Bavaria, best known for its smooth, clean, bottom-fermented lager biers, is synonymous with great brewing tradition. Golden pilsners, Munich helles, seasonal marzen and bocks, and the indigenous brew, Munich dunkel, all call Bavaria home. But there is a family of beers that runs counter to these lagers in almost every aspect: the Bavarian wheat beers.
Eccentric and old-fashioned, the wheat beers are cloudy, quirky, spritzy and top-fermented. Ripe with odd flavors and aromas not usually acceptable in beers, never mind German brews, wheat beers are riding a wave of popularity and now enjoy a collective market share of well over 20 percent in Germany. This was not always the case. It took the foresight of an astute German brewing patriarch to resuscitate this almost-extinct type of beer a century and a half ago.
Wheat beers are today as much a way of Bavarian life as pretzels and sausage. In fact, the German tradition of brotzeit (bread time), the mid-morning respite equivalent to a coffee break, often includes wheat beer as a refresher. These brews can’t be beat for quenching the thirst, and enough variations are available to satisfy any whim or occasion.
There are four different versions of wheat beers, the most common of which is weissebier (white beer), because of its haziness and relatively light color, or weizenbier (wheat beer). The wheat, weizen and weisse appellations can be used interchangeably. There are also strong (weizenbock), filtered (kristall), and dark (dunkelweizen) types of the style. All have a distinctive footprint in common that separates them from the rest of beerdom.
Wheat beers may not suit every palate but are certainly worth a taste. They are likely to grow on you.
Wheat Beer History: Cloudy Early, Becoming Clear
It is generally accepted that brewing had a rather serendipitous beginning and, as wheat is one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world, it should come as no surprise that this grain found its way into early fermented beverages. Stored grains became wet, the ubiquitous wild yeast fermented the resulting mixture, and people consumed the liquid, only to discover its unusual flavor, nutritive value, and, of course, its pleasantly intoxicating effect.
The earliest evidence of brewing, about 5,000 years ago, is from the Fertile Crescent, and it is known that wheat was used to some extent in Babylonia thousands of years ago. Though the brewers of antiquity eventually determined that barley was better for brewing and wheat for food, wheat no doubt remained a common if not vital component of ancient beers.
Brewing then spread from the Fertile Crescent northward into what is now Europe through the Middle Ages. References to wheat in brewing are known from the 15th to the 17th centuries in Germany, Austria and Bohemia. But the history and significance of wheat beer brewing is much less nebulous about this time in and around Bavaria.
The first true weissebier brewery was built in the 15th century in the Bavarian village of Schwarzach by the noble family, the Degenbergers. Although the Reinheitsgebot purity law, decreed in 1516, did not allow wheat malt to be used, the Degenberger clan was allowed to continue producing weissebier because of their grandfathered tenure in the brewing industry. Weissebier was also the preferred beer of the royalty.
When the last of the Degenbergers died, control of the brewery fell to the ruling Bavarian dukes, the Wittelsbachs, authors of the Reinheitsgebot. They set up shop next to their brown beer (dunkels) brewery in Munich. This is now the site of the famous Hofbrauhaus Munich.
As the new proprietors of the weissebier brewery, the Wittelsbachs became the sole purveyors of wheat beer in Bavaria. Noticing that the masses were quite enamored with this notorious noble brew, the Wittelsbachs expanded their domain and built many more weissebier breweries in southern Germany to capitalize on their product’s popularity. The dukes required the pubs they controlled to serve not only their dunkels but also their weissebier, lest the pub’s privileges be revoked. The beer became so popular that a road was built from a ducal brewery in Kelheim to Ingolstadt just to slake the thirsts of students at the university! It became known as the Bierstrasse (beer street).
Ending Royal Control
But just as wheat beers were reaching new heights in popularity, another phenomenon was fomenting in Bavaria and Bohemia that would revolutionize the brewing world. Better malting techniques, lager-brewing refinement, and microbiological advances were slowly making their way into mainstream brewing technology.
By the middle of the 19th century, Munich breweries were tweaking their dunkels, and Bohemia and Vienna were perfecting their pale lagers by utilizing the above-mentioned techniques. Pilsners and pale lagers quickly replaced the weissebiers as everyday quaffs among the masses. Weissebier consumption fell dramatically, and wheat beers in Germany may well have vanished were it not for the tenacity, vision and confidence of Georg Schneider.
