In November 2018, Goose Island Brewery threw a curveball: In the anticipated release of its annual Bourbon County Brand series, it replaced one variant with Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine. It was the first time the series included something other than a stout since 2013.
The risk paid off. Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine was a critically acclaimed favorite of the year’s lineup (including in VinePair, which called it the “sleeper hit of 2018.”) It is now the top-ranked beer in the “Wheat Wine” category of beer check-in app Untappd.
Whether flash-in-the-pan experiment or year-round release, wheat wine is a beer style generally perceived as somewhere between a barleywine and a pastry stout. It’s experimental, labor-intensive, old-school, and rare. It’s often overlooked, especially in comparison with other extreme beers, like barrel-aged stouts and milkshake IPAs.
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Lately, however, breweries such as The Bruery, Perennial Artisan Ales, and Other Half Brewing have been making wheat wines. Some breweries, like The Bruery and Perennial, treat it as a special-occasion staple, releasing vintages on or close to an annual schedule. Others, like Night Shift Brewing and Three Floyds Brewing, make one or two successful batches and move on. A devoted few jump in with both feet. Wiley Roots Brewing currently has three wheat wines available in its taproom, and recently announced plans to expand that program in January.
Though they lack the hype of trendier boozy beer releases, wheat wines have inspired decades of devotion among some of the country’s best craft brewers.
“There are so many wonderful styles of beer that are rare and don’t have much of a following,” Rob Burns, co-founder and president of Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Mass., says. “Wheat wine is certainly one of them.”
Wheat wine is a strong ale that includes a portion of wheat in its grain bill. Similar to barleywine, wheat wine is sweet, malty, and high in alcohol (between 8 and 12 percent ABV). The amount of wheat can vary, but typically comprises about half of the grain bill, or roughly 40 to 60 percent. The rest is barley malt.
Compared to barleywines, wheat wines tend to be lighter in color and body, less aggressively hopped, and thus less bitter. Brewers tend to use lighter malts in wheat wines than in barleywines, so “wheat wines are a bit softer and a bit more fruity,” Burns says.
Wheat’s higher protein content means its texture is thicker than a typical brew. Brewers often use rice hulls in the mash “to avoid stuck mashes,” Kyle Carbaugh, co-founder of Wiley Roots Brewing in Greeley, Colo., says. This technique is used in many non-barley mashes and does not affect the flavor or color of the finished beer.
While high wheat composition makes for a labor-intensive brew, it also “gives the beer a softer mouthfeel with a moderate body that can hold up really well to adjuncts and barrel-aging,” Carbaugh says. For this reason, Carbaugh believes the style is on the rise.
“Breweries are starting to brew the style more often in response to some of the pastry stout craze,” Carbaugh says. “This craze has allowed breweries to appease consumers looking for a more malt-forward beer with low bitterness.” Carbaugh believes wheat wine also provides “a great canvas for creative expression.”
Wheat wines seemed to first start appearing in the 1980s, although the style was, and still is, relatively rare. Its creation is credited to Phil Moeller, a homebrewer who eventually brought his recipe to Sacramento, Calif.’s Rubicon Brewing, where he was the first brewmaster in 1987. Moeller served his Winter Wheat Wine to celebrate the brewery’s first anniversary in 1988, and the caramel-flavored, 10-percent-ABV ale was sold by the pitcher throughout the ‘90s.
What began as a one-off (and, as the story goes, was originally a homebrewing accident) “blossomed into a year-round staple,” Imbibe reported in 2012.
Wheat wine continued its molasses-like spread through the early 2000s. Two Brothers Brewing Co. of Warrenville, Ill., debuted Bare Tree, a wheat wine released as an annual vintage, in February 2000. Smuttynose Brewing of Hampton, N.H., introduced Wheat Wine Ale, the first federally approved wheat wine, in 2005. (The label was initially rejected for being “confusing” and “misleading” to consumers and retailers, according to the company.) That beer went on to earn three gold medals: two at the Great American Beer Festival in 2005 and 2011, and one at the 2010 Mondial de la Bière in France.
As more breweries joined in, wheat wines began to take on additional, more flavorful forms. The Bruery’s White Oak, released in 2009, was bourbon barrel-aged and had notes of caramel and coconut. Kansas City, Mo.’s Boulevard Brewing’s Harvest Dance Wheat Wine, also launched in 2009, incorporated Hallertau and Citra hops, and was aged in French and American oak barrels.
In 2010, Jackie O’s Brewery of Athens, Ohio released Wood Ya Honey, a wheat wine brewed with local wildflower honey and aged in bourbon barrels. Subsequent releases included additions such as mixed nuts. Perennial Artisan Ales of St. Louis launched its hop-forward Heart of Gold in 2011, touting flavors of molasses, brown sugar, and honey-covered biscuits.
As tends to happen in the innovative, boundary-pushing American brewing circuit, some interpretations went to unrepeatable extremes. Such was allegedly the case with Sierra Nevada’s Wolfinanny wheat wine aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels, which, unsurprisingly, was discontinued after its 2015 release.
Night Shift’s Denali was aged in bourbon barrels and had “warm flavors of walnut, caramel, black tea, and raisin.” It came and went in 2016. “It was a small-batch beer,” a spokesperson told VinePair. “We don’t have plans at the moment to remake that beer, or another wheat wine.”
Meanwhile, Wiley Roots is going all-in with its extremely flavorful wheat wines. Look for Maple & Pecan Breakfast Strudel, Nutella Breakfast Strudel, and Temporary Residents: Sun City, a wheat wine aged in Laws Whiskey House bourbon barrels and brewed in collaboration with Wren House Brewing of Phoenix, Az.
Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine, meanwhile, went the approachable, albeit well-funded route. Its version used 30 percent malted wheat, was aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels for an average of 10 to 14 months, and has butterscotch and toffee aromas with a warm, bourbon finish.
Overall, wheat wine isn’t a style that “screams drinkability,” Burns says. Its amber, alcoholic exterior and sweet, viscous interior can certainly scare away more traditional drinkers. “But when well-executed, it’s a fantastic style,” he says.
Craft beer drinkers are obsessed with exploring what’s new and love creative expression. We seek the extremes, be it the most chocolatey, barrel-aged imperial stout, the haziest, juiciest IPA, or even the crispest lager. Wheat wine’s decades-long history, coveted rarity, and endless opportunity for experimentation make it well poised to make a sweet, malty splash in small taprooms and national releases. Whether it sticks depends on whether brewers create wheat wines we can actually get — and drink.