Which White is Right? A Discussion of Wheat Beers

By Chris Foste, November 7, 2018

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201804/foste.pngThat's columnist Chris Foste is a bearded beer fanatic whose frothy pint glass of knowledge flows over with wisdom on the wetting of one's whistle. 

The popularity for a classic style of beer is growing all around China. White beer is a term for brews that, well, look white. Technically it’s a very pale yellow, but the term is used to describe a category of wheat beer. Born in Germany, made extravagant by Belgians, and simplified by Americans, white beer is a refreshing light lager that tickles the taste buds. 

Wheat beer is made with a proportional amount of wheat malt in regards to the other malts in the recipe. Wheat adds a smoothness to the beer, but also gives it a cloudy haze. Generally 4 to 5.5 percent ABV, white beers are easy to drink and often have an extra fizziness that lingers on your tongue. 

German Weissbier is the standard wheat beer so let’s take a look at that one first. Following in a 500-year-old German tradition, this beer adheres to the rules of the German Purity Law of Brewing. Nothing fancy is added to these beers, and in the words of many Germans, it is just pure beer.  Weissbier, also known as Weizen, tends to possess a unique banana or clove flavor that comes from the yeast fermentation, not actual bananas or cloves. However, when looking at a Hefeweizen versus a Weissbier, there is a difference. The prefix 'hefe' means that the beer is bottle conditioned, meaning there is a little bit of yeast still fermenting the beer. These German styles can be found on the shelf at any City Shop or supermarket that sells foreign goods.  

Moving west across Europe, let’s examine the different dimensions the Belgians add to white beer. In Belgian, Witbier means, 'white beer.' These beers are very similar to German Weissbier, but have a couple stark differences, by German standards at least. First of all, in Belgian brewing methods, bacteria are often used during the fermentation process, allowing for a rather pleasing, but sour taste. The other difference is that coriander and orange peel are often added during the brewing, adding extra deliciousness. These flavors can be found in Hoegaarden or Vedett White, two brands easily found in Chinese bars. 

The final style, and also the 'black' sheep of the white beer family, is the American Wheat beer. Technically, it’s not a white beer, but it’s a wheat beer and everyone should know the difference. When brewing was picking up steam in the 1800s, Americans did not have access to the same yeasts that give European white beer its flavor, but they still had wheat! The combination of less wheat used and different yeasts lead to a clear and silky beer, lacking a sour or fruity taste. These beers have more of a bready or doughy flavor, but still have plenty of fizziness to go with an extremely smooth flavor. Try a Goose 312 Wheat for the American wheat experience.

Different combinations of these styles can also be used to create hybrid white beers. A great example is the White Ale from Song Brewery in Shanghai. This beer still has a hazy, pale yellow color, but has a smoothness more closely related to the American wheat beers. Also, of all the beers mentioned in this article, this is the only one from a small-scale microbrewery.

There they are, the three main styles of white beers. While the differences may be simple, they are not easy to reproduce. Now go impress your friends with your newly found beer knowledge!

Read more of Foste's columns

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