Hefeweizen, Weizenbier, Weisse, Wheat Ale

Pronunciation guide for English-speakers:

Weissbier means “white beer” in German. The name derives from the yellowish-white tinge that is imparted by the pale malted wheat from which the brew is made. In North America, the brew is more commonly called Hefeweizen (literally "yeast wheat"), because it is unfiltered, meaning the yeast remains in suspension and causes the beer to look slightly turbid. Filtered, clear Weissbier, incidentally, is called Kristallweizen ("crystal wheat"). There are also dark wheat beers. These are called Dunkelweizen ("dark wheat").

Another common name for this brew is Weizenbier ("wheat beer") because of the preponderance of malted wheat in the brew's grain bill. According to German law, all beer that is labeled Weissbier or Weizenbier must be made with at least 50% malted wheat. Most Bavarian Weissbiers contain 60 to 70% malted wheat. The rest is malted barley.

A typical Weissbier/Weizenbier has a very characteristic flavor that is produced by the interplay between the Weissbier ale yeasts and the trace elements from the large portion of wheat in the brew’s grain bill. This flavor is variably described as clove-like, banana-like, phenolic, sour, spicy, or even bubblegum-like. Because of the complexity of the Weissbier flavor, these beers are only mildly hopped. This puts them in contrast to many blond lagers—such as the Pils/Pilsener, which are fairly strongly hopped for an assertive up-front bitterness.

For extra “spritziness,” most Weissbiers are also, what is called, bottle-conditioned or tank-conditioned. This technique involves adding fresh, unfermented beer to the finished and fully fermented beer, right before packaging the brew into kegs or bottles. At this stage, the finished beer still has plenty of live yeast cells in suspension that start a new fermentation with the added unferemneted beer. In this process, the yeast converts the small amount of new sugar into additional alcohol and carbon dioxide. Because this final fermentation occurs in a hermetically sealed environment (the bottle or the keg), the new carbon dioxide cannot escape. Instead it is trapped in solution in the brew. This conditioning creates the Weissbier’s enormous effervescence. Only the filtered Kristallweizen cannot be bottle-conditioned—simply because filtration before removes all suspended yeast cells. Kristallweizens, therefore, are artificially carbonated.

A glass of Weissbier always sports an appetizing, tall, white, creamy head. A beer's head is mostly dissolved protein that is dragged out of the brew by escaping carbonation. Because wheat has more protein than barley, and because Weissbier is made to be particularly effervescent, a Weissbier head is always particularly impressive.

Related beer styles:
Kristallweizen, Dunkelweizen
, Weizenbock, Weizendoppelbock, Weizeneisbock, Russ

A Noble Wheat Ale for the Common Man

Until the beginning of the 16th century, most beers were dark in color because of the use of slightly to severely roasted malted barley that was then in common use. Technologically, pale malt was next to impossible to make in those days, and any beer that turned out to be pale was called Weissbier simply for its color ("weiss" means white in German, "bier" means beer). In the Middle Ages, therefore, it did not matter if a Weissbier was based on barley malt or wheat malt, nor did it matter if it was an ale are a lager. A wheat beer was more commonly called Weizenbier then, which means the terms Weissbier and Weizenbier were not synonymous, as they are today.

Only after all Bavarian barley brews became lagers and all wheat brews became ales, as the result of several 16th-century decrees by the Dukes of Bavaria, did the medieval names evolve. The standard barley lagers came to be called—and are still called today—Schwarzbier (“black beer”), Dunkelbier (“dark beer”), as well as Märzen and Oktoberfestbier (two amber lager styles). With the technological innovation of pale malt in the 19th century, the blond lagers, the Bavarian Helles and the Pils/Pilsener emerged. It was around that time that the name Weissbier became reserved exclusively for wheat ales. Because of this odd history of the terms Weissbier and Weizenbier, Bavarians are quite comfortable with the seeming contradiction of naming a very dark Weizenbier a Schwarze Weisse (a “black white one”).

