My friends and I are always looking for excuses to crack open a beer during the summer, whether we’re having a July Fourth cookout, sitting on the stoop during a power outage, or just celebrating another Wednesday well-done. In the hotter months, our fridges take on wheat beers—the mellow, citrusy brews that are many people’s first foray into craft-beer drinking.
There are lots of wheats available: Belgian, German, and American bottles crowd the display cases. With all the choices, how does one separate the swell from the swill?
We assembled a crack team of beer geeks, with a few newbies thrown in, to save you the hard work of tasting and to find the finest refreshments for your summer barbecues. We gathered a dozen brews for our experiment, and while we mostly stuck to American companies (it’s Independence Day, after all), we also included some of the most revered Belgian and German takes on the style. Our findings covered a spectrum from golden elixirs to beers that reeked of the Maine Avenue Fish Market.
All of the competitors are available at local beer stores, and you can find many at supermarkets. They generally cost less than $10 a six-pack, worth the upgrade from those 50-cent cans of fizzy yellow stuff. Our tasters rated each beer on aroma, appearance, and taste. All tasting was done blind (from unmarked glasses), and despite the insistence of many bars to garnish their wheat beers, we eschewed lemon and orange wedges. Fruit is for salads.
We expected fierce competition at the top of the rankings, but this Belgian-style wheat from Allagash Brewery dominated, impressing our panel with full, rich flavors of sweet citrus and bready malts. Like most wheat beers, the White is unfiltered, which means it still contains yeast and thus has a cloudy appearance. Light yeasty notes coupled with a touch of tartness, perfectly offsetting the sweeter flavors. This combination left even our most eloquent tasters speechless, their tasting notes a flurry of exclamation points.
Hoegaarden is considered by many to be the standard in Belgian wheat beers. Because of its ubiquity, many of the American microbrew fans on our panel had dismissed it
as an overpriced import, so those tasters were caught off guard by the Belgian’s bright lemon-zest flavors and fluffy, cumulus-like head.
“This is what I want in an American wheat,” said one judge who mistook it for Bells Oberon, a professed favorite. As another strike against xenophobes Hoegaarden is produced by InBev, the Belgian conglomerate threatening to take over our precious Anheuser-Busch.
Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier and Kristal Weissbier
These two wheats, hailing from a Bavarian brewery that claims to be the oldest operating brewery in the world, were tasted independently of each other but finished neck-and-neck, solidly above the rest of the pack. We preferred the Hefe, which was the most well-rounded of the bunch; it registered a firm malt backbone, citrusy high notes, as well as bold spice flavors of cloves and coriander.
The Kristal Weissbier scored a touch lower because it’s filtered—we missed the yeast. “More there” requested one disappointed taster. Though highly drinkable and nearly as balanced as its sister brew, overall it was less interesting. On a double date, take the first sister; give this one to your buddy.
Bells Oberon Ale and Brooklyner Weisse
Before the tasting, Bells Oberon was the wheat beer of choice for many of our panelists, and we were surprised it didn’t end up a medalist. It packed a heavier, more malty flavor than the rest of the beers, something akin to a pale ale without the hops. “Not refreshing,” someone commented bluntly.
We drank Oberon again after the tasting, to find out if we’d see the old favorite with new eyes (or tongues). We enjoyed it more taken out of the wheat-beer context, as a full-flavored ale. But side-by-side with a bunch of lighter, more refreshing beers, it tasted out of place—like fishing for a cough drop and popping a Jolly Rancher instead.
Brooklyn Brewery’s wheat was kind of like Everybody Loves Raymond: pleasing but mostly inoffensive. Though one judge picked up on artificial lime-candy notes, most reactions ranged from “very okay” to “meh.”
“= Diet Coke,” someone scribbled.
“Well, it still beats water”
Samuel Adams Summer Ale, Blue Moon Belgian White Ale, Avery White Rascal
Despite finishing in the middle of the pack, Samuel Adams Summer Ale actually surprised some of the microbrew fans who had pooh-poohed the Boston brewery’s output. Still, we found its lemon and banana flavors simple, sweet, and cloying, like a soda for adults. Blue Moon, from Coors Brewing Company, fared similarly, earning marks of “astringent” and “fakish.” We also detected a soapy flavor, though we agreed that at least it was lemony soap.
Avery’s offering elicited the most furrowed brows, as we struggled to the “compelling, footlike” aromas that conjured images of day-old fish. “Savory!” exclaimed one panelist, in the tone of someone trying squid for the first time. Still, the flavors were surprisingly mild, so it might be a good choice if you catch a head cold.
For Your Uninvited Guests
Tröegs Dream Weaver Wheat, Southern Tier Hop Sun, and Ommegang Witte
Dream Weaver Wheat was a thoroughly industrial beer—panelists compared the nose to plastic and rubber, with comments like “IT SMELLS LIKE A FACTORY!” One taster noted that it smelled like marijuana.
Southern Tier’s Hop Sun delivered on its promise of hops, but the bitterness was untempered by any sweeter wheat flavors, resulting in a harsh, metallic taste. Ommegang, a particularly disappointing performer considering its other, better offerings, was thin, tinny, and “sharply lemony.” We’ve never tried drinking Pine-Sol, and now, we never will.
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