Lagers are a pretty common term in the world today, with even non-drinkers knowing all about them. On the other hand, wheat beers aren’t that popular, and many beer fans don’t know what they are exactly. Even among the ones that drink wheat beer, there is still a lot of confusion about how they differ from common lagers. Let’s quickly answer that.
Lagers are beers that are brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures. They are one of the two broad classes of beers alongside ales. Aside from yeast, all beers use malt, hops, and water as ingredients. Wheat beers are lagers or ales that use at least 50% of wheat as malt, as opposed to the conventional use of barley malt entirely or greater than 80%.
There are quite a few percentage numbers, even from the quick answer, suggesting the comparison between wheat beers and lagers may be complicated, but that’s not the case. The lagers vs. wheat beers topic is a lot simpler than you would imagine, and we will consider both beer styles under relevant headings, like origin, properties, brewing process, and ingredients, in this article. Read on, then!
Wheat beer has a rich history and is as old as beer itself. While we don’t have hard evidence of when beers were first brewed, reports suggest it was about 14000 years ago. When beer was first brewed, barley was the only type of grain used. However, some brave brewers gave wheat a chance, and studies tell us that wheat was first used as a brewing ingredient about 10000 years ago.
The use of wheat while brewing beer was, unfortunately, not as revolutionary as expected in the beer industry. Soon after wheat was used as an ingredient, it was relegated to a minor malt grain, with very few brewers using the grain. Further, those that did use wheat only supplemented it with barley.
Towards the start of the 20th century, the use of wheat as an ingredient in brewing beers had severely reduced. Many breweries that brewed wheat beers had to close down as they could not match the competition and rave the different other lager styles were bringing into the beer industry. But the beer made an unlikely comeback when German brewer Georg Schneider put in a lot of effort to breathe life into the dying segment with a German brewery specializing in wheat beers. This worked. Moreover, around the 1960s, pale wheat beers became popular, and the wheat beer niche became popular globally.
Lagers came quite a while before wheat beers. The first lagers were reportedly brewed in the 1420s in Bavaria, Germany. The fermentation of lagers was in a way, accidental, as brewmasters did not plan for the hybrid strain that resulted from using top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and an Argentinian strain Saccharomyces eubayanus.
While wheat beers did not have the success brewers expected, it is fair to say lagers surpassed expectations. The brew was brilliant then and still is today, as proven by how many lager beers dominate beer sales charts.
One of the general differences between lagers and ales is the flavor of the beer. Lagers have been observed to have a lighter flavor profile than ales. Likewise, ales have a fruitier flavor profile than lagers.
When it comes to wheat beers, the flavor profile has properties of both styles. While the flavor is typically mild, there is a noticeable fruity flavor, particularly of banana and clove. However, this flavor is mostly observed when the wheat beer is an ale. For lager wheat beers, there may be a lot of differing characters.
Since the flavor of most wheat beers conforms to standard lager profiles, you should have no problem with wheat beers if you like regular and traditional lager beers.
A beer’s mouthfeel is the sensation it produces in the mouth when you drink it. Wheat beers have a medium-light to medium body, which is similar to many lager beers. However, some lager substyles can have a very light body.
Wheat beers usually have a coarser texture than lager beers, which is most likely a consequence of the suspended wheat particles in the beer. Wheat beers are mildly alcoholic beers and do not have an overly strong flavor profile, meaning they are mostly low-character beers. This is similar to most lagers too.
Also similar to some lager substyles is the high carbonation in wheat beers. As such, wheat beers may feel refreshing, although not to the level of most lagers with their crisp and clean finish.
A consequence of most wheat beers being ales is that they generally have a fruity aroma, which is characteristic of ales. Lagers typically have their flavor influenced by the malt and hops used. Nonetheless, for both wheat beers and lagers, the aroma is mild.
The brewing process of beer tells a lot about its style and properties. The brewing technique used determines if a beer is an ale or a lager.
If beer is brewed using bottom-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus at cold temperatures between 35˚ and 50˚F, it is a lager. That technique is called bottom fermentation. Conversely, if beers are brewed using top-fermenting yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae between 60˚ and 70˚F, it is an ale, with the technique known as top-fermentation.
When it comes to wheat beers, it could go either way. What does this mean? Wheat beers are simply beer brewed with no less than 50% wheat used as a grain. Therefore, both ales and lagers can be yeast, although more ale than lager. So, the brewing process employed will depend on the style of beer the brewer wants.
Beer is not a simple drink to produce, I must admit. The brewing process is not very easy for beginners, and commercial products often have a lot of ingredients. However, four ingredients must be present in every beer, regardless of style or brand. These are malt, yeast, hops, and water. Below, we examine each of these ingredients and try to see any differences between wheat beers and lagers.
Let’s start with malt, the deciding ingredient on whether a beer is a wheat beer. Brewers add malted grain when brewing beer to provide an energy source for yeast. What happens is yeast feeds on the sugar in the grain used and then produces alcohol as a byproduct. The grains first have to undergo a process known as malting, however, many beers today use unmalted grains.
The commonest grain used for brewing beers is barley, which has been the case since the very inception of beer. Coming in at a distant second is wheat grain. However, many brewmasters have cultivated the habit of combining small portions of wheat with barley. This small portion is in the range of 20% or less.
Since these beers have wheat in them, does that technically make them wheat beers? No, and here’s why. Wheat beer is a term reserved for beers with no less than 50% wheat as malt. This means at least half of the grain bill of the beer has to be wheat.
The next key ingredient is the yeast strain used, which is also a deciding ingredient. The yeast strain used determines whether a beer is a lager or an ale. If top-fermenting yeast is used, the beer is classified as an ale. However, if bottom-fermenting yeast is used, the beer is a lager.
As you can see, wheat beers and lagers are determined by two different factors. It is for this reason that wheat beers can very much be lagers.
Aside from malt and yeast, the other main ingredients when brewing beer are hops and water. The hops used act as a much-needed countermeasure against the sweetness imposed by the malt. The greater the hop bill, the more bitter beer is. Brewers are in the business of using noble hops for lagers. These hops are of German origin and include Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang. Popular wheat beer substyles also commonly use Cascade, Amarillo, Mt. Hood, and Liberty hop varieties.
Water makes up about 95% of beer. Beers typically use plain, distilled water, although some breweries use water from specific locations to obtain a specific flavor or aroma.
Wheat beers and lagers are quite similar in their alcohol content. The former has between 3.5 and 5.6% ABV, while the latter has between 4 and 6% ABV. Note that ABV means alcohol by volume, and it is a measure of the alcoholic content of beer.
Most wheat beers are cloudy, a distinction from the brilliant clarity lagers are well-renowned for. The cloudiness of the beer is greatly impacted by the brewing technique used. Ales are cloudier than lagers because they take lesser time to brew, and the beer does not have enough time to settle.
Other than the cloudiness, wheat beers look similar to many lager beers. Both beers are generally pale, light, and golden to medium yellow in color. However, it is noteworthy that there are different types of lagers, so it is not straightforward to assign a general color.
Popular Examples Of Each Beer Style
The following are popular examples of lagers and wheat beers:
- Blue Moon Summer Honey Wheat
- Shipyard Summer Ale
- Dogfish Head Brewery’s Namaste
- Blue Moon Belgian White
- Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen
- Pabst Blue Ribbon
- Lagunitas PILS
- Yuengling Lager
- Samuel Adams Boston Lager
- Dos Equis Amber Lager