Brewing Identity: when will it be British wheat's time to shine?
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Wheat has been used in brewing since the time of the ancient Sumerians. Belgian and German brewers made the ingredient their own, crafting distinctive styles with a deep sense of place. In more recent decades, a uniquely American style of wheat beer has also developed. Since UK brewers dip their toes into the world of wheat beer, and it is something that Brits have a venerable history of farming, I wonder if there will ever be such a thing as an unmistakably British wheat beer?
Wheat beers are rarely, if ever, made with 100% malted wheat. The grain does not have a husk so it creates an incredibly sticky, gummy mash that makes straining the sweet wort off through the spent grain difficult. This inefficiency can make brewing costly and wasteful. So wheat tends to be combined with other types of malt where it serves a functional purpose, aiding head retention and adding body.
Many wheat beers get their flavour from chemical compounds called esters and phenols. These by-products of the fermentation process are derived from the yeasts used to ferment them, rather than the wheat itself. Esters bring fruity flavours to a beer, including banana, pear and bubblegum. Phenols add a spicy element and can give a pungent hit of clove that needs to be carefully balanced to prevent the finished beer from tasting too medicinal.
Under German law, a wheat beer, must contain over 50% wheat, giving a beer with lots of body and a flavour profile that often draws heavily on banana and bubblegum notes from the esters. Conversely, in the United States the minimum is 30% where the trend is for lighter, citrus-led beers. American brewers tend also to use lager yeasts as ester notes are not as popular.
Types of Wheat Beer
Personally, I love drinking these styles of beer. I like to fancifully imagine that this is a lifelong obsession, first cultivated when I spent 18 months living in Bavaria as a child. However, it is probably much more likely that I first developed the taste during a trip to Brussels in 2008 - when I was in my mid-20s. I learned more about beers like Hoegaarden and St Feuillien Grisette Blanche. The complex layered flavours stood out to me above all the other enticing profiles that Belgian beer had to offer.
The wheat beers of Europe vary regionally. In Bavaria, for example, you will find weissbier literally meaning ‘white beer’ the name refers to the pale colour produced by the pale wheat and barley malts milled to make the grist. These multi-dimensional, fruity beers have a venerable history stretching back to the 9th century BC. Perhaps slightly confusingly, not all weissbiers are pale, as some are made with dark malts in the mix.
Meanwhile in Belgium, we find the witbier (‘white beer’, in Flemish). First recorded in the 14th century, these contain less wheat overall than its German cousin, and were resurrected in the 1960s by brewer Pierre Celis. He added Curaçao orange peel and coriander seeds to his beer, creating an incredibly refreshing recipe. It became the world’s most popular witbier, brewed in the town of Hoegaarden. Owned by brewing giant AB InBev since the 1980s, Hoegaarden remains one of the biggest beer brands in the world today and is certainly the biggest selling wheat beer.
My own enthusiasm for wheat beers was reinforced by exposure to the American take on the style, which takes witbier as its jumping-off point. In 2012, on a trip to the West Coast, I tried the beer Tangerine Wheat, by female-owned Lost Coast Brewery, in California. The easy-drinking orange notes and velvety mouthfeel have stayed with me since.
American wheat beers were originally brewed in the 19th century by German immigrants. Like so many historic drink recipes, they were pushed into obscurity from the general public by Prohibition. Its restoration was thanks to the famous Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. In 1984 they created a filtered wheat beer called Summer Wheat. Like Hoegaarden 20 years before, their success with this beer encouraged others to experiment with the style.
The most pervasive American wheat beer is Blue Moon. It originated in Denver, Colorado in the mid-1990s. Like Hoegaarden, it has developed a global following for its easy drinking velvety body, hint of coriander seed and bright orange flavours – in most bars a pint is often adorned with a slice of orange to enhance its citrusy profile. Layla Sidat, the manager of Leicester’s historic Globe pub decided to put Blue Moon on the bar for the first time recently, to offer her customers something new post-lockdown. “It’s light and a bit different to everything else we serve, plus it’s a well-known brand” she told me. “It’s already selling really well, our customers love it.”
British Wheat Beer
Sidat says she would prefer to serve something British, but does not have ready access to something made all the time as part of a brewery’s core range. Perhaps she should look to Manchester, where Cloudwater Brewing regularly brews a lower ABV (4%) witbier for the Queer Brewing Project (QBP). It is called Flowers.
