As America’s craft beer industry continues to grow, finding beers made exactly to style specifications can be challenging. Beer categories and definitions seem to be increasingly fluid, with styles like IPAs and Saisons quickly expanding with creative interpretations. And lately, the American Wheat category has been morphing. In The Oxford Companion to Beer, contributor Ray Daniels writes, “Before the 1980s, beers were rarely made with wheat in the United States. American wheat beer developed during that decade as start-up microbreweries emulated European styles, especially Bavarian hefeweizen.” Since then, the look, smell and taste of wheat beers made in the U.S. has evolved, and a new subset known as American Pale Wheat has been gaining traction.
An American Pale Wheat beer is a sort of hybrid that blends the soft sweetness of a wheat base with the hoppy kick of pale ale. Many are golden in color, sometimes slightly hazy, and often low in alcohol. The pale ale aspect of the beer can lend a moderate bitterness and snappy hop character. Bell’s Oberon, Three Floyd’s Gumballhead, Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Boulevard Brewing’s 80-Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer have helped shine a spotlight on the hoppy wheat style. For Boulevard, the beer came about when cellarman Alex Rodriguez wanted to see what their best-selling Unfiltered Wheat would taste like with added hops. With a smack of Cascade and Nelson Sauvin, it proved a quick hit at the taproom, leading the brewery to add the beer to their year-round lineup. Boulevard ambassador brewer Jeremy Danner thinks the style is getting more attention now because of its appeal to both wheat beer lovers and hopheads. “Combining the thirst quenching drinkability of a wheat beer with the hop flavor and aroma of an IPA (without the bitterness) 80-Acre Hoppy Wheat Beer is a great transitional beer for folks who don’t think they enjoy hoppy beers.”
Civil Society Brewing’s double dry-hopped Pulp, Sierra Nevada’s Hoppy Wheat, and Trillium Brewing’s Galaxy and Citra-hopped Pier are all newer examples of the breadth of playfulness happening within the style. In Chicago, Tim Lange makes Jungle Boogie at Marz Community Brewing, a 5.5%-ABV brew made with 33% wheat, Mosaic hops, several malts for complexity and sweetness, and rooibos tea for added floral and fruity notes.
White Gold from Ithaca Beer Co. in New York is another outside-the-box American-style hoppy wheat. The brewery describes it as a Belgo-American Strong Pale Wheat Ale. The beer is aged for six months and spiked with funky Brettanomyces when packaged, an addition that lends complex earthy notes that balance out the fruitiness of the base over time. “Big hoppy American IPAs are clear kings of the cooler today, but we find that historical European styles like true pilsners, sours and wild yeast ales like White Gold take favor with more sophisticated beer drinkers when they’re looking for a break from the big hop bombs that have become today’s standard beer diet,” says Gregg Stacy, Ithaca Beer’s director of marketing.
That interest in trying something different is exactly why many say the American Pale Wheat category is primed for growth. “This style is the perfect gateway beer for macro drinkers as the craft beer industry continues to grow,” says Marz’s Tim Lange, adding that Marz will release a new version of the style later this year.
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