Hefeweizen German-style Wheat Beer | By Susannah Kiernan
Have you ever seen this intimidating-looking word on a beer menu and chosen a lager instead, lest the entire bar should turn, point, and laugh at your ridiculous inability to correctly pronounce the German? Oh, of course not. Me neither. But, just in case a friend of yours is ever in this predicament, feel free to let them know it’s pronounced “heff-eh-vite-zen.” They can thank you later.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the word Hefeweizen, if you drink beer often, there is a good chance that you’ve had one. Simply put, a Hefeweizen is a German-style Wheat Beer. “Hefe” is the German word for yeast, and “Weizen” means wheat, though it’s mostly in North America that we refer to this style as Hefeweizen. In Germany this style is more commonly referred to as Weissbier (white beer). What differentiates this popular style of beer is the fact that, unlike some other beer styles brewed with wheat, Hefeweizen are bottle-conditioned and unfiltered. Kristallweizen, another German style beer brewed with wheat, on the other hand, is filtered, removing the yeast and wheat cloudiness that are defining characteristics of the Hefeweizen style.
Traditionally hailing from Bavaria, the Hefeweizen brewing process sees a significant proportion of malted barley replaced with malted wheat. By German law, “white beer” (nicknamed for the contrast in colour to Munich’s traditional brown beer at the time) brewed in Germany must be top-fermented. Top-fermentation is defined as “a violent kind of alcoholic fermentation at a temperature high enough to carry the yeast cells to the top of the fermenting liquid.” Don’t worry, though, no yeast cells are harmed in the making of this beer. The specialized strains of yeast used in this process create overtones of banana and clove as by-products of fermentation and give the style much of its unique and identifiable flavour.
Hefeweizen style beer is usually close to 15 IBUs, and is particularly noted for its low hop bitterness and relatively high carbonation (approaching four volumes) which is considered important to help balance the beer’s malty sweetness. Without getting too deeply bogged down in the science of it all, the result of this top-fermenting yeast process is a flavour combination often described as – clove-y – medicinal, and smoky, with undertones of banana, vanilla, and sometimes, even bubble gum.
Old rules and new recipes
Historically, the Reinheitsgebot (also known as the German Beer Purity Law) first proposed in 1487 and enacted in Bavaria in 1516, states that the only ingredients allowed in the brewing of beer were: water, barley, and hops. A few centuries later, yeast’s role in the brewing process was discovered and then added to this list, rounding out the Big Four ingredients we know and love today. Now, as is the case with most laws, there were several important factors that lead to the institution of the Reinheitsgebot. First of all, the practice of using unsafe preservatives, common among shadier brewers, led to hops (a safe means of preservation) necessarily becoming the only legal option for the process. The other reasons were political. Banning the use of other grains ensured that wheat and rye would always be available for bread makers, and insisting on such rigid standards ensured that most foreign beers could easily be denied entry into Germany.
So, what does this mean for the beer itself? Well, that’s a slightly more controversial topic. Today, Germany still claims to uphold the same law, but tends to use it as more of a marketing tool than for actual quality control. Of course, this is totally fine – on the one hand it’s nice to know exactly what’s in the beer you’re drinking, especially these days when we’re finding out that some of the most popular beers in the world contain ingredients like GMO Corn Syrup or fish bladder (called isinglass, if you want to look up this delightful practice). On the other hand, it’s no secret that some of the best beers in the world are brewed with ingredients outside of the Big Four, like: fruit, spices, other grains, and flavourings.
Luckily, breaking the German Purity Laws has long been popular practice. The Bavarian Duke of Wittelsbach was said to have particularly enjoyed “White Beer” (aka Weissbier, aka Weizenbier, aka Wheat Beer) that was brewed using malted wheat on top of the usual barley. As such, it was allowed that one single brewery in the village of Schwarzach was allowed to brew Weissbier. Over time it was decided that Weissbier needed to be made more widely available and it began to be brewed all across Bavaria. It became so popular, in fact, that the Weissbier brewery profits were used to fund the Bavarian Army from 1618-1648. Not bad for what started out as an illegal proposition.
