It’s not the flashiest of beer styles, but American wheat beer is a perfect hot weather drink. Crisp, clean, light and inoffensive, they are “uncomplicated, sessionable summer ales,” according to Jeff Alworth in The Beer Bible. “There is a quality of breakfast in a wheat ale — the wholesome grain-y flavor, a light spritz from American hopping, and a gentle, soothing finish.”
Wheat has been used in brewing for centuries, with styles ranging from German weizens with banana and clove character, to spicy Belgian witbiers, to a variety of sour and fruited ales. The wheat beers that emerged from the nascent American craft brewing industry nearly four decades ago took a simpler approach.
To explore the origins of the style, we turn to Widmer Brothers Brewing Company in Portland. One of Oregon’s first microbreweries, founded in 1984, Widmer’s first beer was an aggressively hopped dark ale in the German altbier style. While it was (and still is) an excellent beer, American palates of the time were not ready for a brown bitter beer. Widmer struggled until introducing a second beer, Weizen, in 1985.
Weizen was a clear, filtered wheat beer brewed with the Altbier yeast, ultimately resembling a light American pale ale more than a traditional Bavarian weizen. It exploded in popularity, outselling the Altbier, yet almost nobody remembers it because Hefeweizen came along in 1986.
Portland’s Dublin Pub, an early Widmer account, sold both of Widmer’s beers and requested a third. The brewery did not have the capacity to produce a third beer, but hit upon the idea of selling an unfiltered batch of Weizen, under the name Hefeweizen. “Hefe” means “yeast” in German, which refers to the billowing haze of yeast — the signature characteristic of the beer.
It showcased a clean fermentation profile that emphasized the grainy, bready character from the wheat. Drinkers loved it, in no small part due to the unusually hazy appearance. They loved it even more when bars began adding a slice of lemon to the rim of the glass. It may have originally been a gimmick to sell the beer, but now the lemon slice is ubiquitous.
Hefeweizen became one of the top-selling beers in the Pacific Northwest, growing Widmer into one of the country’s largest craft breweries.
American wheat ales fall into two general categories, hazy with yeast in the Widmer tradition or filtered to be clear and crisp. Here in Central Oregon, we have two exemplary examples of each from Sunriver Brewing Company and GoodLife Brewing Company.
Sunriver’s Fuzztail Hefeweizen is unfiltered and hazy with a nicely subtle hop presence. With 5% alcohol by volume and 20 IBUs, it’s sessionable and refreshing. It’s one of the best examples of the style you’ll find, and since Sunriver added it to its year-round lineup in 2015, Fuzztail has racked up awards, including a gold medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup and consecutive medals in 2017 and 2018 at the Great American Beer Festival.
Fuzztail presents a mellow, bready aroma with a gentle note of spicy lemon-zest hops. The flavor is crisp and clean with toasted wheat and bread crust, a light rye-like spiciness, and it finishes refreshing with an appetizing note that makes you want to go in for another sip.
GoodLife Brewing’s Sweet As! Pacific Ale is a pale, clear wheat ale that is one of the brewery’s most popular beers. On tap since day one, Sweet As! has won a number of awards over the years, most recently two gold medals from the Great American Beer Festival in 2017 and 2018 in the American-style Wheat Beer category (Fuzztail won in the similar category “with yeast”).
Slightly stronger than Fuzztail at 6% alcohol and 18 IBUs, Sweet As! is eminently drinkable, and is crisp and mellow. It’s wheaty and lightly doughy in the nose, with subtle tropical fruitiness from the hops. Those hops provide just enough spicy bitterness in the flavor to balance the raw wheat in the malt and finishes cleanly with a crisp snap.
Here in Central Oregon we’re fortunate that we don’t have to look very far for world-class examples of beer styles, and both Fuzztail and Sweet As! are great starting points to explore American wheat beers.
— Jon Abernathy is a beer writer and blogger and launched The Brew Site (www.thebrewsite.com) in 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .