Use Of Wheat In Modern Craft Lagers

Wheat_harvestThe use of wheat in a beer not traditionally associated with the grain seems to be on the increase, in ales but particularly blonde lagers including those styled pilsners. Wheat can be added in a variety of forms, but in a lager context, often it is treated in some way, flaked or torrified, to ensure rapid access to its starches by the diastase in the barley malt.

My recollection of the history is, this practice became notable in England for ales and later was extended to lagers. I am speaking of a craft brewing context, so not situations where adjunct is 30-40% of the mash bill, but where relatively small amounts are used, 5-10%, say. I remember first seeing wheat listed as an ingredient on some English craft ales, but now many lagers feature the ingredient as well.

I won’t discuss it here in the context of “adjunct”, a loaded term which can obfuscate more than enlighten. I am concerned simply with flavour in other words, not “philosophy”.

On numerous Ontario lagers today wheat is listed as an ingredient, or on the “tents” at a brewpub for draft lager. The other day I bought one, not checking the label, and found the taste oddly dry and somehow “wrong”. When I checked the label, it listed wheat. I feel I can taste it, it is a dry grainy/starchy note, and I’ve never enjoyed the effect it gives to lagers, or ales for that matter.

I’ve asked brewers about it over the years and the explanations seem to come down to better head formation, contribution to yeast health or stability, and promotion of clarity. Yet to my mind use of wheat, even in small amounts, alters the true flavour of blonde lager and the same for ale. To be sure minute percentages may avoid this effect on a practical basis, but where the taste is detectable as it often is IMO, I avoid beers of this type.

In the classic era when dark and blond lagers became a byword for quality, say 1842-1914, the avatars were all-malt. Carlsberg’s first lager was all-malt, as Tuborg’s, so was Heineken’s (it is again today), Pilsner Urquell’s (still is), and all the German lagers.

Sam Adams Boston Lager, which helped kickstart the modern craft brewing movement, was and is all-barley malt. So is Ontario’s Upper Canada Lager, still an excellent beer when you can find it. Creemore Lager too. Side Launch Mountain Lager too, which presents the profile of blonde lager at its highest quality. So are well-known American flagship lagers such as Victory Prima Pils, or Anchor Steam Beer which is technically a lager.

These beers never had problems with head formation, or clarity. Some brewers today don’t mind a light veil to the beer anyway, but since so many lagers which are all-malt pour clear the clarity issue seems a red herring.

In my view, all-malt lagers have a characteristic richness and clean taste, which made the category famous to begin with. It isn’t a question of dry vs. sweet as attenuation limit can vary with each brand and the brewer’s preference. Heineken is fairly dry, for example, as are a number of German lagers, but I’d wager if you add 5%-10% flaked wheat to them they wouldn’t taste the same.

In a word, and expressing one sub-set of consumer preferences, I’d say wheat is not necessary for lagers or Anglo-American ales and there is the danger of altering their essential characteristics. In wheat beers and other styles which traditionally use the grain, the Belgian wit, say, or saison, by all means go for it. They are by definition a different kind of beer.

The success of craft brewing was based on all-barley malt, the wheat styles mentioned apart (always a small part of it). The more this is chipped away at, the fewer beers will be available which were the raison d’être of craft brewing and largely explain its success.

Note re image, it is from Wikipedia, here, and in the public domain. Believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.