We are awash in a sea of wheat. Not the grain, the beer. Fruity, spicy, cloudy and tart, wheat beer has gone mainstream in North America. The most recent evidence: Molson Canadian Wheat, which launched this spring backed by a major ad campaign. It joins such other relatively new big-brew offerings as Shock Top and Keith's Premium White, both from Labatt, Rickard's White from Molson and a host of more established and, some would argue, more authentic wheat beers from local craft breweries.
Known as weissbier ("white beer") in Germany and wit in Belgium, the centuries-old style is distinguished by its light colour, imparted by pale wheat and barley malts.
Brewers long ago found that mixing a proportion of wheat – typically 50- to 70-per-cent – with conventional barley gave beer a livelier, more delicate flavour. When combined with special yeasts, particularly in the Bavarian style, it takes on notes of banana, clove, citrus and pink bubblegum. Lovely on their own, wheat beers are tailor-made for summer and excellent companions to fish, salads and spicy fare.
Most come unfiltered, the turbidity owing to a tasty residue of natural yeast. For the full effect, it's customary in Europe to pour three-quarters of a bottle into a wide-rimmed glass, then to swirl the remainder before emptying the last hazy splash into the glass.
Another word of advice: Don't add an orange slice to the glass, an ill-advised practice that's popular in North American bars. This upsets the aroma and deflates the beer's trademark foam. Unlike Corona, good wheat beer needs no help from extraneous fruit.
Here's a select list from the ever-expanding wheat field (prices listed are for Ontario).
Weihenstephaner Vitus, Germany
SCORE: 96 PRICE: $3.25/500 ml
Reputed to be the world's oldest continuously operating brewery, Weihenstephan is located in Freising, just north of Munich. I love the brewery's regular Hefe Weissbier (literally "yeast white beer"), but this cranks things up a notch. It's a weizenbock ("wheat bock"), a stronger variant of weissbier. Wonderfully complex, it shows malty character along with whispers of dark fruit, caramel, banana, honey and spices, with a sweet, lingering finish. It was named world's best wheat beer at the 2012 World Beer Awards.
Les Trois Mousquetaires Hopfenweisse, QuebecSCORE: 94 PRICE: $6.75/750 ml
Based in Brossard in greater Montreal, "The Three Musketeers" brewery (if you needed a translation), specializes in German-style gems. This one is aptly prefixed, given its strongly hopped character, which is unusual for a wheat beer. Brimming with pineapple and papaya flavours, it strikes a glorious balance with bitter pine and citrus notes.
Schneider Weisse Tap 7 Original, GermanySCORE: 93 PRICE: $2.85/500 ml
Murky brown-orange, this hails from a firm that describes itself – as if to thumb its nose at Weihenstephan – as Bavaria's oldest wheat-beer specialist. It displays classic German character, with subtle banana and bubblegum notes enlivened by sour yeast and vigorous carbonation.
Mill Street Wit, Ontario
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $13.15/6-pack
This is one of my favourite domestic brews in the wit style. I love the dry profile, with its unmistakable wheat flavour, infused with subtle banana, lemon zest and coriander.
Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, Quebec
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $12.95/6-pack
Unibroue got its start in the early 1990s and is now in the hands of Japan's Sapporo, one of many craft producers slurped up by a thirsty giant. No matter; it makes great beer. Producer of a diverse range, its specialty is Belgian-style beers bottled on their lees (the cloudy yeast sediment). This fine offering dances a lively step, with citrus, clove and coriander on a modestly malty base.
Denison's Weissbier, Ontario
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $2.70/473 ml
Highly regarded by the local cognoscenti, Denison's looks deceptively light, with only a faint haze. But this Toronto-made brew is delectably creamy and well-rounded, with green banana, coriander and pepper spice and a subtle note of orange Creamsicle.
Muskoka Summer Weiss, Ontario
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $13.50/6-pack
I spent many memorable summers as a kid near the cottage-country town of Bracebridge, home of Muskoka Brewery. Back then it was stolen sips of Carling Red Cap from Dad's bottle. Here's a more suitable brew for the dock, lively with effervescence and well-balanced flavours of banana and spice.
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $13.70/6-pack
This is the brand you'll find displayed on café umbrellas the world over. Impressively murky, it's a good representation of the wit style, with pronounced coriander and fennel spicing up the banana, citrus and wheat characters.
Molson Canadian Wheat, Canada
SCORE: 85 PRICE: $2.35/473 ml
Wheat-beer devotees may turn up their noses. For one thing, this is a light lager, and most wheat beers are made with ale yeasts that yield generally heavier brews. There's also not much of the rich, yeasty character that defines classic weissbier or wit. Clean and crisp, with an impressive, if faint, essence of bready wheat, it's a pleasantly light quaff and better than regular Canadian. The pinot grigio of wheat beer?