A yeasty, sedimented wheat beer developed in Germany and popular throughout the world

The breweries of southern Germany were well-known for their distinctive beers, typically brewed with 25-50% wheat. To some of these wheat beers, brewmeisters would add large quantities of yeast, producing a cloudy brew known as weizenbier mit hefe (wheat beer with yeast). These beers became the delicious and unusual brew we know as hefeweizen.

James was a tall, good-looking computer programmer at the company where I worked. He had long, black hair and a beard, a wicked sense of humour and a ready laugh. Years before we met, he had been stationed, with a unit of fellow soldiers, near the Berlin Wall. James told me that base of operations was known as "Where World War III will Probably Start."

In our abundant spare time, James would hang out in my office. We would smoke cigarettes and he would amaze and entertain me with tales of sights I'd never seen and lands I'd never visited. He told me of castles on the Rhine, cold war fatalism, war games, and places he saw. And we talked about beer—always back to beer.

At some point, I trotted out an axiom I’d heard since first I ever fell in love with the imported beers such as Bass Ale and Heineken; "Of course, I can’t get anything nearly as good imported as I would get there."

He laughed and agreed, then a thought occurred, "There are a couple of really good ones you can get here though. They're damned close." He mentioned Paulaner Hefeweizen.

I bought some that very night.

From my first bottle, I was hooked.

What it is

Hefeweizen is a top-fermented, bottle-conditioned wheat beer. The yeast used in fermentation is not filtered out, leading to a cloudy brew with a flavour that is unlike other drinks. This beverage is usually made from 50-70% malted barley and 30-50% wheat, the percentage of wheat typically being higher in Europan breweries and lower in the United States. It is supposed to be the most popular wheat beer in the United States, and American-made Hefewiezens tend toward a lighter colour and taste than their European counterparts. Americans sometimes serve hefeweizen with a slice of lemon or orange, a practice frowned upon by beer aficionados and non-yanks alike—the acidity of citrus not only alters the flavour of the brew, but it also dissipates the head. This practice apparently began in East Germany but only took off in the States for some reason.

Hefeweizens tend to be very lightly hopped, leading to an exceptionally smooth beer with very little bitterness. Belgian brewers sometimes add coriander or other herbal flavours to hefeweizen. Bavarian weizen beer uses a distinctive yeast which gives it a unique taste and bouquet.

What's in a Name?

Hefeweizen is classed as a weissbier ('white beer,' more authentically spelled weißbier). This name derives from the fact that these wheat beers tend to be a light, amber colour (it may also come from the fact that the foam during the fermentation is apparently a snowy white). It is thus sometimes called Hefeweissbier or Hefeweisse. The name is sometimes hyphenated to Hefe-weizen. The fact that it is a weizenbier (‘wheat beer’), and also a weissbier makes for an attractive-sounding symmetry (that can bedevil non-German speakers).

  • Weizenstarkbier is a wheat beer with a somewhat high alcohol content. It is related to hefeweizen, but the two are not synonymous.
  • Kristallweizen is a clear wheat brew. It is filtered and thus not counted as a true hefeweizen.
  • Dunkelweizen is dark wheat beer. Some hefeweizen brews may be dark, but not all dunkelweizens have the yeasty hefewiezen character.

Enough With the Factual Stuff, Let's Drink!

Pour your hefeweizen from the bottle into a tall glass with a wide mouth (usually a narrow-based triangular or vase-shaped affair is used). Pour slowly, stopping to swirl the bottle in order to lift the sweet yeasty sediment. The head should be thick and uneven (what conoisseurs call a ‘rocky’ head)—this is a sign of a good beer, an even head usually means carbonation was added later. Serve cool or slightly chilled, but not ice-cold. Sip slowly, savouring the subtle mix of flavours that the beer offers.

Historical Stuff

The German beer purity laws (Reinheitsgebot) instituted in Bavaria in the early 16th century, forbade putting anything but barley, hops, and water into beers—spontaneous fermentation was used rather than yeast (a few beers, including lambics, are still made this way). Some say that this was done in order to save yeast for baking of bread, others say that the Bavarian royal family, which held a monopoly over barley production, wished to forcibly exclude wheat beers. Some breweries in Belgium were still making the wheat beers, and there was a black market for them in Germany during this time.

The laws were relaxed in 1850 and weizen beers took off, with Schneider Weisse being the first one produced.

How it tastes

The flavour is really where this beer stands out. Remarkably crisp, clean, sweet and full-bodied, hefeweizen does not taste like any other beer. The yeast and wheat give it a lovely bread flavour and most hefeweizens also have a fruit character with overtones of clove (created by the phenols that the yeast produces). Some brews have esters which can lend very slight hints of banana, pear, vanilla, or even bubble gum.

Sip hefeweizen in they way you would sip a fine wine. There is a disagreement among beer snobs as to whether to drink the head off, or to let it die down—I go for a middle path and let it die down partially. Inhale deeply over the beer to savor the aroma of it, then tip some into your mouth—sip, don't gulp. Allow it to swirl around, mixing the senses of smell and taste, then let it wash down the back of your tongue. Close your eyes. Picture wheat fields, golden stalks ripening in the sun’s warmth. Savour the subtle blend of sweet tastes!

It should probably come as no surprise that hefeweizen goes extremely well with schnitzel, wursts, saurkraut, and other similarly Teutonic menu fare. Its flavour is subtle and complex enough to be served with hearty, savoury foods, things that can hold their own without being overpowered. Stews, meat & potatoes, roast beef, poultry dishes or sandwiches are good accompaniments to hefeweizen. It also seems to go exceptionally well with Asian cuisine (thanks Shaogo!). Foods which are overly spicy or powerfully flavoured may overwhelm the subtleties of the beer. Likewise, extremely bland or exceptionally subtle foods may get overpowered.

Hanging around after work with some Texan 'good old girls', I brought a bottle of Paulaner Hefeweizen and sipped it slowly from a plastic cup while they swigged down their Michelob Ultra. The gals wanted a taste of my "fancy German beer." I warned them that they wouldn't like it.

They didn't—of course they didn't.

If you are accustomed to Bud Light and that sort of thing, the complex flavour of hefeweizen is likely to be a very alien experience.

Good thing, too! This way, they did not drink up all my beer!

A British Guide to German Beer (online at http://www.germanbeerguide.co.uk/hefeweiz.html)
Jackson, Michael (no not THAT Michael Jackson!!!), “The Pocket Guide to Beer; A Discriminating Guide to the World’s Finest Beers” (Perigee, New York, 1982).