Note: American Wheat and Rye beers have changed in the current (2015) BJCP Style Guidelines, American Wheat is style 1D American Wheat Beer. From the guidelines: Category 1 Standard American Beer, describes everyday American beers that have a wide public appeal. Containing both ales and lagers, the beers of this category are not typically complex, and have smooth, accessible flavors. The ales tend to have lager-like qualities, or are designed to appeal to mass-market lager drinkers as crossover beers. Mass-market beers with a more international appeal or origin are described in the International Lager category. American Rye beers should be entered in the Alternative Fermentables Beer Category 31 which contains specialty beers that have some additional ingredient (grain or sugar) that adds a distinctive character.
American wheat and rye beers are a relatively new addition in American brewing. The use of wheat and rye was known, but the grains were little used in America during the 19th century. In Germany, the use of wheat was becoming rarer and rarer as the new lagers became all the rage. Some styles disappeared altogether. Thus, the German wheat and rye beers never became popular in America.
One exception was the Berliner Weisse. German immigrants coming to America brought their taste for the style with them. The American versions used corn for the adjunct and lactic culture bacteria for the sourness. The beer as an American style probably didn't make it past prohibition, and wasn't seen until the 1980's. After World War II, German brewers began brewing with wheat and rye again, and these beers made it to the US in the form of imports, especially during the 1970's and 1980's. American craft brewers began brewing the style soon after.
The American version of the wheat beer avoids the typical spicy and phenolic character of German Hefeweizens by using a neutral American or English yeast. American Rye beers are made in the same fashion as American Wheat beers, with about 50% of the grist coming from rye. By substituting rye for some of the barley, brewers give these beers a hint of the spicy warmth rye is known for and notes of rye bread. American Rye beers tend to be reddish-amber, with fruity notes and usually have nice hoppiness from American hops.
No caraway seed should be added to the beer as some American brewers do. The rye character should come solely from the rye malt. Both styles may be served with the yeast roused into suspension as in a German Hefeweizen.
To brew an American Wheat recipe, use a blend of domestic two-row and wheat. The beers should have a subtle bready note, similar to crackers or bread. Try replacing a portion of the domestic two-row with continental pilsner malt at around 25% of the total malt bill. The continental pilsner malt will give the beer a slightly sweet, grainy malt character which will be interpreted as being more "wheaty". For the extract brewer, try to find a wheat extract that uses Pilsner malt for the non-wheat portion. Also consider substituting some of the two-row with British Pale Ale malt (no more than 1/5 of the total grist). The pale ale malt is kilned a little darker and adds some biscuit notes. That is all you need for American wheat style beer. For an American Rye recipe, you can replace about half of the wheat with rye for a subtle spicy rye note and a touch of silkiness to the mouthfeel. If you really want the rye character to stand out, use 50% rye. Many people, when searching for an American wheat recipe, are thinking more in the lines of a cream ale recipe (click the link to learn about Cream Ales).
References: Information for this page about American wheat and rye beers was adapted from the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines and American Wheat Beers by Roger Bergen appearing in Brewing in Styles column of Brewing Techiques magazine.
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