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A British perspective of wheat beer

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British wheat beer? Us Brits don’t’ really get wheat beer in my opinion! In the UK wheat beers are something of a sleeping giant. Yet in their countries of origin the many variations on the style are revered. And worldwide, wheat beers have become a must-brew style for serious craft brewers who want to showcase their creative skills. Crisp, refreshing and absolutely entrancing. more beer drinkers deserve to have the opportunity to try these beers.

The cultivation of wheat for both bread and beer making is as old as civilisation itself. The discovery by our forebears that grass seeds could sustain human life was crucial to our survival and development. The seeds of grasses, which we call cereals contain three ingredients essential for human survival – they are rich in starches, proteins and contain some fat. They also contain some fibre, which make them suited to human digestion. Archaeology shows us that early people were able to turn these grains into basic food – including, breads, porridges and beers.

When brewing started, more than 10,000 years ago, the Sumerians probably used a grain variety which today the Germans call Einkorn. It has very hard kernels and firm husks. Over time these grains were crossed with other wild grasses producing a softer husked wheat, which is now called spelt – or dinkel.

Today, wheat is the second most common malted grain used for brewing. Barley being the most abundant. Typical wheat accented beers are German Weissbiers – also known as hefeweizen or Weizenbier, which must contain by German law 50% wheat.

A variant is the German Berliner Weise, a sour sparkling ale. It has a wheat bill which rarely exceeds 30%. And now there are more modern American wheat beers which typically contain between 10-35% wheat.

Contemporary wheat has a high protein content compared to barley and has no husks – this can cause trouble in the brewhouse as the mushy grist clogs up filters and the lautering. Some craft brewers have tried to make beers with a 100%  wheat bill, but the task requires some clever tricks in the brewhouse, as the huskless grain cannot create its own filter bed to run off the wort.

However, despite the challenges to the brewer, wheat brings its own distinctive character to beer. When used in beer wheat tends to impart a lighter body than does barley, which is often coupled with a touch of refreshing acidity. The typical German wheat beer has notes of banana and cloves, which come from the yeast used rather than the use of wheat malts. An English ale fermented with a wheat beer yeast would have a similar taste profile.

A modern variant of the wheat beer is vollbier, a beer of moderate alcoholic strength but rather than being 5% alcohol and above they are brewed to 2,5%-3,5%. And there are even low and no alcohol variants. They use the same yeast as their stronger cousins, so have the classic estery flavours of banana, cloves and even bubble gum.

Another member of the wheat beer family is the unfiltered, top-fermented Belgian favourite, known as wit or white beer or biere blanche. White refers to the unfiltered cloudy whiteness of the beer as it appears in the glass. It is probably one of the oldest still brewed beer styles, dating from mediaeval times.

Over time the popularity of the style decreased, in the 1900s, people preferred their beers to be golden and clear. The style had all but died out. It revival was down to one man, a former dairyman Pierre Celis. He started a brewery called De Kluis and set about recreating the witbier style and developed a beer called Hoegaarden. A traditional Belgian style white beer is made with malted barley and unmalted wheat. Some versions include other grains such as oats or spelt. It is spiced with a small quantity of hops to keep the bitterness low. Spices such as coriander and Curaçao orange peel are often used. Unlike the German variant, a Belgian ale yeast is used for fermentation. This produces the styles unique fruity and spicy flavours. Some brewers employ a long rest during the mashing this gives the beer a refreshing tartness from bacterial activity.

In the UK most beers are made using barley malt. However, wheat is often used as an adjunct. Wheat brings a delicacy of texture to a beer.  Wheat is also used to provide head retention, the famed foaming pint and to give beer a lightness of mouthfeel along with a dash of crisp acidity.

British trade magazine Imbibe has run a competition to encourage brewers to brew a wheat beer. The most recent winner was the West Berkshire Brewery, which secured a seasonal listing with M&Bs Castle group of pubs, for its Wheaty McWheat Face.

“West Berkshire’s head brewer Will Twomey nailed the wheat style said chair of judges, Mark Dorber. “The balance was exemplary. It was crisp, fresh and spoke of English material.”

“Wheaty McWheat Face was brewed on our new pilot brewery and is one of several new beers that we have experimented with” said West Berkshire chief executive Simon Lewis.

“We wanted a British feel to it” added Twomey, who used British ingredients throughout, from the 50:50 blend of wheat with Maris Otter, via Kent First Gold hops, through to the brewery’s own ale yeast.  Twomey developed a number of production techniques to dial down the overt banana and clove notes so typical of Belgium wheat beer styles.

In second place came Harviestoun, with its Wheat Beastie, where leaves of lemon verbena, lime and coriander contributed to a refreshingly, complex beer. Another debut, this is the first of a new, seasonal keg range from the Alva-based brewery. “Fruity, zingy and refreshing” said M&B’s Richard Yarnell.

“We were getting asked for wheat beer by our customers, and when you see a pattern, you know you are missing a trick” said Sarah John, co-founder of Boss Brewing, the youngest brewery to make it to the final. Just 14-months old, their Boss Bix leant towards the witbier style, with a marriage of orange peel and coriander seeds in the mash tun.

Orange notes loomed large in both of the other finalists too. Tom McNeil of Heavy Industry Brewing put the new hop, Mandarina Bavaria, centre-stage in his cloudy hefeweizen-style beer, Pigeon Toed Orange Peel, while Little Beer Corp’s Paul Hutcheson arrived on stage in bull fighter regalia, to celebrate the “vast amounts” of Spanish blood oranges that went into the production of Running With The Bulls.

“This style can have a huge range of flavours, and we, the judges, felt we picked a selection which represented well the diversity of wheat beers said SIBA’s Neil Walker.

In one recent craft beer collaboration, thirty women worked together to make a rhubarb flavoured beer, using wheat – Rhubarb: A User’s Guide.

leading uk female brewers

Leading UK Female Brewers © Tim Hampson

Led by brewing expert Earth Station’s Jenn Merrick the brewers and students, gathered for just one day to create the kettle sour beer, to celebrate female brewing’s past, present and future.

The beer is brewed using a pale grist with a high proportion of wheat, quick-soured in the kettle overnight with the help of lactic acid and then blended with freshly juiced rhubarb.

Merrick said: “It was such an inspiring day to see so many women who contribute to the beer industry all in one place, making a beer that drew on the skills of these industry leaders and connecting them with the next generation of brewers.”

Perhaps British people are beginning to get wheat beer!

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