Schneider became the tenant of the ducal brewery in Kelheim in 1855 and began producing his own wheat beers. He wrested the brewing rights to weissebier from the dunkels brewery next door in 1872 and effectively ended the royal control of wheat beers. Thanks to some aggressive production, Schneider got wheat beers back into the mainstream, and they enjoyed something of a comeback in this period.
For the next several decades, wheat beers hung tough but made up only a small fraction of all beer sold in Germany. It wasn’t until after World War II that they were rediscovered and their sales rejuvenated by the general populace.
Suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, wheat beers have started to attract a new generation of admirers. Since the 1950s, these brews have steadily become more popular, even hip, to the point where, today, almost a quarter of all beer sold in Germany is wheat beer. Perhaps this revival is a reversion to things more natural, more traditional, or simply a rediscovery of the brewing complexity.
The same trend has sprung up in North America recently. Many microbreweries make authentic Bavarian wheat beers, and most decent multi-tap pubs have imported wheat beers in their portfolio. These days, the wheats are not hard to find.
Profile of a Wheat Beer
One could be succinct in describing a wheat beer. They are top fermented, hazy, highly carbonated, low in hop aroma and bitterness, made with 50 to 70 percent malted wheat, and they exhibit a tart, fruity flavor and complex estery aroma. This straightforward description would not do a fine Bavarian wheat beer justice, however, especially when considering the flavor and aroma components.
Wheat beers, more than any other broad style of beer, may be defined by complexity rather than by a couple of distinct attributes. The use of wheat adds something to this profile, but the main contributor to the uniqueness is a special and unusual strain of yeast that is almost never used for anything but a wheat beer. A sampling of products from several different breweries would demonstrate a commonality among the various beers, but there are enough subtle differences among them to find a favorite and these are great beers to compare.
The aroma is a cacophony of vanilla, banana, clove, spices, and even apple and juicy fruit gum, all of which would be an unwelcome intruder in most beers but are quite at home in the sanctuary of a wheat beer. The malted wheat adds a tart/malty component that gives a wheat beer even more depth.
Wheat beers are generally cloudy. The use of wheat, which is very high in protein, and the unfiltered, bottle-conditioned nature of the beer contributes to this appearance. The protein precipitates readily in a wheat beer when cold, and results in a turbid “chill haze.” The yeast in the bottle, which can become resuspended, also will contribute some haze.
There is a noticeable absence of the noble hop character that accompanies most German beers. Wheat beers contain a hop bitterness rate that is about one half that of even a lightly hopped beer, barely perceptible. As the hops stand meekly in the background, the other flavors are allowed to come to the forefront. At least one component of a wheat beer demonstrates some modesty!
A Weizen by Any Other Name
Mentioned in the introduction were the various siblings of the weizen family, all of which are quite distinct. There are really four types of weizenbier—hefe weizen, kristall weizen, dunkel weizen, and weizen bock. Their pedigree loosely dictates that they are made with about 50 to 70 percent malted wheat and are top fermented, subtly hopped, and aggressively carbonated. They all have the “weizen” character to some degree.
Hefe Weizen or Hefe Weisse:
This is the most common variety of the wheat beers. It is bottle conditioned and sedimented, so it has the yeast either in the bottom of the bottle or in suspension. The yeast, along with the chill haze, give it a cloudy appearance. The prefix “hefe” simply means yeast. This is Bavarian wheat beer in its most traditional and unadulterated state. After fermentation, the beer is bottled with its original yeast or a second strain to provide a tertiary fermentation in the container. A hefe weizen is of standard strength for a beer, about 5 percent alcohol by volume (abv). Draft hefe weizen should also be cloudy.
Kristall Weizen or Kristall Weisse:
Kristall is the German word for “clear” and thus this is a filtered weizenbier. A kristall will retain the signature weizen character but have a more mellow, refined taste, almost lager-like. Kristall weizen has had all of the yeast, and much of the chill haze, removed, like most beers in Germany would have. This is not to say it is any less enjoyable than a hefe, just softer. These should be included in any “weissebier starter kit” and are also about 5 percent abv.
Dunkel is German for “dark,” so this is literally a dark wheat beer. Dark malts are used to deepen the color and character of the brew, and they complement the regular weizen character perfectly. Caramel sweetness, along with raisin and chocolate notes, can be detected, depending upon the brew. These are roughly the same strength as a hefe weizen and most German breweries include them in their portfolio.