This beer is part of an initiative, the Wayfinder Project, aimed at opening up their production schedule to minority communities who struggle to find production elsewhere. Driven by Cloudwater’s Managing Director, Paul Jones, the Wayfinder Project has given collaborations like this and with other minority-run breweries like the Black-owned Eko Brewing on the shelves of bottle shops and even major supermarkets across the UK, giving them a unique platform.
QBP’s coriander seed scented Flowers is an homage to White, the 3.5% table beer made by much-hyped American brewery Allagash. Allagash bravely launched their brewery in 1995 with White as their first beer. They used a Belgian-inspired recipe even though it had no obvious market in the States at the time. Allagash have since become brewing royalty, known for their creativity and risk-taking.
Cloudwater makes occasional seasonal wheat brews too, which lean to the heavily hopped Hopfenweisse style. This suits the tastes of their existing customer base. Hopfenweisse beers first arose from a collaboration between Schneider in Bavaria and the Brooklyn Brewery in 2008. This was epoch making - one of the first craft beers to come out of Germany, weighing in at a hefty 8.5% ABV. The rethinking of a traditional European wheat beer with an American influence appealed to the British audience who were developing a taste for big hop flavours.
Justin Hawke at Moor Brewing in Bristol also spotted the potential appeal of Hopfenweisse and also developed his own. He told me that he admired the balance between the yeasty esters and hops so this was important to recreate, but he chose to tone down the ABV to a much more sessionable 4.5%. Named Claudia, it was a successful hazy beer that was on the market for nearly a decade. However, Hawke says its many devoted fans were not enough to keep the beer on the permanent roster and it is no longer produced.
Both Moor and Cloudwater see wheat beers as being relatively niche. Hopfenweisse created a “stepping stone” for UK consumers by tapping into their usual preferences. Paul Jones at Cloudwater partially attributes this to regional tastes. In Manchester there is a long lineage of microbreweries favouring hoppy beers, a party that started in 1989 with West Coast Brewing Co of Chorlton-on-Medlock.
Jones also thinks craft beer fans are on a continual search for something new; so they are less likely to care about classic styles. Baker at Leicester’s Two-Tailed Lion micropub, agrees that wheat beer may simply have been overtaken by newer trends: “you are more likely to find many traditional wheat beer characteristics in modern experimental beers with deliberately pronounced phenolic flavours. Milkshake or pastry brews are very likely to use that banana taste, for example.”
Justin Hawke at Moor Beer thinks that most true wheat beers are too heavy and cloying for the average British beer drinker, who prefer to drink multiple pints of liquid in one sitting. To be truly enjoyable according to Hawke, wheat beers need to be well carbonated to lift them, and this too can be a stumbling block in a country where cask ale has been king for so long.
Does British Wheat Beer Have a Future?
Although these brewers love using wheat they are not enthusiastic about its potential to be commercially successful on its own. Hawke uses a little in most beers that Moor makes to add a certain “breakfast cereal” quality, but has never really interrogated the supply chain. Moor and Cloudwater both use Simpsons Malt, one of the largest maltings in the country. While it is British-grown, there is no deep understanding of the ingredient in the same way that we see in the barley world. Varietal names of barley are now familiar, like Maris Otter and Golden Promise. Heritage grains like spelt and rye are also becoming more commonly used by brewers, but wheat has not yet been interrogated in the same way.
“Worldwide, more small-scale craft maltsters are appearing,” Jones says. “They are looking more specifically at the exact varietals [of grain] being grown and whether they can offer novel characteristics. I’m sure if we have this conversation in a few years’ time, I’d be able to offer up some different perspectives on the differences between sourcing wheat from the UK or Europe, or indeed how it’s processed.”
One such maltster who seems poised to take advantage of this gap in the market is Alison Milne. Crafty Maltsters is based around Milne’s fifth-generation arable and livestock farm in Auchtermuchty. They converted to craft malting in 2019 without any prior knowledge of the industry and immediately filled their books with brewing clients eager for ready access to craft malted barley. Their products are so good now they are also attracting distilling clients, who need the highest quality malts.
Milne hasn’t experimented with anything beyond standard barley yet simply because the business is still growing its capacity. They have the advantage of being producers as well as maltsters. A number of heritage barley varieties they have been growing for the last four years are about to enter the maltings for the first time. Alison planted these varieties because she wanted to prioritise flavour before yield.
