Wheat Field Ears Golden Wheat Close. Wallpaper.

© 2022, Randy Mosher / Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine

Malted barley is the backbone of beer as we know it. And why not? It’s delicious, versatile and has a satisfying sweet aspect. But: it’s not the only grain in the brewery. Since its earliest days in the Neolithic Middle East, when cereal grains were still being domesticated, beers incorporated not only barley, but emmer and einkorn wheat and spelt as well. 

In Northern Europe, wheat or “white” beers started spreading about the same time as hops, c. 1,000 CE. Today we can still recognize similarities to these ancient “white” beers among many classic wheat styles: Berliner weisse, Belgian witbier, gose, lichtenhainer and even Scandinavia farmhouse brews. As a group, white ales are of everyday strength, employing normal or lactic fermentation. They’re universally pale in color, often attributed to the use of air-dried malt and unmalted grains, which also typically adds a substantial haze—hence the term “white.” Many are enjoying revivals, especially with added fruit.

While we rarely associate wheat with British brewing, it was once a more popular and valued ingredient. William Ellis in his 1774 The London and Country Brewer, states: “…the Ale or strong Beer made with Wheat-Malt is thought by many that have proved it to be the very best of all Liquors.”

Wheat, of course, is fabulous for baking bread, and there has often been competition for its use in brewing, since wheat requires really good land and there are no real substitutes available for the light and springy qualities that wheat brings to bread. Exacerbated by inconsistent wheat harvests in Bavaria, the conflict had apparently reached crisis level by the mid-15th century. After many interim measures, in 1602 the ever-crafty Wittelsbach royal dynasty took control of an exclusive—and profitable—monopoly over the brewing of wheat beer, which lasted for the next couple of centuries. 

About Wheat

The evolution and history of wheat is quite a complicated, with many hybridization events among ancestral grains—including spelt and emmer. Today, there are two main species of modern wheat: Triticum aestivum, “bread” wheat (very broadly), and T. turgidum, or durum wheat, largely used for pasta and dishes like bulghur. 

While Ellis mentions durum-type wheat called Dugdale that made excellent brewing malt, for the most part it is “bread” wheat, T. aestivum, that is commonly malted. There are four main kinds depending on whether they’re red or white, and spring or winter. Red wheats have a reputation for being slightly more flavorful, but this aspect is unimportant in brewing, although Bavarian wheat malt is traditionally red wheat. 

For the brewer, the most important characteristic is protein content: the lower the better, whether malted or not. Winter wheat, planted in the fall, has longer to absorb nutrients from the soils and is generally “harder” or higher in protein than spring varieties. The gluten protein forming the stretchy network of bread can be a gluey mess when mashing as it traps a lot of water and makes runoff challenging. If you’re buying unmalted wheat at a homebrew store, it should be no problem, but if you’re buying from a grocery, get the softest, lowest-protein wheat available. 

Why Wheat?

Why make beer from wheat instead of solely from barley malt? Historically it may have been just a matter of availability or economics. In Belgium, for most of the 19th century Dutch overlords imposed a policy that taxed the capacity of the mash tun, but allowed a second tun for unmalted grains, taxed at half the rate. Belgian brewers figured out how to deal with this, but brewing consultant GM Johnson in 1916 declared this tax law to be “one of the most ridiculous and vexatious Excise laws that ever disgraced the annals of fiscal interference and fiscal stupidity.”

But really, there are better reasons. Wheat brings a softer, less malty nose to beer compared to barley. But this comes with more body and mouthfeel, for an experience unlike any barley malt beer. Grains such as oats, rye and spelt can do the same, as can unmalted flaked barley. Some have subtle flavors as well. Wheat is fairly neutral, sometimes with a whiff of bread. Oats have a slight nuttiness, especially if they are lightly toasted before brewing. Rye confers a pleasant mix of woody spice and a hint of indefinable fruit, maybe somewhere between cranberry and plum. 