Weissbier is one of the many beer styles created by Bavarian brewmasters. It was first made in the early 16th century in the Bavarian Forest (next to what is now the Czech Republic), around the same time that the first Bavarian lager styles, such as the Dunkelbier, the Märzen, and the Bockbier, began to appear, mainly in Munich. Today, just about every German brewery of note makes a Weissbier, including many breweries outside of Bavaria. There were periods throughout its almost 400-year old history, however, when Weissbier, like ale-making in general, faced an uphill fight for consumer acceptance, even in Bavaria, its land of origin. In fact, Weissbier-making, along with ale-making in general-almost came to a complete standstill in Germany in the 1870s. This is when Carl von Linde invented beer refrigeration and installed the first functioning cooler for beer tanks in the Spaten Brewery of Munich. Before this monumental engineering breakthrough, all beers brewed in the summer months had to be made with warm- and top-fermenting yeast strains, that is, they had to be ales, because of the high ambient temperatures.

Only in the winter, when bottom- and cold-fermenting yeast strains thrived, did Bavarian brewers make nothing but lagers. With the advent of refrigeration, however, Bavarian brewers could make lagers year-round. The result was that, in the latter part of the 19th century, ale-making fell out of favor, first in Bavaria, then in the rest of Germany, then in all of Continental Europe and the world, even in the summer...and because Weissbiers are ales, they went the way of ales in general. For almost one hundred years, Weissbiers were relegated to a marginal beer style, brewed almost exclusively in Bavaria.

By the 1950s and early 1960s, the Weissbier share had fallen to below 3% of Bavarian beer production and many breweries no longer bothered with this style at all. The future of Weissbier did not look bright, except as a curiosity and a relict of the past. But a sudden—and largely inexplicable—shift in consumer taste after 1965, not only in Bavaria but in the entire world, triggered a rapid and spectacular Weissbier-Renaissance—a revival that has continued to this day! By 1994, Weissbier started to outsell even the Bavarian Helles, the traditional staple quaff in Bavaria’s legendary beer gardens. Consumer studies have since shown that Weissbier is particularly popular among young adults, both men and women, who are occupationally and physically active and consider the crisp and refreshing taste of Weissbier a fitting and indispensable part of their daily lives. In Germany overall, today Weissbier holds about 11.5% in market share. On its home turf in Bavaria it holds a market share of almost 35%, which makes it by far the most popular beer style there!

A Cornucopia of Weissbier

Brewers in Bavaria, responded quickly to this re-emergence of Weissbier demand, making Bavaria once again the world’s most significant Weissbier producer in quality, quantity, and variety. There are now more than 1,000 Bavarian Weissbier-brands on the market. Some are available only as strictly local specialties, while others can be purchased in just about any country in the world.

The most popular type of wheat ale by far is the Hefeweizen (“yeast wheat”). This is an unfiltered variety of Weissbier. It contains nourishing brewers yeast in suspension, which gives the brew its characteristic whitish, yeast-turbid, and slightly opaque appearance. Some breweries market a line of filtered pale Hefeweizen. Such a Weissbier is called a Kristallweizen (“crystal wheat”). As the name implies, this beer is, indeed, crystal clear and sparklingly brilliant. It is also exceptionally effervescent, making it extra refreshing. When served chilled in a tall, slender glass, it almost looks like champagne, which is why Kristallweizen is also referred to as Champagnerweizen (“champagne wheat”). Bavarian breweries now even make a low-alcohol Weissbier version.

Bavarians also brew several varieties of darker Hefeweizen. These are made with a certain amount of amber-colored malted wheat and barley. These wheat ales are called Dunkelweizen (“dark wheat”). Finally, as is the case with Bavarian lagers, there are also strong and very strong versions of the Weissbier ale available. Bavarians call their strong, barley-based, lagers Bockbiers and their extra strong lagers, Doppelbocks (“double Bockbier”). If such strong beers are brewed as ales and made with mostly wheat, their names become Weizenbockbier and Weizendoppelbock. These formidable wheat ales, like their lager cousins, are usually consumed as satisfying belly warmers in the depth of winter or in early spring.

