My first experience with Hefeweizen was probably much like many people of my age: a happy hour special ordered because ‘look at that tall glass—that’s a deal,’ served with a wedge of lemon. In those days I thought that was a beautiful thing, and if I’m honest there are some days even now when I still do (don’t tell anyone, though. I’ve got a rep to maintain here). There were a great many things I didn’t know, however. Things I’d learn only with time and experience. To many here in the U.S. though, the classic German Wheat Ale is still that cloudy junk you throw citrus into. Let’s take a few moments today to explore true Hefeweizen, and see if we can’t find the right one for you. Because there is a right Wheat Beer for everyone.
Hefeweizen/Hefeweisse: Consider the two terms interchangeable. “Hefe” refers to the special yeast used in these Ales, which along with them being unfiltered is mostly responsible for the banana and spice notes often found in them as well as their cloudy appearance. In Bavaria the term Weisse (“white”) is used; in other regions of Germany Weizen (“wheat”) is more common. I’m going to use Hefeweizen as it’s the term I use more often. Classic Hefeweizen uses a combination of that special yeast strain and at least 50% wheat malt with a very limited amount of hops to create an easy-drinking Ale with notes of banana, clove, and lemon. The wheat malt contributes a bit of the fruit flavor, but more than that it brings a biscuit-y bread-like note that serves to balance the style. Weihenstephaner, Schneider, and Paulaner make some of the most commonly-found and classic Hefeweizen you’ll find. Among American breweries, you’ll find seasonals like Sierra Nevada Kellerweis, Victory Sunrise Weissbier, and Troeg’s Dreamweaver.
Kristalweizen: A style of Hefeweizen that has been filtered, which not only gives the beer a clear appearance, but brightens up and softens some of the fruit notes as well. Weihenstephaner’s Kristalweizen is my go-to, but the recent release of Brooklyn-based Sixpoint Brewery’s Apollo has been great as well.
Dunkelweizen: Dunkel means “dark,” so you can take a stab at this one. The higher malt content can produce beers ranging from slightly amber in color to very dark brown. The more intense the malts, the more muted the spice and fruit are in the beer. Franziskaner, Ayinger, Paulaner, Weihenstephaner, and even Sam Adams and Great Divide make fine examples of the style.
Weizenbock: Is there a stronger alternative to a major beer style? If there is, we here in the States are likely to jump all over it and Hefeweizen is no different. Weizenbock are stronger, more intense styles of Hefeweizen and while there aren’t that many still coming over from Germany (Vitus from Weihenstephaner is my favorite); it’s the Americans who have taken the style and run with it. Brooklyn Brewery makes a fine example in collaboration with Schneider; Victory’s Moonglow is a rare treat, and if you can catch it when released Weyerbacher’s Slam Dunkel is a cool Weizenbock that adds a touch of malt to give the style extra smoothness.
Berliner Weisse: If you’re the type to ask for extra lemon in your Hefe, give this a shot. Low in alcohol and bottle conditioned, Berliner Weisse gain a tart, sometimes full-on sour character from either a second fermentation or addition of lactobacillus. Fritz Briem 1809 is my favorite German available around here, and Dogfish Head has just released their seasonal Festina Peche, based on a Berliner Weisse but with fresh peach juice added to the tank during fermentation. Traditionally, Berliner Weisse beers are served with a shot of raspberry and woodruff syrup to cut the tartness of the style. With Sour Ales entering a Renaissance, many breweries are making them to be enjoyed on their own. California’s The Bruery makes Hottenroth; a bold, once-per-year Berliner-style, and while it’s classification as a Berliner-style is questionable in my book, BeerAdvocate.com has the fantastic Bell’s Oarsman Ale marked as a Berliner-style. Oarsman does seem influenced by Berliner Weisse, but I’m not so sure it can really be considered one: the use of Bell’s proprietary yeast strain gives it a slightly more round feeling than a true Berliner. That said, Oarsman is my go-to session beer — at 4% ABV with the right balance of tart, sour, and refreshing, there’s nary a moment you’ll catch me without some in my fridge. If you’re looking for something a little more tart than a straight Hefeweizen, try one of these out.
I hope this gives you a good jumping-off point to explore the joys of Wheat Ales. Just remember, if it feels wrong to throw a slice of lemon in the glass — it probably is. Until next time.
Nick Anderson maintains a blog at www.beermonger.net, and can be found on Twitter at @The_Beermonger.