As the craft brewing scene has grown in Canada, so has the number, and quality, of Hefeweizen beers brewed across our sprawling nation. Some brewers try to pay homage to the centuries-old Bavarian recipe and stick to the basics, while others have been more experimental, twisting the old classic to produce delightful and often surprising new flavours. The result is a long and varied list of wheat beers that is sure to satisfy. Some notable Hefeweizens are:
British Columbia’s Driftwood Brewery’s Entangled Hopfenweisse Hefeweizen is made with Mosaic hops, which give it its tropical fruit flavours like guava, pineapple and mango.
Alberta’s Last Best Brewing & Distillery has released a brand new beer brewed by women and released on International Women’s Day called Hoppy Hefeweizen that is described as a “smooth drinker with a citrusy bite at the end.”
In Saskatchewan, Paddock Wood Brewing Co. has a Hefeweizen (aptly named Hefeweizen) whose bubble-gum forward flavour is offset by a spicier clove balance that cuts the sweetness.
Manitoba’s Lake of the Woods Brewery’s Vacation Land Hefeweizen doesn’t stray too far off the beaten path but has a unique earthy, floral aroma that translates into a sweeter finish.
In Ontario, craft brewing pioneer Muskoka Brewery has their easy drinking Summer Weiss. It’s brewed seasonally and crafted with “visions of summer in mind” with a fresh banana bread aroma.
Out of Montreal, Québec comes Brasseur R.J.’s Belle Gueule Hefeweizen, a nice classic ode to the original that is smooth and balanced.
On the East Coast, Yellowbelly Brewery in Newfoundland is one of the few breweries to attempt the style with their seasonal delight, Hef.
Nova Scotia’s Breton Brewing Company has one called Stirling Hefeweizen – named after the Scottish Earl who gave the Province its flag – that breaks the 1:1 ratio mould with a 60% wheat to 40% barley brew.
After being disappointed with the lack of East Coast German style wheat beers, New Brunswick’s Acadie-Broue nano- brasserie set out to create their own. With his second attempt, Brewmaster Patrice Godin was able to get the perfect balance of clove and banana notes.
Representing the Territories, Yukon Brewing wins the name-game with their Chilkoot Grizzly Wheat Hefeweizen, whose recipe stays true to the German original.
Of course, these are only a handful of examples of the hundreds or more Canadian interpretations of the Hefeweizen style. With the freedom to be creative and adventurous by not being beholden to any overbearing purity laws, brewers have free reign to think outside the box and bring this style into the 21st Century.
With April 23rd 2017 marking the 500th anniversary of the passing of the German Beer Purity Law, it’s a great time to reflect on an historic beer that came about as an opposition to the tradition. With an origin story as interesting and complex as the country that brews it, Hefeweizen is more than just the perfect, easy-drinking summer beer option that has “patio season” written all over it. Whether you’re a connoisseur or new to the beer game there is sure to be a Wheat Beer out there for you. Hefeweizen may be hard to say, but it’s easy to drink, and with each mouthful you are drinking deeper of history. Or at least that’s what you can tell yourself when you’re onto your third pint.
Ontario’s Best Hefeweizen
I know, I know, fightin’ words. I already mentioned Muskoka’s ode to the classic and so many more amazing Hefeweizen style beers. However, only one has the distinct honour of winning the top prize, not only for this style but the brewery itself.
Side Launch Brewing Company: Side Launch Wheat
It’s no accident Side Launch took home Gold for their Wheat beer. Awards or not, this beer is the top Hefeweizen prize in my books. I applaud Side Launch for not trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead of getting overly creative they simply brewed an authentic Bavarian style wheat beer, unfiltered with its natural yeast and proteins, the way the German Beer Gods intended it. If you want a great example of how to make an historic German beer recipe in Ontario, you have to try Side Launch Wheat.