Editor's Note: Food is even better with beer, and beer's even better with food. But what will taste particularly delicious with each beer style? We asked Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew to help us sort it all out.
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The official start of summer is still a month away, but in many places summery weather has already arrived. Even up here in the frozen north where I live, shorts weather is here. It's time to break out the wheat beers.
Wheat beers tend to be a love-'em-or-leave-'em proposition. People either like them or they don't. For some it's the sharp taste of the wheat that turns them either on or off. For others it's the banana and clove flavors of the yeast used in German varieties. But it's these very peculiar properties of wheat beers that make them fantastically food friendly and perfect for lighter summer fare.
Summery wheat beers come in three main types: American, Belgian witbier, and the cloudy German varieties hefeweizen and dunkelweizen. They're each a little different, and each one has its own particular strengths when pairing with food.
American Wheat Beer
American wheat beers are perhaps the blandest of the bunch and also the least defined stylistically. They can be cloudy or brilliantly clear. Sometimes they are loaded with fruit flavors and sometimes there are none. On the beer flavor scale, many fall somewhere in the vicinity of American blond ale or cream ale with a bit of bready wheat sweetness and citrusy American hops.
American wheat beers are delicious to drink with fresh summer salads. They take well to the flavors of leafy greens, cucumbers, and bean sprouts. They can handle vinaigrette or creamy dressings. The addition of some boiled egg or sliced turkey and ham won't detract a bit from the pairing. Goose Island's 312 Urban Wheat is a great choice with a hearty chef's salad, but go light on the stronger tasting cheeses. Stick with something more delicate like chevre or fresh mozzarella. If you want a beer with a bit more bite, pick up a bottle of Three Floyds Gumballhead. This hopped-up American wheat will chew through heavier cheddar.
Lighter fish are also a good match for American wheat beers. They are evenly matched in flavor and weight, and a squeeze of lemon will really set these beers off. Try a poached sole or halibut filet with Anchor Summer Ale. For a real treat add a citrus salsa and pair to Bell's Oberon. The salsa will tie into the orange flavors in the beer.
Belgian witbiers are the next step up the intensity scale for wheat beer flavor. Still super light, banana flavors from the Belgian yeast and the subtle use of coriander and bitter orange peel give these beers depth and complexity. They are refreshingly fruity with background hints of flowers and spice.
Witbiers are great with fruit salad. It couldn't be simpler. Cut up oranges, bananas, and melons, or whatever fruit you want, and serve it with a cold glass of Ommegang Witte. This beer has more pronounced orange flavor that will complement the salad beautifully.
Deeper flavors allow witbiers to stand up to slightly heartier foods. Wittekerke or Hoegaarden are classic with steamed mussels. You can even steam them in the beer. These beers work with other shellfish as well, like shrimp, clams, or lobster, especially if you add a squirt of lemon to the dish. The fizz in these beers will counteract the richness of the dish, whisking butter off your tongue.
You may not think of beer as a brunch drink, but eggs and wheat beers have a natural affinity. Try a bacon, sausage, or salmon omelet with Unibroue Blanche De Chambly. This beer has a slightly fuller body that can stand up to heavier foods.
German Wheat Beers
German wheat beers are the ultimate expression of yeast in beer. The yeast-derived banana and clove flavors are what define them. Suspended yeast gives them their characteristic cloudiness. Yeast is so important to the flavor and mouthfeel of these beers that it's recommended to gently turn the bottles before pouring to rouse the sediment off the bottom. The classic hefeweizen has lemony highlights sitting on a bready base. The less common dunkelweizen, or dark wheat, has deeper caramel flavors with subtle hints of chocolate. Both are light and refreshing, but with a mouth-filling fullness that comes from wheat proteins and yeast.
Hefeweizen is a fantastically versatile food beer. It's light enough that it won't overpower salads, but that full mouthfeel make it able to stand up to heftier fare. The yeasty fruit and spice complement a wide range of food flavors. One place they really shine is with Mexican dishes. They work well with everything from flour tortillas to black beans, simple chicken to spicy barbacoa. And high carbonation lets them cut straight through cheese and guacamole. Try Franziskaner or Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier with tacos, burritos, or flautas. The darker flavors of dunkelweizen are perfect with the darker flavors of mole-smothered dishes. Try Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel with enchiladas.
German wheat beers are a Bavarian specialty, so they are a go-to pairing for cured meats, sausages, and hams. The classic combination is hefeweizen and weisswurst. This veal and bacon sausage is often seasoned with mace, lemon, and parsley. A perfect pairing would be Brooklyner Weisse from Brooklyn Brewing. For Wiener schnitzel with a dash of lemon, reach for Sierra Nevada Keller Weiss or Paulaner Hefe-Weizen. Switch to dunkelweizen for heavier dishes like Sauerbraten. Zigeuner schnitzel, breaded veal in a spicy tomato sauce with peppers, mushrooms, and paprika, is perfect with Ayinger Ur-Weisse.
A really special treat with dunkelweizen is a chunk of bacony smoked Gouda cheese. The combination really can't be beat.
Wheat beers are so versatile that the options for food pairings are almost endless. So tell me, what do you like to eat with wheat beers?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint