Pale wheat ale is a uniquely American invention. It has far more in common with pale ale and IPA than it does the German hefeweizen and the Belgian wit, two other wheat-heavy styles. Whereas the hefeweizen relies on specific yeast strains that produce a distinctive banana and clove character and the wit is spiced with orange peel and coriander, the American pale wheat ale lets the hops do the talking. It’s really no surprise. If style guidelines call for a pound of hops, we’re using three. We like our beers brash and bold and that carries over to the soft and smooth wheat.
While it got its start out in Oregon with Widmer Brothers, the Midwest is particularly adept at crafting the style. It’s easy-drinking and refreshing, two vital characteristics for enduring the Midwest summer. Pale wheat ales tend to be great entry-level beers for those new to craft beer. The bitterness is accessible, not overpowering, and tends to fall in the citrus category.
A couple weeks ago I rounded up three of the most popular Midwestern American pale wheat ales for a blind taste test. I didn’t want marketing and my prior biases to influence my decision. The competitors were Three Floyds Gumballhead, Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat and Bell’s Oberon. While there was a distinct hierarchy for me, I also discovered that each beer suits a specific purpose and in a particular situation or for a particular set of taste buds, the order can vary.
Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat
Out of the three beers, the unfiltered wheat had the most in common with non-American wheat styles. A hint of yeast spiciness was present. The hops were subdued but in the citrus range. They leaned heavily towards lemon. It was the easiest drinking but also lacked the taste of the other two. While it was my least favorite, it is the best one to use as an introduction to the style before easing into the hoppier varieties.
I love Oberon. Oberon means warmer weather. It was one of the first craft beers I drank regularly. While I spend most of my time exploring new beers I haven’t tried before and rarely drink the same thing twice, I always pick up at least one six pack of Oberon each year. Whereas the Boulevard skewed towards lemon, the hops in the Oberon give off a distinctively orange character. They’re also much more prevalent but are well-balanced by the malt. In the end it was my second favorite due having more flavor than the Boulevard. With it now being canned, it also scores bonus points since it can go places the other two can’t, namely, the beach.
Three Floyds Gumballhead
Gumballhead holds almost the same cult status as Oberon. A big part of its mystique is that it’s the most difficult of the three to find. Most local bottle shops place limits on the number of six packs that can be bought at a time because it goes that quickly. It’s by far the hoppiest of the three with loads of citrus hops dominating the aroma. There’s a bit of sweet malt in there for good measure but this is the archetype of American brashness. The hops are actually a bit more subdued on the taste and it’s more balanced than the aroma would have you believe. There’s a reason this stuff disappears quicker than Houdini. For those that want a hop fix that’s still easy-drinking, this is your beer.
Taste buds are subjective. Just because those are my preferences doesn’t mean they are the right ones. Go out and grab these three and give them your own blind taste test and then let me know which is your favorite. If you’re having trouble finding one of these or just want to further explore the style, consider picking up one of the Midwestern replacements below. And if I missed one, be sure to let me know any others I should be trying.
Backups: Boulevard 80 Acre Hoppy Wheat, Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat, Tallgrass Halcyon Unfiltered Wheat, Arcadia Whitsun, Half Acre Akari Shogun