“As a society we’ve developed this mindset around malt as a product,” Milne tells me. “We’re fairly one-dimensional, assuming that it’s a bog-standard industrialised commodity so we haven’t really been exploring all of the opportunities.”
One such opportunity on the horizon for the Crafty Maltsters is malting organic wheat with the cross-industry collaboration Scotland the Bread, based at Bowhouse in the East Neuk of Fife. The wheat they will be using has been grown organically on the Anstruther Estate. After malting it, Milne will pass it to the Futtle Organic Brewery, also based at Bowhouse, for brewing.
A future brewing customer of the Crafty Maltster’s might well be Rob Lovatt. He is brewmaster at the celebrated Bakewell brewery, Thornbridge. A wheat beer formerly in their core range, Versa, has been consigned to history in the same way as Moor’s Claudia, but Lovatt sees plenty more potential in wheat. He acknowledges the tendency for UK craft beer drinkers to seek out the novel, so has chosen to feed this relentless hunger by dedicating a new line in the Thornbridge taproom to wheat beer styles. Brewed on a smaller kit than their core beer range, there is the flexibility for experimentation and diversity. It is likely that some of these beers will find their way to Thornbridge’s pubs in Sheffield too.
While Thornbridge get the majority of their wheat from Simpsons and occasionally source some directly from Germany, Lovatt is open to examining how British wheat affects flavour in more detail:
“It’s a good question. Now that we’re doing wheat beers more often, I might look at it. We need to brew them side by side, some with German wheat and some with English wheat.”
The View from the Malthouse
Martin Rake from The Malt Miller in Swindon and Jamie Ramshaw of Simpson’s Malt agreed the potential of British wheat is still untapped. However, Martin has observed a rising demand for wheat, both flaked and malted, amongst the homebrew community. No doubt a consequence of experimentation during lockdown, it isn’t unimaginable that homebrewers will lead the charge for the formation of British wheat beer as a style. The recent wheat beer collaboration ‘Crisp Whitty’ brewed by the Malt Miller and Elusive Brewing in Berkshire has spawned a home recipe kit that perhaps lends support to this idea.
“Who knows if one day there will be a defined UK wheat beer style or the demand for it to sit on the bar next to bitter or pale ale,” Rake muses. “The world of beer constantly changes and surprises me, but it would be cool if we saw a very UK-focused brewery like Utopian create a UK wheat beer using UK hops, I'd certainly be wanting to try it.”
British bakers are already taking our native grains seriously. Organisations like Wildfarmed are attempting to change the ethos behind wheat farming in an attempt to sink carbon and encourage more biodiversity alongside generating a more flavourful product. They want their sustainable wheat to be used by some of the biggest bakers in the country, multi-million-pound producers like Greggs and Subway. Similarly, the Nottingham Urban Stone Mill has enjoyed significant success in a crowdfunding project driven by the desire to reverse the commodification of grains. They believe that “localised and human-scale systems produce food that is more delicious, more diverse, and healthier for us.” It is a compelling argument that is difficult to refute.
Wheat is an attractive crop to British farmers. According to Crafty Maltster Milne, “it would be easy to convince English farmers to grow wheat because barley, particularly last harvest, was a really difficult crop for them. The nitrogen levels were too high because of the weather.” Even if you can grow it, you can’t always sell it. She has personally had to sell premium barley to grain merchants in previous years because there wasn’t a market for it as malt. This was a top-level product that could have been used for distilling but ended up being shipped to China for animal feed. There is an important question of sustainability here. Our grain supply chain needs to be approached holistically to have a hope of dealing with the top level problems as well as realising the opportunities.
Milne is just waiting for the right brewer to approach her to make a heritage wheat beer, and I am waiting to sample the fruits of that relationship. Native heritage wheats are better for the environment as they require less nitrogen to grow and accrue fewer food miles. The flavours they might generate are currently an unknown quantity. She has the flexibility to produce and malt small trial crops:
“If you get enough people that are prepared to work together across the supply chain then there’s nothing stopping us from creating a uniquely British wheat beer and there is every reason to do it. I would wholeheartedly embrace such an opportunity if anyone wanted to come along to us and suggest it.”
Laura is a freelance food & drink writer and photographer, capturing stories about British producers and food heritage. She particularly enjoys writing (and researching) beer, wine and spirits. Laura runs Thirst Media, a creative agency that helps to amplify the voices of small businesses and charities. Find Laura on twitter here.