American wheat and rye beers are a relatively new addition in American brewing. The use of wheat and rye was known, but the grains were little used in America during the 19th century. In Germany, the use of wheat was becoming rarer and rarer as the new lagers became all the rage. Some styles disappeared altogether. Thus, the German wheat and rye beers never became popular in America. One exception was the Berliner Weisse. German immigrants coming to America brought their taste for the style with them. The American versions used corn for the adjunct and lactic culture bacteria for the sourness. The beer as an American style probably didn’t make it past prohibition, and wasn’t seen until the 1980’s. After World War II, German brewers begain brewing with wheat and rye again, and these beers made it to the US in the form of imports, especially during the 1970’s and 1980’s. American craft brewers began brewing the style soon after.
The American version of the wheat beer avoids the typical spicy and phenolic character of German Hefeweizens by using a neutral American or English yeast. American Rye beers are made in the same fashion as American Wheat beers, with about 50% of the grist coming from rye. No caraway seed should be added to the beer as some American brewers do. The rye character should come solely from the rye malt. Both styles may be served with the yeast roused into suspension as in a German Hefeweizen.
- Aroma: American wheat and rye beers should exhibit a low to moderate grainy wheat or rye character, some malty sweetness is acceptable, and esters can be moderate to none (although these esters should reflect American yeast strains and not the clove and banana aromas common to German hefeweizens). Hop aroma may be low to moderate, and can have and can be from either American or noble hop strains. A slight crisp sharpness is optional. No diacetyl should be evident.
- Appearance: These beers are usually pale yellow to gold. Clarity may range from brilliant (some are filtered) to hazy, with yeast swirled into suspension as in the German hefeweizen style of beer. There should be a big, long-lasting white head.
- Flavor: American wheat and rye beers have a light to moderately strong grainy wheat or rye flavor, which can linger into the finish. Versions made with rye malt are richer and spicier than wheat. The beers may have a moderate malty sweetness or finish quite dry. American wheat and rye beers should have a low to moderate hop bitterness, which sometimes lasts into the finish and low to moderate hop flavor (citrusy American or spicy/floral noble). Esters can be moderate to none, but should not take on a German Weizen character (banana) and no clove phenols should be noticed, although a light spiciness from wheat or rye is acceptable. They may exhibit a slightly crisp or sharp finish. No diacetyl should be evident in the flavor.
- Mouthfeel: These beers should be medium-light to medium in body and medium-high to high in carbonation. With a big head retention, you may have trouble dispensing these highly carbonated beers from a keg. The lower range of carbonation is also acceptable in these cases. They may show a light alcohol warmth in stronger examples.
- Overall Impression: These are refreshing wheat or rye beers that can display more hop character and less yeast character than their German cousins.
- Comments: Different variations exist, from an easy-drinking fairly sweet beer to a dry, aggressively hopped beer with a strong wheat or rye flavor. Dark versions approximating dunkelweizens (with darker, richer malt flavors in addition to the color) should be entered in the Specialty Beer category. THE BREWER SHOULD SPECIFY IF RYE IS USED; IF NO DOMINANT GRAIN IS SPECIFIED, WHEAT WILL BE ASSUMED.
- Ingredients: Clean American ale yeast, but also can be made as a lager. Large proportion of wheat malt (often 50% or more, but this isn’t a legal requirement as in Germany). American or noble hops. American Rye Beers can follow the same general guidelines, substituting rye for some or all of the wheat. Other base styles (e.g., IPA, stout) with a noticeable rye character should be entered in the Specialty Beer category (23).
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.040 – 1.055 FG: 1.008 – 1.013 IBUs: 15 – 30 SRM: 3 – 6 ABV: 4 – 5.5%.
- Commercial Examples: Bell’s Oberon, Harpoon UFO Hefeweizen, Three Floyds Gumballhead, Pyramid Hefe-Weizen, Widmer Hefeweizen, Sierra Nevada Unfiltered Wheat Beer, Anchor Summer Beer, Redhook Sunrye, Real Ale Full Moon Pale Rye
References: Information for this page about American wheat and rye beers was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines and American Wheat Beers by Roger Bergen appearing in Brewing in Styles column of Brewing Techiques magazine.