You guessed it—bock-strength weizen. These are generally dark and are similar to dunkel weizen but much stronger, about 7 to 8 percent abv. Like all versions of weizen, they retain the fruity, spicy notes. These are somewhat rare and are not to be missed if available. Rich, with loads of malty sweetness, these brews are bursting with character beyond imagination.
Enjoying Wheat Beers
You should bear a couple of things in mind when pouring or serving a wheat beer. These are rambunctious brews due to the higher carbonation levels and demand some attention when pouring. They are itching to be liberated from the bottle and, if not delivered correctly, will erupt effusively.
They are best served in an hourglass-shaped German wheat beer glass that will hold a full half-liter bottle with plenty of room to spare.
One way to dispense them is to quickly invert the bottle in the glass. When the level of the beer in the glass reaches the bottle, slowly retract the bottle with minimal splashing until the bottle is empty. This will also disgorge the yeast in the bottom of the bottle if it isn’t suspended already. Wetting the glass with cold water before pouring will help reduce the foaming.
Method two is much less exciting. Tip the glass, and slowly decant the beer along the side of the wetted surface of the glass until the bottle is almost empty, leaving a half inch in the bottle. If a yeasty glass of brew is preferred, swirl the remainder and dump it into the beer.
It has become standard practice in some places to put a lemon wedge on the side of the glass, leaving its addition to the beer up to the drinker. Try it without the lemon. It is a shame to disguise the very things that make a wheat beer unique with a flavor as strong as lemon. Wheat beers are tart and quenching enough.
Hunting for Wheat Beers
The best place to get the full wheat beer experience, of course, would be Bavaria. Southern Germany is liberally sprinkled with breweries that make outstanding weizenbier of all types. The large breweries make some of the finest, but it would be worthwhile to seek out some smaller producers whose brews might be a little more idiosyncratic. I’d be willing to bet that the locals would be happy to give directions and share their preferences. Michael Jackson, Larry Hawthorne, Graham Lees and James Robertson all have written beer guides to Bavaria or southern Germany.
If Europe is not on your ticket, the popularity of wheat beers in North America has had a two-fold result—an influx of many German imports and a dedication to wheat beers by domestic microbrewers.
Tap houses that have a good selection of brews are sure to include draft and bottled German wheat beers on their menu. Don’t be surprised to see some domestic wheat beers, however. North American microbrewers, ever vigilant in their quest to keep up with public demand, produce some excellent ones. They can be found from sea to shining sea, from North Carolina to Washington, and many points in between. Great wheat beers are made in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and California, to name a few places.
If you’ve never had a wheat beer, try one. Then have another. It is an acquired taste for some and you might just find it to be an epiphany. These unique, utilitarian and versatile brews could hook you for life.
Weihenstephan Hefeweissbier DunkelABV: 5.3
Tasting Notes: Home of the oldest brewery in the world and the Technical University of Munich brewing school, Weihenstephan has been brewing since 1040. Their premium Hefeweissbier Dunkel is the same strength as their regular hefeweissbier but offers much more depth, thanks to the dark malts. Tawny in color, the caramel background complements the fruity, spicy character nicely. Very complex and satisfying without being too heavy like a lot of other dark beers, it’s 5.3 percent abv.
Spaten-Franziskaner Hefe-WeissebierABV: 5
Tasting Notes: A classic Bavarian hefe-weissebier from one of the best known breweries in the world. Softly fruity and spicy with banana and clove dominating. This beer is easy to find in good beer bars. The Spaten brewery also makes a kristall and a hefe-weissebier dunkel that score high marks. Excellent as an everyday beer or as a hot weather quencher.
Herrenbrau Kristall-WeizenABV: 5.4
Tasting Notes: An excellent example of the kristall version of weizenbier. The usual suspects adorn the aroma, though less so than a hefeweizen. The flavor is clean, malty and almost like a cross between a malty Munich helles and a weizenbier. Clove and banana are there but understated. This would be a great brew to indoctrinate beer lovers to the wheat styles without shocking their palate. The perfect summer quencher at 5.4 percent abv.
Schneider & Sohn AventinusABV: 7.7
Tasting Notes: This weizen bock is as complex as any beer, period. Layer upon layer of wunderbar flavors and aromas tantalize the palate with each sip. Made with three malts, the brew has a deep reddish-brown color. The dark malts add caramel and raisin notes to a complex background of other familiar weizen characteristics. Rich and malty, this beer is brewed to bock strength and is referred to as a weizen doppelbock. It’s hard to believe a beer could be this interesting. Brewed by the famous Schneider family mentioned in the text, it is a true Bavarian classic.