There are three major styles of wheat beer: German hefeweizen, Belgian white beer and American wheat ale -- and two minor styles -- Belgian lambic and German Berliner weisse -- each different from one other and distinctive in character.
Hefeweizen/Weissbier -- Known by confusingly similar names ("weizen" means wheat, "weisse" means white), this style of wheat beer was once brewed only in southern Germany. Today, however, good weizens are brewed everywhere, from the United States to Japan to Holland to New Zealand.
Weizens are usually light to medium gold in color, seriously effervescent and often quite cloudy. The beer's haze is normal, a result of being bottle-conditioned or redosed with yeast before bottling. If you don't want the cloudiness -- and the B vitamins that go with it -- look for a filtered weizen designated "kristal." Otherwise, watch for the prefix "hefe" (as in hefeweizen), which means yeast.
The key to a good weizen is using a special family of yeasts that'll produce a variety of spicy and fruity aromas and flavors in the beer. Depending on the particular strain of this yeast, these brews can be clovey, peppery, banana-like or even bubblegummy. And while those may not sound like qualities you'd appreciate, in the right quantities and proportions they can make a bottle of wheat a truly beautiful thing.
Hefeweizen/weissbier to look for: Schneider Weisse, Ayinger Weissbier, Tabernash Weiss, DeGroen's Weizen.
White Beer -- Belgians are the innovators of the beer world. You've heard of the German Reinheitsgebot -- the Bavarian law that limits beer's ingredients to water, hops, malt and yeast? Well, the Belgians take a somewhat contrary position, incorporating almost everything but the proverbial kitchen sink in their brews.
White beer, also known as wit or biere blanche, is no exception. These beers are often spiced with coriander, orange peel and "secret ingredients" known only to the brewer. It's also made with a very healthy proportion of unmalted wheat -- as much as 50 percent of the total grain used -- which gives white beer a light and consummately refreshing flavor.
With spice and bitter orange in the brew, it should come as no surprise that these elements dominate both the aroma and taste of a white beer. The raw wheat also adds a level of tanginess, making the overall character crisp and invigorating, arguably positioning it as the ultimate brew for breakfast. Well, okay, maybe brunch.
White beers to look for: Hoegaarden White, Celis White, Blanche de Chambly, Blanche de Bruges.
American Wheat Ale -- Many North American breweries, particularly those that brew ales exclusively, use this style as their "starter" beer, designed to lure lager drinkers into the craft beer camp. In this role, the lightness and lack of bold character serves the American wheat style well.
American wheat ales will usually be lager-like in color and have a particularly grainy aroma. Since they're supposed to appeal to Bud and Miller drinkers, these wheat ales generally won't have a huge amount of character (think of a beer version of white zin) but may show notes of citrus or a small amount of spiciness. This is what many call the "thinking man's lawnmower beer."
American wheat ales to look for: Abita Wheat, Sierra Nevada Wheat, Grasshopper Wheat.
Lambic -- Back to those wacky Belgians. This time, instead of seasoning the wheat beer, they allow it to be fermented by wild, airborne yeasts. It's a completely unpredictable process that results in a tart, sometimes puckeringly sour brew. To provide some consistency, lambic brewers age the beer in wood for one to three years before blending it into a bottle-conditioned beer called gueuze. Or they'll add fruit to make kriek (cherry) or framboise (raspberry) beers.
Unless sweetened during bottling (which many are), lambics are definitely challenging beers. If your first reaction is to spit it out, you're not alone. But once you get used to the tartness, you'll soon find that they're filled with incredible complexity, wonderful flavors and astounding character.
Lambic beers to look for: Cantillon Gueuze, Boon Mariage Parfait Geuze, Lindemans Gueuze.
Berliner Weisse -- Napoleon referred to this beer as "the Champagne of the north," and his wine analogy had its validity. Berliner weisse is fermented with yeast and select lactic cultures -- a process not entirely dissimilar to the malolactic fermentation employed in making some chardonnays. The result is a low-alcohol beer with significant, but soft, acidity.
Perhaps the most refreshing of all wheat beers, the Berliner can still have a slight bite (although the acidity is more likely to be tasted as a quenching dryness in most modern examples). And with a typical alcohol content of only 2.5 to 3 percent by volume, you've got little chance of it creeping up on you as you slake your thirst.
Berliner weisse beers to look for: Berliner Kindl Weisse, Schultheiss Berliner Weisse.
A Dozen Reasons to Drink Wheat Beer
Fruit salad -- weizen
Scrambled eggs with freshly ground pepper -- white beer
Grilled bratwurst and dunkelweizen -- dark weizen
Creamy pasta salad with sweet red pepper -- weizen
Steamed mussels -- white beer or gueuze
Grilled whitefish -- Berliner weisse
Moderate heat, moderate activity -- cold weizen
A sunny day, a picnic brunch -- white beer
Hot, hot, hot weather -- cold, cold, cold Berliner weisse
A Sunday softball game -- cold American wheat ale
Waiting for the coals to heat up on the barbecue -- gueuze
A romantic spot on a warm, rainy afternoon -- two champagne flutes of Belgian framboise