Even though Weissbier has its origin in Bavaria, there are other parts of Germany, and indeed, the world where wheat-based ales are brewed. But these beers are often slightly different from the Bavarian model. In North America, where the German law stipulating that Weissbiers be made from at least 50% malted wheat has no relevance, many “summer wheat“ or “pub wheat“ beers are brewed from as little as 30 to 40% wheat. These are often superb ales, but, by Bavarian standards, they are not true Weissbiers. Neither is the so-called Berliner Weisse. It, too, is a wheat-based ale, but it has an extract value (sugars, minerals, vitamins, and flavorful trace elements) of no more than 7 to 8%, compared to the Bavarian original with almost twice that much. Also, Berliner Weisse is fermented with both yeast and lactic acid bacteria, which give the Berliner wheat brew a fairly sour taste that is absent from the Bavarian brew. For this reason, Berliner Weisse is usually consumed as a refreshing summer drink, with the addition of a shot of raspberry or woodruff-flavored syrup.

Weissbier Drinking Ritual

Because of its high degree of spritzy effervescence, Weissbier requires “special handling“ to ensure its proper enjoyment at the table or at the bar. It is best to store Weissbiers in a cool place before opening the bottle. The cool temperature prevents the beer from losing too much of its refreshing fizz when the bottle is opened. It is also best to keep the beer in a dark environment where the rays of the sun cannot reach it. This rule, incidentally, applies to all beer because sunlight is one of the greatest enemies of beer flavor. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can shorten a beer’s natural shelf-life dramatically, and even make it undrinkable.

Always store Hefeweizen standing up. This allows the yeast to settle at the bottom of the bottle. For a less yeast-turbid glass of Hefeweizen you can pour the entire bottle in one go, while leaving most of the sediment behind. If you prefer a more turbid glass of beer, you can empty the bottle only four-fifth of the way and then roll it flat on a horizontal surface to loosen the sediment. Then pour the intensely cloudy remaining one-fifth of the bottle in one fell swoop into your glass.

To accentuate the bouquet of the Weissbier, serve it in a tall, slender glass with plenty of room for the head—the best being a specially curved Weissbier glass. To prevent excessive foaming as you pour, rinse the glass in cold water but do not dry it. Then tilt the glass as you fill it. Also avoid greasy glasses, because they destroy a beer’s head. Though Weissbier is served with a lemon slice in many parts of the world, this is emphatically not a Bavarian custom. Bavarians believe that the lemon flavor obscures the true flavor of the Weissbier. They also believe that the Weissbier does not need assistance to taste satisfying and refreshing. On a more objective level, they also point out that the oils in the lemon juice have the same effect as a greasy glass, that is, they destroy the white creamy head that is so characteristic of a properly poured Weissbier and an indispensable part of the total Weissbier experience.

A Bit of Weissbier History

When people think of Weissbier (“white beer”) nowadays, they invariably think of Bavaria—and rightly so, because the Bavarians not only put Weissbier on the map, they perfected it! Bavarian Weissbiers are wheat-based beers brewed with top-fermenting yeast, which means they are ales. As wheat ales, they stand apart from all other Bavarian beer styles, which are barley-based beers brewed with lager-making, bottom-fermenting yeast.

Nowadays, however, Weissbier is brewed in virtually all parts of Germany. Even the famous Altbier brewpub in Zum Uerige in Düsseldorf, a bastion of non-Bavarian brewing, now makes a Weissbier. Perhaps fittingly, the first wheat beers in history were not brewed by Bavarians. Rather, they were made far from the foothills of the Alps by Stone Age people who lived about eight to ten thousand years ago along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in what is now Iraq. Archaeologists call the people of this early civilization the Sumerians. The Sumerians were eventually conquered, around four thousand years ago, by the Assyrians, and then by the Babylonians. But these conquerors brewed wheat beers, too—as did the Egyptians under the pharos, around the same time.

The oldest archeological proof of wheat-beer brewing in Germany dates from the Bronze Age. It comes from a 2,800-year old earthenware amphora that was discovered in 1934 in a tribal grave near the small village of Kasendorf, not far from Kulmbach in northern Bavaria. The amphora can now be seen in the Kulmbach Beer Museum. Scientists have determined that the residues in the amphora are from dark wheat beer.

Ever since those beginnings in the Bronze Age, Bavarian wheat-beer making has had its ups and downs. More often than not, Bavarians made their beers from barley, mostly because the wheat harvest tended to be less reliable. Indeed, through the ages, Bavaria suffered through many wheat crop failures. Authorities in Bavaria, therefore, were always anxious to restrict the use of wheat for bread-making only and to limit the brewing of beer to barley. They knew their subjects well and feared that, if given half a chance, the Bavarians would rather go without wheat bread than without wheat beer! In 1447, the Munich city council even felt it had to forbid wheat beer brewing altogether. The councilors decreed that, within their jurisdiction, brewers could henceforth use only barley—a rule that Duke Wilhelm IV extended to all of Bavaria 69 years later, in the now-famous Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516.

