peel sets it apart.

St. Bernardus Wit from Brouwerij St. Bernardus in Watou, Belgium, is a great example of a classic Belgian witbier. "Wit" means "white" in Flemish, and this beer's pale, cloudy appearance lives up to that label. Grainy wheat is the primary note. Coriander, orange and fermentation-derived clove are subtle complements. Lemony highlights give it a refreshing brightness. This is a perfect patio beer.

Kerel Organic Wit from VBDCK Brewery in Tielrode, Belgium, tweaks the style slightly by using lemon peel instead of orange. Bready wheat forms the base supporting prominent lemon and citrusy coriander. Low notes of yeasty banana and peppery spice complete the mix. It goes out dry with a pithy bitterness.

Closer to home, Venn Brewing Co. in Minneapolis has given the style a modern, American twist by dry-hopping its White with Citra hops. The result is a full fruit explosion. The base witbier is there with its characteristic fruity coriander, orange and banana. The Citra hops bring a zesty lemon zing that wakes up both the flavor and the aroma. It's powerful, but doesn't overwhelm the wit.

Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at