Beer Department: Get to know a style: Hefeweizen

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As spring begins to loom on the horizon and the weather (hopefully) begins making a turn for the better, I’ve noticed that a stalwart of craft beer, the humble wheat beer, has seen a resurgence in popularity lately. Bearing this in mind, I thought it high time we better understand one specific style of wheat beer: the Hefeweizen.

To start, let’s understand that today I’ll be describing Hefeweizen specifically, also known as hefeweissbier or simply weissbier. There are related German styles of wheat beer as well as close cousins like Belgian style Wit or White Ales (think Blue Moon) and American Wheat Ales that include Goose Island 312 and Bell’s Oberon. While all of these beers have some things in common by virtue of their use of wheat and may even use similar yeasts, Hefeweizen is the distinct style we’ll be focused on today.

Let’s begin our dive into this style by understanding some terminology. The German word “hefe” literally means yeast and “weizen” means wheat, referring to the fact that this is a wheat beer that is unfiltered, i.e. still with the yeast in the bottle. If you filter a hefeweizen, it’s called a kristallweizen to denote that it is now crystal clear instead of having the haze that is characteristic of hefeweizen. Since some brewers make a dunkelweizen (dark wheat beer), they may choose to identify their hefeweizen as helles hefeweizen. Helles simply means bright but shouldn’t be confused with the Munich Helles style of lager, which is a completely unrelated style. Confused yet? I’ll add one more twist but then I promise I’ll stop with the lingo. Many German brewers call their hefeweizen “hefeweissbier” or simply “weissbier.” “Weiss” means white in German to refer to the light, straw to gold color of the beer. This is all well and good until that same brewer decides to then make a dunkelweizen and call it a dunkelweissbier, which literally means dark white beer, which makes no sense at all. German brewing terminology can be frustratingly complex in its bizarre specificity. I don’t want you to get too bogged down in the language; just know that today we’re learning about a German style of wheat ale that might be called hefeweizen, hefeweissbier, or weissbier.

While Germany is today famous largely for their lagers (the word lager is even German), they used to make exclusively ales, just like the rest of the world. Lagers are a relatively recent invention of the last few hundred years as we’ve developed better fermentation techniques and understanding of yeast. Among the variety of ales they still produce, hefeweizens are perhaps the best known but somewhat poorly understood. These straw to golden, light bodied and easy drinking ales are easy to find but discovering what makes them truly great takes some effort.

While most beers on Earth are made from malted barley, hefeweizens use 50-70% malted wheat, which radically changes the flavor of the finished beer. Expect a soft, fluffy mouthfeel and a big, rocky, mousse-like head of pure white foam sitting on top of that hazy, straw-gold body. The substantial head formation and retention is a hallmark of the style, owing to the higher protein content found in wheat as compared to barley. The real star of the show for hefeweizen, however, is the yeast. All beer yeasts are all subspecies of the same species Saccharomyces Cerivisiae. Hefeweizen yeasts are a particular subspecies with several distinctive calling cards. These yeasts ferment at quite warm temperatures and become quite active in the process. During fermentation, the yeast creates two noticeable byproducts: an ester called amyl acetate and a phenol called 4-vinyl guaiacol. These two byproducts give off the classic hefeweizen aroma and flavor of banana and clove, respectively. That’s right, when you drink a hefeweizen, there’s no actual banana or clove in there, just yeast-derived flavor and aroma.

Hefeweizens are very popular, from their home in Bavaria to around the world, because they’re delicious, versatile, food-friendly, and approachable. Making a great one, however, is tricky and the style’s popularity means there are some substandard examples out there. To make a great hefeweizen, a brewer has to very carefully control fermentation temperatures because too cool and the yeast will die but too hot and the yeast will throw off unpleasant flavors like acetone or extreme, unbalanced levels of banana, clove, and bubblegum. When judging a hefeweizen, look for an apparent but not overbearing presence of banana up front well balanced by a spicy clove quality. Some light vanilla or bubblegum notes may be present but shouldn’t overpower and should never be high.

Well, there you have it! A little more knowledge on a widespread style that deserves a little more understanding. For excellent examples of hefeweizen, check out Paulaner Hefeweizen, Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, or Andechs Weissbier Hell. Prost!

-Eric Dunaway, Certified Cicerone®

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