Wheat generally has more protein—especially glucans—than barley, which increases body. Much of the creaminess comes from certain gluey-textured carbohydrates: pentosans and β- glucans. Like starch, these are polymers of sugars: pentose in the case of pentosans and glucose in the case of β- glucans, linked with chemical bonds (β-(1→4) and β-(1→3) glycosidic bonds) that resist saccharification in the mash. Barley itself has plenty of both of these weird carbs, but levels are dramatically reduced during malting since brewers demand low levels to avoid slow runoffs and reduced mash efficiency. So if you want the effects of these specialty grains, there’s a price to pay. Most brewers use rice hulls to provide extra filtration, which definitely helps.

There are huge differences between malted and unmalted grains. Malting breaks down the walls of the starch granules, making them much more accessible to the mash liquor and its enzymes. Unmalted grains, traditionally preferred for certain styles such as witbier, require a gelatinization process to render their starch soluble in the mash. There are two strategies for this.

One is a type of mashing that was popularized in the mid-19th century, known as the American adjunct mash. Similar to the witbier and lambic mashes Belgians have long used with raw wheat, American brewers adopted the process for rice and maize/corn. Using a decoction-like cooking alongside a conventional mash, the adjunct it is mixed back into the malt mash after a brief boiling, raising the mash to saccharification temperature and converting its starches into fermentable sugars. 

In a brewery designed for this it’s not burdensome, but it may require a little extra time. A second strategy is preferred for smaller breweries. This process uses pre-gelatinized unmalted cereals in the form of flakes, grits or torrefied (puffed, like popcorn) grains. Gelatinization is a non-reversible heating process. When grains reach a critical temperature, the granule walls burst and allow the starch to absorb water, changing its crystalline structure into an amorphous, glassy state. Rapid cooling and dehydration stabilizes this, allowing flakes or other pre-gelatinized grains to be directly added to a conventional mash with no need for a special mash cooking procedure. 

 So, Let’s Talk Styles 

Bavarian Hefeweizen 

These rely on malted, rather than unmalted wheat, usually at 50% or as high as 70% of the grain bill. Their unique aroma comes not from wheat, but from specialized ale yeast that produces a lot of clove/spicy aroma and banana esters. High carbonation adds to the fluffiness. Generally unfiltered, they come in pale, amber and dunkel versions as well as stronger bocks. A similar roggenbier features rye instead of wheat. 

Berliner Weisse 

The “Champagne of the North,” this is a low-gravity lactic-fermented ale whose tartness was typically cut by serving with raspberry or woodruff herbal syrups or liqueurs like kümmel added to the glass. Wheat percentage is often about 30%, the rest being pilsner malt. These were once quite popular in America’s Germanic heartland more than a century ago.

Belgian Witbier 

Traditionally made from 50% high-protein malted barley, 45% unmalted soft wheat and 5% raw oats using a long, complex mashing procedure—before fermentation it’s actually pretty similar to lambic wort. In addition to massive creaminess, bitter/sour/Seville orange peel and coriander push the yeast aromas into interesting territory, but getting the flavor and balance just right can be tricky.


With lactic fermentation of a mix of air-dried barley malt plus some wheat malt and oats, seasoned with coriander, this is kind of intermediate between Berliner weisse and witbier. Slightly salty local water was reported to originally be responsible for the lightly saline taste, but this was later a conscious addition. 

American Wheat Ales 

We’ve moved on, but these were once a staple of the emerging craft scene, especially in the Pacific Northwest, possibly because they made pretty good bases for fruit variants. They’re basically unfiltered blonde ales with enough wheat to make them cloudy, with a modest but noticeable amount of American hop character. 

Hazy IPAs 

In terms of their grist, these beers have little to do with classic IPA grain bills and should be thought of as highly dry-hopped wheat ales. Second to hop aroma, their creaminess is a prized component, and their haze—although more a result of early and frequent dry-hopping—is a visible marker of authenticity. 

Wheat and other grains have played prominent roles for beer’s entire history, and for quaffer and brewer alike, they can take beer to places barley simply can’t go. These treasured tools help create the astonishing breadth of personality that is a deliciously fascinating feature of the wide, wide world of beer.