We’ll share the history of this beer, its variations and what it consists of, explain how they should taste and finally, go over some good food accompaniments. Hopefully, you’ll then be ready to head out and enjoy this heady Bavarian delight.
What is a Hefewiezen?
Hefeweizen (Hefe - yeast, weizen - wheat) also known as Weissbier (white beer) or Weizenbier (wheat beer) is of German origin and traditionally means unfiltered wheat beer with yeast in the beer. It is made with a large content of wheat added to the ingredients as opposed to just barley. In Germany all beers labelled Weissbier or Weizenbier must consist of at least 50% malted wheat.
The name derives from the middle ages, when the use of slightly too heavily roasted barley was the common ingredient for beer, resulting in darker beers. Apparently it was almost impossible to make pale malt so any beer that turned out pale was called a “Weissbier”. Wheat beers were more commonly called Weizenbier then. It was only around the time of the 19th century that the word Weissbier was reserved exclusively for wheat ales.
The earliest proof of wheat-beer in Germany dates to the Bronze Age. In 1934 a 2,800 year old amphora was found in a tribal grave near Kasendorf, a small village in northern Bavaria. Scientists have determined that the residues in the amphora are from dark wheat beer.
Although extremely popular today and brewed in almost all parts of Germany, wheat-beer making has not always had such a rosy ride. Back in the day, around about the 16th century, wheat harvests were not always as reliable as barley and as a result of the unpredictable crops and limited supply; authorities in Bavaria tried to restrict the use of wheat for bread-making only, knowing that Bavarians would substitute their wheat bread with wheat beer if given the chance! This, in part, eventually lead to the implementation of the famous Reinheitsgebot or the “Beer Purity Law” which stated that the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops (yeast at that time was not known to be an ingredient of beer as natural organisms in the air were used).
The introduction and enforcement of this law should have been the death of Weissbier making in Bavaria, but luckily for the Bavarians (and us) the then rulers of Bavaria, the Dukes of Wittelsbach were, like most rulers throughout history, quite a greedy bunch and in 1520 they granted the right to Sigismund von Degenberg of Schwarzach, a far-flung village in the Bavarian Forest, to brew and sell Weissbier solely in his region—for a hefty fee which they received back for decades.
Three centuries later Weissbier had to struggle once more for acceptance when, in 1870 Carl von Linde invented beer refrigeration. Before this great engineering break, all beers brewed in summer were made with top fermenting yeast strains which performed better in the higher temperatures, that is, they were all ales. Only in winter, when bottom-fermenting yeast strains thrived could the brewers make nothing but lagers.
With the advent of refrigeration, brewers were able to produce lagers all year round and ale-making slowly fell out of favour. By the late 1950’s many breweries no longer bothered with the style at all, but then, about the year 1965, for reasons unknown, tastes changes and a resurgence occurred which continues to this day.
Appearance: To the uninitiated a Hefewiezen will look murky. Don’t be alarmed, it’s supposed to. The high protein content of the wheat is what impairs the clarity in an unfiltered beer, although the level of haze is somewhat variable. A beer “mit hefe” is also cloudy from suspended yeast sediment (which should be roused before drinking). The filtered Krystal version has no yeast and is brilliantly clear. The Wiess varies from pale straw to very dark gold in colour and has a tall, long-lasting white creamy head.
Aroma: Notes of clove and banana typify this style. You may also pick up hints of bubblegum, vanilla and citrus. Usually a soft, somewhat bready aroma is also present because of the high wheat content.
Taste: A typical Weiss has a very characteristic flavour produced by the combination of the yeast and the wheat. The clove and banana-like aromas created by the special strains of yeast used are also evident in the taste. These are very lightly hopped beers so as not to compete with the fruity flavors. Overall, seeping through the wonderfully refreshing effervescence, are delicate fruity, spicy, sometimes citrusy undertones.
Water: As water makes up a large part of beer, about 90% actually, it has a tremendous influence on the finished product. Water holds many trace elements, amounts of which differ in particular regions. These give different waters their characteristic flavour, which is then passed onto the beer. A complex topic in itself and this space doesn’t allow us to go in-depth, but very simply put Bavarian water tends to be high in carbonate hardness which is a major component of the “Munich-type” signature flavor of Bavarian beers.
Hops: Weiss beers have a very low hop aroma and taste, preferring the sweeter, fruitier flavour to dominate. A small amount of noble hop is used to balance and enhance the sweetness.
Yeast: Yeast plays a vital role in achieving those banana and clove aromas so symbolic of a Weiss. If you brewing at home, we suggest using White Lab’s 300 or Wyeast 3068 to achieve authentic results. You can also try Danstar Munich.
Grain: At least 50% wheat with the rest being barley.
If all the yeasty bits are not quite your cup of beer, you can try the filtered version called Kristallweizen. There are also dark versions called Dunkelweizen which are similar in aroma, but tend to have a more prominent roasted, malty flavor because of the darker malt used. Unfortunately, unless your best friend is home brewer, both of these are significantly more difficult to get your hands on in South Africa.
Berliners make their own version called Berliner Weisse that is fermented with both yeast and lactic acid giving it a sour and tart, yet fruity taste with a lot of carbonation. It is often served with flavoured syrups such as raspberry.
Belgium Witbier is another variation of the style and in many ways similar to unfiltered Weissbiers, but the addition of unmalted grains like wheat, barley and oats as well as a variety of spices like coriander and orange peel sets them apart from the rest.
Enjoying your Vice, I mean Weiss
The traditional Weissbier glass has a capacity of 500ml with additional room for the head. It’s tall and slender at the bottom, gently widening as it nears the top and then slightly tapering in again to accentuate the bouquet.
According to the Erdinger Weissbier Brewery it’s best to keep your Weissbier stored upright in the fridge at a temperature of 5-7°C. If the bottle is laid flat, the yeast can slide down when the bottle is opened causing a sudden release of carbon dioxide and too much froth when pouring out the beer.
All the yeast and protein particulates that may settle in shipping need to end up in your glass. Unlike wine sediment, which is an unwelcome addition, you want to decant every last drop in that bottle to give it the distinctive cloudiness. This is where the fullness of the beer’s distinctive flavours lie.
Hold your glass at a 45° angle and pour the beer slowly along the side of the glass. Don’t empty the bottle; leave about two fingers width at the bottom.
Swirl the bottle to rouse the yeast sediment and then pour the remaining beer into the glass. All the yeasty goodness is now evenly distributed throughout the glass and you can begin to enjoy your prized elixir.
The summery notes of this beer allow it to pair with everything from salads to more robust dishes. Try it with buttery braaied prawns, salmon, mussels in a creamy sauce or a light risotto or lemon poppy seed fettuccini.
Try our local brews
Boston Breweries Johnny Gold Weiss, Draymans Altstadt Weissbier, Paulaner Hefeweizen (we have our very own brewery here in SA!) and Robsons Wheat Beer from Shongweni Breweries.
Or you could try the imported stuff…..
Erdinger & Paulaner (imported version) – available at Makro and selected Liquor Cities
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