In theory, the barley-only provision of the Beer Purity Law should have been the death knell of Weissbier-making in Bavaria...but it wasn’t! This is mostly because the medieval Dukes of Wittelsbach, the rulers of Bavaria, had more than just selfless concerns for their subjects’ health to guide them in their beer-political decision-making. They were also guided by purely fiscal calculations. And these drove them in the opposite direction from the goals of the Purity Law, as is evidenced by their strange dealings with the Dukes of Degenberg, in the remote village of Schwarzach, deep in the Bavarian Forest, near the Czech border.

In 1520, a mere four years after the passage of the Beer Purity Law, the Dukes of Wittelsbach, nicely ensconced in their cosmopolitan capital of Munich, granted their vassal from the hinterland, Sigismund von Degenberg, the exclusive privilege to brew and sell Weissbier in his home region—for a hefty fee, of course, which the Degenbergs then remitted for decades. In 1567, the Dukes of Wittelsbach confirmed the Weissbier ban for everybody else but the Degenbergers—only their fee for the privilege went up. Then, in 1602, the Wittelsbachs got a lucky break: The last Duke of Degenberg died that year without leaving an heir. As a result, the then ruler of Bavaria, Duke Maximilian I, found himself the owner of all the Degenberg clan’s assets—including their Weissbier privilege. Such were the rules of inheritance in feudal Bavaria.

Instead of letting Weissbier die, Maximilian quickly seized upon the privilege for himself and extended it to all the lands of his realm. Henceforth, only he would be allowed to brew and sell Weissbier, and he would reap handsome profits from his monopoly. To ensure the proper transfer of brewing knowledge, he ordered the Degenberger’s former Weissbier-brewmaster, Siegmund Bettl, to come to Munich. There, Master Bettl built the Wittelsbachers’s first “white” brewery. It stood smack downtown on the location of the current Hofbräuhaus pub. Innkeeper Maximilian opened shop in 1605 and never looked back. During the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1848), the insatiable Weissbier thirst of the Bavarian subjects provided the sole source of revenue for the Catholic House of Wittelsbach to raise the armies needed to fight off the invasion of the Protestant King Gustaf II Adolph of Sweden.

Soon every little town and village in Bavaria had its own Wittelsbach Weissbier brewery, and the profits from the monopoly rose to almost one-third of the entire state revenues. The fiscal bonanza lasted for almost a century and a half, when, by the end of the 18th century, “white beer” gradually fell out of favor and the traditional brown lager of Bavaria started to make a comeback. As Weissbier revenues declined, Weissbier breweries run by the state bureaucracy became largely unprofitable. Thus, with the monopoly losing its value, the crown began to lease its Weissbier brewhouses to burgher brewers. In 1798, therefore, the Wittelsbach decided to permit any nobleman or monastery to brew Weissbier. This measure, however, did not save the wheat brew and, by 1812, only two breweries were still making it. For all practical purpose, Weissbier had disappeared from the Bavarian beer menu.

This was the state of Weissbier when, in 1856, the crown sold the seemingly worthless brew right to a brewer named George Schneider I, who happily started what turned out to be a brand new Weissbier dynasty: The Schneider Family has been brewing Weissbier ever since. In 1872, Georg Schneider I and his son Georg II even bought one of the Wittelsbach breweries in downtown Munich, the Weisses Bräuhaus. Today, this "white brewery" is a pub and still under the management of a Schneider, the sixth-generation Georg VI. In 1927, the Schneider family moved its brewery from the old Wittelsbach premises in Munich to Kelheim, a few dozen miles to the east of Munich, where it still is today. Though Weissbier-making was sufficiently profitable for the Schneider family to do well for the first hundred years of owning the Weissbier brew right, the beer style itself seemed to be destined to remain just one of the many traditional German brews...until, miraculously, Weissbier experienced a sudden and dramatic revival in popularity in the 1960s, a comeback which continues to this day not just in Germany, but in the entire world.

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