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Homebrewing: American Wheat Ale
Summer is just around the corner and it's the perfect time to brew light, refreshing beers. American Wheat ale fits this bill perfectly with its hop crispness, smooth texture and moderate alcohol content. The hazy yellow color and thick white head makes American Wheat beers appear similar to their European counterparts, but the banana and clove characteristics are replaced with citrusy hop aromas and flavors. If you're looking for a homebrew that pairs with sunshine, backyard picnics and dinner on the porch, this style is the best place to start.
Notes on the Malt
While wheat is obviously a main ingredient in an American Wheat recipe, it should always be used with an approximately equal portion of standard two-row malt. The sugar that is extracted from wheat in the mash tends to be very sticky. In addition, wheat has no husk to create a filter, so using too much wheat can cause the mash to become stuck. Mixing in two-row malt with the wheat allows the sugar to flow more freely and the husks in the two-row helps with filtering. Even wheat malt extract is actually made with about half wheat and half barley.
Since wheat is high in protein, the residual protein often makes the finished beer very hazy. The protein also improves head retention and smooths the mouthfeel, providing a distinct wheat texture.
Adding small amounts of a light crystal or specialty grain helps to add some malt complexity to the beer. I like the subtle sweetness that comes from adding 5-7% Munich Malt. You could also use crystal 20L or even CaraWheat, which is wheat malt that is kilned similarly to crystal. One type of specialty malt adds enough malt character for this lighter beer recipe. The wheat is the focus of the style.
Notes on Hops
The hop character can range from intense to subtle. Some commercial versions, such as Bell's Oberon, have just enough hops to balance the malt, while others, like Three Floyd's Gumballhead, are hoppy enough to compete with many IPAs.
The common thread is citrus-like American hop varieties such as Cascade, Centennial or Amarillo. Varieties that are newer to homebrewers such as Citra or Sorachi Ace are also excellent additions. Higher alpha acid hops should be used at the beginning of the boil to provide a bittering balance to the wheat malt, while later additions can be left to the homebrewer's discretion.
Notes on Yeast
A clean American yeast strain will allow the wheat and hop characters to come through the best. Avoid the Hefeweizen strains which could give off clove, banana and other phenolic flavors. The classic German Hefeweizen flavors just don't blend well the American hop varieties.
Notes on Method
With the lower alcohol content and high wheat percentage, this style is a perfect candidate for the all-grain brew-in-a-bag technique. This recipe is a good option for homebrewers with some extract experience that want to begin moving up to all-grain recipes without spending a lot of money on equipment.
It has a medium level of bitterness, and the Sorachi Ace hops at the end of the boil give a delicious leamon-citrus aroma and flavor.