Recently my local homebrew club had its monthly meeting. Every month we try to bring beers that have been brewed to a particular style. The style on the agenda for March was BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) Category 15 – German-style Wheat and Rye Beer. What follows is an expanded version of my short presentation to the club on this fascinating style, along with some tasting notes from a few nights later. A subsequent segment (click here) will introduce you to a few Weissbier brewing parameters in case you feel like whipping up a batch.
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The first thing that struck me on that evening in Saarbrücken about this beer they called Hefeweizen was the tall glass, slender at the bottom and fluted at the top. Then came the art of pouring, an elaborate ritual peculiar to German Weissbiers. Before I had even taken my first sip of this beer crowned by a majestic cap of foam, aromas of clove and banana seized my attention, suggesting that my sense of taste was about to be transformed. Several years have passed since that moment of conversion (which you can read about here), but German wheat beers have lost none of their charm.
Weizen? Weissbier? Weihen-what?
German wheat beers present the occasional terminological challenge for the uninitiated, especially since some of the terms are used interchangeably. Weissbier, Weizenbier, Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen, Weissbier Dunkel, Weizenbock, Doppel Weizenbock. What’s going on here? Throw in a few brand names like Weihenstephaner, and it’s no wonder that these beers can languish in the tap lines of North American bars till well past their prime.
Weissbier means, literally, white beer. Now, none of these beers are actually white (but nor are any white wines for that matter), with colours ranging from straw all the way to russet. The high levels of protein in wheat make for a hazy drink, as does the suspended yeast. This is one style where you really do need to pour that sediment into the glass – hence the ritual attending Weissbier presentation. The one exception is Kristall Weissbier, which (in my opinion) has much of its character filtered out. Weizenbier is the most straightforward, translation-wise. It means what it says: wheat beer. Hefe means yeast, and Weizen means wheat. Put the two together and you have a Hefeweizen. A Dunkelweizen is a darker version of a Weizen, but nomenclature takes a decidedly paradoxical turn with beers like Franziskaner’s Weissbier Dunkel: dark white beer. Rounding out the German wheat beer category are the luscious Weizenbocks (wheat bocks).
Southern German Weizenbiers are nothing if not unique. Northern Germans also evolved different interpretations of wheat beers, the most famous being the tart and sour Berliner Weisse. But these styles, including the recently-rediscovered Gose of Leipzig, merit a separate discussion. Over the years, Bavarian brewers developed a top-fermenting ale yeast that links the lightest Kristall with the weightiest Weizen Doppelbock. The yeast produces phenolic notes usually associated with clove, but occasionally reminiscent of nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. Ester production is also high, imparting not only the typical banana aromatics associated with Weizenbiers, but also apple in some iterations. The interplay of scents can also come across as bubblegum. Unsurprisingly, the wheat itself leaves its stamp on the beer, with a peppery citrus acidity and a creamy fullness that manages to stay light and crisp on the palate. To me, nothing says spring or summer more than a Hefeweizen, but the spice and fruit flavours along with the periodic hint of vanilla and honeyed light brown sugar bespeak autumn and winter as well.
Wheat into Beer: The Vaguest Outlines of a History
If yeast expresses the spirit of a German Weizenbier, wheat anchors its corporeality. Malted wheat must comprise at least fifty percent of a Bavarian Weizenbier’s grist, with the classic Munich proportion as high as seventy percent. Wheat has been used since Babylonian times to brew beer, but because of its lack of a husk in its malted form, it has posed many a challenge for brewers. What makes wheat excellent for baking bread tends to gum up brewing vessels, especially at the mash and lauter stage of the process. But that didn’t stop some brewers from refining their processes, and wheat beer eventually became a popular and profitable drink in 1400s Bavaria.
From here the story gets hopelessly muddled, and no online source or beer book in my possession paints a clear picture of how Weissbier fit in – or not – with the famous Reinheitsgebot (Purity Law) of 1516 restricting brewers to the use of malted barley, hops, and water. By all accounts, it appears that the Wittelsbach dynasty that controlled Bavaria managed to skirt the law of their own promulgation and maintain a Weissbier brewing monopoly at their Hofbräuhaus (Royal Court Brewery) in Munich. There’s much more to it, but I’ll refrain from venturing an interpretation based on a slim stack of sources. Instead, I’ll pick up the thread in the late 1870s with a promise to conduct some proper research into the subject at a future point in time.
In 1872, Georg Schneider (1817-1890), scion of what would become today’s Schneider brewing concern, used his position as lessee of the Hofbräuhaus since 1855 to negotiate an end to the royal prerogative on Weissbier brewing. His purchase of the rights to brew wheat beer from King Ludwig II gave Weissbier a new lease on life, paving the way for Bavarian brewers to focus on rejuvenating a style that had lost ground to the novel and sparklingly clear styles then sweeping Bohemia and Bavaria. By the 1950s, Weissbier had again fallen into disfavour, seen by many as a drink of the pre-war generation. Production ebbed, but a younger cohort rediscovered the light and refreshing charms of this ancient beverage, and today Weissbier accounts for roughly thirty percent of all beer consumed in Bavaria.
If you’ve visited Germany, chances are you’re already well aware of the vast selection of excellent Weizenbiers available in tobacco shops and at newsstands, in supermarkets, and at hole-in-the-wall corner stores. Over on this side of the Atlantic, the selection is quite good, depending on where you live. Keep an eye on how much dust has accumulated on the bottle, though. Weizenbier is a somewhat underappreciated style, and that bottle you just picked up might have been sitting on the shelf for some time.
