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The Wheat Beer

by: BeerAdvocate on 06-01-2002
Quick Weizen History
Back in the middle ages, the Germanic tribes began to brew a much paler than usual ale. The cause: the brewers used the resources and the most abundant brewing ingredients available to them. Wheat grain was one of these as was barley, and the use of both brought the inception of the Weissbier. They were so much lighter than the traditional dark beers of the time that the term "white beer" became a common naming convention - weisse actually means "white". There are sources that believe Weissbier to be one of the oldest styles of beer, a style created by farmers simply gathering the grains at hand. Some even suggest that the world's oldest established brewery, Brauerei Weihenstephan in Freising, Germany, brewed similar styles as early as 1040 AD.

Today, there are four main styles of Weissbier: Southern German Weissbier, Berliner Weisse, Belgian Witbier and American Wheat Beer. The Southern German Weissbier, more commonly known as Weizen or Hefeweizen. On occasion you might see Kristal Weizen or Kristal Weissbier, which is the filtered offering of that breweries Hefeweizen and the Dunkel Weizen is the darker version that is usually unfiltered. Belgian Witbier or White Ale is similar in many ways to unfiltered wheat beers but the addition of unmalted grains like wheat, barley and oats as well as a variety of spices, sets them apart from the rest. But lets stick to the Hefeweizen and American Wheat beers.

What is a Wheat Beer?
Simply broken down, Hefe (yeast) Weizen (wheat) is of German origin and traditionally means an unfiltered wheat beer with yeast in the beer. It is often referred to as "weissbier mit hefe" (with yeast). Crafted with up to 50%-65% malted wheat, the remainder of the grist is malted barley. This addition of wheat is what gives this beverage a very crisp and refreshing profile. Hefeweizens are generally highly carbonated brews and when poured these magnificent beers should be cloudy (from the higher proteins contained in wheat malt) pale gold to a spectrum of amber shades, with an almost on the verge of overflowing meringue-like crown. This goes for most beers brewed with wheat as well being that wheat malted or raw are great for head retention. You can stave off an overflowing head by rinsing your glass in cold water first.

It is also customary that the sedimentary yeast at the bottom of the bottle also be decanted into the glass. Long, slender trumpet style glasses are the appropriate glassware for the style and are best for showing off the impressive head after a proper pouring. Try leaving some of the beer in the glass (about a half an inch), roll the bottle in-between your hands (to loosen the settled yeast), then pour every single last drop of yeast in your glass as here lies much of a Hefeweizen's signature taste, aroma and appearance. Traditional German Hefeweizen yeast strains yield phenolic smells and flavors, which are sometimes medicinal and/or clove-like. Fruity esters, bubble-gum, vanilla and the trademark fruity banana flavors are also by-products of the yeast's handy work.

Now a true German-style Hefeweizen is such a contrast in flavour compared to its Americanized brethren. For instance, American Wheat beers more commonly use a neutral American yeast strain, which will emphasize the malt character a little more, and have a much cleaner flavour. Some of the other differences between the two are the use of hops and malt. German Hefeweizens are barely touched with hops, so as to not bring harshness to the delicate balance of esters, phenols (fruity fusel alcohol and a medicinal by product) and the fermented wheat flavour. As for the malt, usually American Wheat beers will mash with American malts though they have been known to throw in some tradition, especially when trying to brew the real thing by using German malts. Obviously German Hefeweizens use German malts and generally the percentage of wheat is higher versus American Wheat beers. Some American wheat beers are clearly filtered and resemble a pale version of a regular American golden ale, these are usually summer seasonals and the only characteristics they lack are the yeasty flavors.

Regardless of its origin, it seems that all wheat beers help to sooth that summer heat away, and the following are just a few examples of the mentioned styles to do just that. Most are easily available, however some may take some well-worth searching for.

German or German-Style Hefeweizens:
  • Ayinger Bräu-Weisse (Germany) -
  • Cambridge Hefeweizen, Cambridge Brewing Co. (Cambridge, MA)
  • Haymarket Hefeweizen, Boston Beer Works (Boston, MA)
  • Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier (Germany)
  • Franz Joseph Sailer Oberdorfer Weiss Helles (Germany)
  • Hacker-Pschorr Hefe Weisse (Germany)
  • Julius Echter Hefe-weisse (Germany)
  • Paper City Hefe-wezien (Holyoke, MA)
  • Paulaner Hefe-weizen (Germany)
  • Pinkus Organic Hefe-weizen (Germany)
  • Schneider Hefe-weizen (Germany)
  • Tucher Hefe-weizen (Germany)
  • Weihenstephaner Hefe-Weissbier (Germany)

    American Wheat Beers:
  • Climax Wheat, Boston Beer Works (Boston, MA)
  • Redhook Hefeweizen, Redhook Brewery (Portsmouth, NH)
  • Summer Breeze, Wachsett Brewing (Westminster, MA)
  • Summer Wheat Ale, Ottercreek Brewing (Middlebury, VT)
  • UFO (Un-Filtered Offering) Hefeweizen, Harpoon (Boston, MA)

    The Lemon Conspiracy
    This is one of those subjects that there's absolutely no gray area. The lines have been drawn and the sides are clearly against each other in the clouded world of wheat beers.

    It's all about lemon, or no lemon.

    On one side, we have beer drinkers that run in the same group as those people who put salt on their $20 porterhouse steak before they even taste it. A lemon in their wheat beer is a must. Even worse, some go too far and request a slice of lemon in their Belgian White Ale! The Horror! We are not telling you to take sides, but don't cry when your beer has no head ... you can blame it on the lemon wedge and its acidity.

    On the other side are people who appreciate beer straight up. They lust after that unique yeast flavor that would otherwise be destroyed by a sharp wedge of lemon.

    Is there a right or wrong? Who knows? It's very subjective. So whatever your fancy may be, wheat beers offer a broad range of characteristics as the perfect summer brew, or a brew to enjoy all year round (no lemon please). Skoal!
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