The resulting brew is called wheat beer. Its most popular styles are known as hefeweizen, weissbier and witbier, names that refer to its yeasty nature and its pale, almost-white hue.
The main attraction of wheat beer, whatever its style, is that it is a quencher. During the hot, nasty days of summer when other beers seem as heavy as July humidity, the effervescent tang of wheat beers can be as welcome as a cool front. Wheat beer is also fun to pour. A drawback is that some flavors and aromas - we are talking banana, cloves, bubble gum and lemon - are not part of your average brewski.
Haze is a factor in wheat beers. When I poured various hefeweizens, or unfiltered German wheat beers, in my glass the brews looked as murky as a Baltimore sunset on a code-red air-quality day. In wheat beers, unlike air quality, haze is considered a good thing. It is proof that the top-fermenting ale yeast is at work, consuming sugars and carbonating the beer.
Moreover the yeast, loaded with B-complex vitamins, is supposed to be good for you. German doctors have long recommended drinking wheat beer as a way to clear up skin problems, wrote Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery in New York, in The Brewmaster's Table. Downing a wheat beer is more fun, Oliver noted, than taking a yeast pill.
The active yeast also means there is a recommended way of pouring wheat beer into a glass. The trick, the experts say, is to pour until the glass is about half full, then swirl the remaining beer around in the bottom of the bottle. This "rouses" the yeast in the bottle and, when it is subsequently poured into the glass, produces a fluffy head that will try to climb out of the glass.
In my research I roused much yeast and watched with amazement the hazy show put on by unfiltered wheat beers. The Germans - Paulaner Hefeweizen, the Erdinger Hefeweizen, Georg Schneider's Weisse - along with Stoudt's Weizen Unfiltered Wheat from Adamstown, Pa., all put on spectacular, foamy performances. Their aromas and flavors - the aforementioned banana, bubble gum and cloves - while true to style, were not to my taste. I preferred the citrus flavors and lighter body of the Victory Whirlwind Witbier from Pennsylvania, the Shiner Hefeweizen from Texas, and the Mount Desert Island Ginger Wheat Ale from Maine.
I also liked two unusual American wheat beers: James Madison Dark Wheat Ale from Samuel Adams in Boston and the Gumballhead American Wheat beer from Three Floyds brewery in Munster, Ind.
My pick of the Wheat beers
Of the wheat beers I tasted, here are my five favorites:
Shiner Hefeweizen, Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner, Texas. $6 a six-pack. An unfiltered, bottle-conditioned wheat ale that is crisp and light, with citrus buzz. Subtle notes of honey, orange and lemon peels make it refreshing. The label offers step-by-step instructions on how to correctly pour this beer, rousing its yeast.
Victory Whirlwind Witbier, Victory Brewing, Dowingtown, Pa. $8 a six-pack. A light-colored, almost lemon-yellow ale made with Belgian yeast that delivers clean and clipped flavor. Great with grilled fish or a crisp salad.
Mount Desert Island Ginger Wheat Ale, Atlantic Brewery, Bar Harbor, Maine. $8 a six-pack. Brewed with fresh ginger, this brown beauty has a little more body than most wheats and a spicy finish.
James Madison Dark Wheat Ale, the Boston Beer Co., one of four bottles in the Samuel Adams Brewer Patriot Collection. $9 a four-pack. A wheat ale brewed in smoked style that President James Madison favored. The grain is smoked with red and white oak found near Madison's Orange County, Va., home. Dark brown ale with cocoa and coffee flavors, mixed with faint, sweet smoke. Not your usual wheat beer.
Gumballhead American Wheat Beer, Three Floyds Brewery, Munster, Ind. $6 for a 22-ounce bottle. Named after a comic book character, this wheat beer - like many products from this inventive brewery - does not fit the mold. Sniff the Amarillo hops and enjoy the lemon zing in the finish. It may really be American ale dressed in wheat beer clothes, but it is bracing.[ROB KASPER]