For this particular tasting, I got together with a few friends for blind flights of Hefeweizens, Dunkelweizens, and Weizenbocks available in our distribution area. Over the course of our epic session, we sampled seven Hefeweizens, three Dunkelweizens, and three Weizenbocks. Here are a few highlights.
Of the Hefeweizens, the two most compelling beers we tasted were the Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier and the Ayinger Bräu Weisse. The Weihenstephaner was elegant and delicate, melding mild banana and apple-cinnamon with leather-like clove and vanilla-accented light brown sugar. On the palate, its peppery effervescence was met by rich honeyed malt and a touch of nuttiness before finishing crisp and spicy (nutmeg-clove). The Ayinger was the most complex of the Hefeweizens, with a panoply of aromas ranging from creamed ripe banana and apple to lemon curd and light milky caramel. The spices were subtle, more like a blend of baking spices that encompassed clove, cinnamon, and allspice. Creamy and mouthfilling yet still effervescent, the palate presented a harmonious mix of biscuit, vanilla-banana, and a touch of tingly pepper and hop spiciness. The refreshingly crisp finish left us wanting another before moving on to the subsequent flights.
We didn’t have a Weihenstephaner among the Dunkelweizens, but I’ve had it often enough to assume with a fair degree of confidence that it would have been among our top Dunkelweizens if tasted blind. The Ayinger Ur-Weisse Dunkel Weizen was by far the most impressive of the Dunkelweizens we did taste, and was the most malt-forward of all the Hefeweizens and Dunkelweizens we sampled – reminiscent, in many ways, of Ayinger’s profoundly malty Märzen. The luminescent orange-hued bronze beer exuded aromas of fresh bread, malted milk, cream, milk caramel, mild toast with honey, and even a hint of cherry before giving way to fresh-cut apple and banana and a subtle but beguiling “spice box” character. Smooth and unctuous, the Ur-Weisse isn’t as carbonation-prickly as some Weissbiers, but a subtle tangy acidity emerges to balance out the rich malted milk, dark cherry, marzipan, spiced banana, and caramel-light brown sugar sweetness. This is a beer suited less to summer and more to the changing of the seasons.
Also meriting attention in our Dunkelweizen flight was the Franziskaner Weissbier Dunkel, not so much because it was particularly stellar, but because at $1.86 for a 500mL bottle, it has to be one of the better beer deals out there. Its caramel-clove, brown sugar, banana bread, and grassy-peppery aromas build up to a piquant, wheat-spicy palate that reprises the mild banana and caramel notes. This is a solid beer that won’t disappoint your guests or break the bank – something to consider as the price of good beer creeps ever higher.
The Weizenbock segment of our tasting revealed to me what I already knew: Schneider’s Aventinus and Weihenstephaner’s Vitus remain two of my favourite beers. In this sense, the Weizenbock flight wasn’t as blind as it could have been: I can pick the Aventinus out a mile away, and the Vitus, which I’ve had more times than I can count, stood out from the other two russet-brown beers with its burnished honey-golden colour. But the tasting was eye-opening insofar as it reminded me (yet again) not to write off a brewery based on a few underwhelming products. Erdinger is one of those breweries whose Weissbier and Weissbier Dunkel I’ve had on a few occasions (including as part of our blind Hefeweizen and Dunkelweizen flights), but the beers typically fail to hold my interest. Their Weizenbock, Pikantus, is a different story. Rich and intense aromas of fig, honey, plum-prune, dark caramel, toasted toffee, and molasses, with a vibrant toasty caramel palate featuring dark bread, rum-raisins and hints of baking spice made for a pleasant surprise.
With that many beers on the table, there were bound to be a few duds, two of which were Widmer’s Hefeweizen (which, to be fair, seemed to have been improperly stored at the local bottle shop), and Flying Dog’s In-Heat Wheat. This is not to suggest that all North American attempts to brew a German-style Weissbier are doomed to fail. Live Oak’s Hefeweizen is a case in point. So, too, are some of the home-brewed examples I’ve tasted. On the weekend before our blind tasting, I participated in the first round of judging for the Bluebonnet Brew-Off homebrew competition in Dallas. One of the flights I evaluated was a flight of Hefeweizens. A goodly number of these home-brewed beers were of higher quality than the Widmer and Flying Dog offerings.
Now, if home-brewed versions of Hefeweizen are showing up some of the commercial examples brewed in North America, what’s stopping you from brewing your own batch of Weissbier? Find out how you can in my next segment, “So You Wanna Brew a Weizen.”
Related Tempest Articles:
A Coal Town and a Cold One: My Hefeweizen Craft Beer Conversion
Garret Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) contains an extended introduction to German wheat beers, along with a comprehensive food pairing suggestions.
Michael Jackson’s The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988) contextualizes the Weizenbier style within the broader sweep of German brewing, while his Great Beer Guide (New York: DK Publishing, 2000) focuses on particular brands.
On the historical role of the Schneider family in Bavaria’s Weissbier production, see the Schneider website, which has an English-language option.
Of the English-language sources available on the web, the German Beer Institute’s “German Beer Primer” has a section on the Purity Law of 1516. Helpful as this section is, it doesn’t shed much light on the status of wheat and Weissbier.
Hefeweizen glasses: www.ukhomeideas.co.uk
Malted wheat: www.northernbrewer.com
Reinheitsgebot postage stamp: www.wikipedia.de
Georg Schneider: www.schneider-weisse.de
Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen: www.weihenstephaner.de
Ayinger Ur-Weisse: www.ayinger-bier.de
© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.