Although they may share a similar color, a low level of bitterness, and quite often a similar alcohol content, wheat beer and lagers wouldn’t be more different in style if they tried!
Both beer styles originated in Germany and are now popular with beer drinkers all over the world. Both categories have their own styles, with popular styles of lager including pilsners or dark amber dunkers at the other end of the scale and wheat beers tend to have a style dependent on where they are brewed.
What are the key differences between wheat beer vs lager? Is a wheat beer better than a lager? And perhaps most importantly, what does a wheat beer taste like, is it similar to a lager?
What Is a Wheat Beer?
Wheat beer as a category of beer is an ale that was originally created in Bavaria. Note the use of the word “ale,” as this is one of the key differences with lagers, which can be classed as a beer but very rarely as an ale. Ales as we know use top-fermenting yeast strains while a lager traditionally uses bottom-fermenting yeasts.
As the name wheat beer suggests, style guidelines state that a wheat beer must contain a high percentage of wheat, both malted or unmalted, normally a minimum of 50% although it varies between 30 – 70 % wheat. Lagers more commonly use barley, corn, or rice and may also contain wheat but in much lower proportions.
Both lagers and wheat beers may use hops in the brewing process depending on the variety but both tend to lack too much bitterness making them easier to drink. Some of the hoppiest lagers may have a bite to them, especially pilsners, but a wheat beer will normally have more body and a smoother flavor characterized by a generous foamy head or krausen, as it’s known in German.
Just as there are many variations of lager, there are different styles of wheat beer. The two most common varieties are the German Weizenbier (or “Hefeweizen”, German for “yeast wheat”) and the Belgian Witbier (“white beer”).
Other ales which use higher proportions of wheat relative to malted barley include Lambic (made with wild yeasts), Berliner Weisse (a sour and cloudy beer), Gose (a salty, sour beer), and American Wheat Beer ( a US version of the German wheat beers).
Wheat beers are often referred to as white beers not just because of their pale color, but also because the word ‘wheat” has the same etymological roots as “white” in most Germanic languages (including English).
Wheat Beers At a Glance
|Type of Yeast||Top fermenting Yeast|
|ABV Range||3.5% – 5.6%|
|Bitterness||10 -35 IBU|
|Color||2 – 10 SRM|
|Varieties||Weizenbier (German) Dunkelweizen (German cross between a Dunkel and a Hefeweizen) Weißbier: (Bavaria & Austria) WitBier (Belgium) Bière Blanche (France) American Wheat Beer (USA)|
What is a Lager?
Lagers are perhaps the most drunk variety of beers around the world. It is a beer, not an ale, although sometimes you can find cask-stored lager-style ales such as the lager ales brewed in Scotland.
Traditionally, lagers are brewed and conditioned at low temperatures and can be pale, amber, or dark. The word “lager” comes from the German for “storage” where the beers were stored before drinking, traditionally in cooler underground caves where it was fermented.
As well as being stored for maturation in cold storage, most lagers use the bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus, which ferments at relatively cold temperatures.
Originating in Germany again (we beer drinkers have a lot to thank Germany for!), Lagerbier, until the 19th Century, referred to all types of bottom-fermented, cool-conditioned beers of normal strength. In Germany today, the word lager mainly describes the beers of South Germany including Helles (pale), Dunkel (dark), or Pilsner (a heavily hopped pale lager).
In the US and the United Kingdom, lager commonly refers to pale lagers, which are similar to the pilsner style or adjunct lagers where additives are used to boost the quantity of sugar and hence the ABV at a lower cost than an all-grain bill.
The exception to the rule of bottom-fermenting yeast is the German Alter and Kölsch styles known as obergäriges lagerbier (top-fermented lager beer), where the ale yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is used at warm temperatures but with a cold-storage finishing stage.
Crisp, refreshing, and pale, lagers can have hops added for a hoppier taste and aroma although the bitterness is normally low like a wheat beer.
Lagers At a Glance
|Type of Yeast||Bottom-fermenting lager yeasts|
|ABV Range||4% to 6%|
|Bitterness||18 -35 IBU|
|Color||2 – 8 SRM|
|Varieties||Pilsner (pale hoppy lager originally from the Czech Republic) Helles (A Pale malty lager from southern Germany around Munch) Märzen (An Amber lager brewed in Munich traditionally for the Ocktoberfest) Bock ( A lager from central Germany known for its higher alcohol content) Vienna lager (originating in Austria, can range from medium amber to brown) Dunkel (a dark brown lager originally German) Schwarzbier (a dark brown to black lager) Doppelbock ( a stronger dark Bavarian beer) Pale Lager (the most common lagers in production in the world today)|
Does Wheat Beer Taste Like Lager?
Wheat beer is similar in taste to a lager in both lightness and drinkability, but they’re also very different. The different fermentation process in addition to the different grain bill gives a wheat beer much fruitier flavors and a creamier mouthfeel.
A German wheat beer must contain at least 50% wheat to be called a wheat beer, while in the US a typical American wheat beer will use approximately 30 – 50% wheat. The top-fermenting ale yeast used for wheat beers will produce a more generous foamy head compared to the dense head of a lager from bottom-fermenting yeasts.
While a lager may be crisp, refreshing, and often thinner in body, many compare a wheat beer to a stout-like meal in a glass, with some describing heavier wheat beers as a bit “chewy”.
The unfiltered wheat beer, which is Berliner Weisse, often contains a fruity flavor, with syrups like raspberry, peach, or grapefruit, and would be dangerous if the alcohol content wasn’t so low. While Belgian wheat beers use specialized yeasts, which give subtle spiced notes of coriander, orange peel, and sometimes clove.
What is Better Wheat Beer vs Lager? Final Thoughts
Which is better comes down pretty much to your personal preference – they’re two very different beer styles, each with their own sub-styles.
Many ale connoisseurs would argue a wheat beer is better, as it uses more traditional brewing methods and higher-quality ingredients and yeasts (usually). Especially when compared with many of the mass-produced or adjunct pale lagers of today which, although crisp and refreshing, can often be lacking in flavor.
However, get a good quality micro-brewed or craft Pilsner or Dunkel lager and the flavors will shine through in pretty much the same way a wheat beer offers a delectable abundance of flavor for your palate.
On a cool summer’s day, wheat beer or a good quality lager can be a refreshing way to quench your thirst while enjoying a wholesome beer with friends. Try one of each and see which you think is best!