History of Hefeweizen
For centuries, brewers have been making wheat beer. Wheat was employed for several reasons: It was plentiful and gave brewers more raw materials for making beer, provided good ‘heading’ properties, and made a very drinkable beverage. These properties are as desirable today as they were in ancient times.
Despite their resurgence in popularity, wheat beers remain a mystery to most Americans. Wheat beer is popular throughout Germany, and there are local differences in the style. Even the names vary weisse, weizen, and hefeweizen. Despite this, German wheat beers do share some common characteristics.
Though German-style wheat beers come from the land of lagers, they fit securely in the ale category. Therefore, you would expect to find fruity esters in the aroma, most common is the smell of banana. Adding to the aromatic complexity, a trace of clove supplies a spicy balance. The ingredient that causes this aroma and taste is the ‘Weinstephan’ yeast developed in Germany. One is likely to think of Banana-nut Bread when enjoying a German-style wheat beer. This characteristic sets German Hefeweizens apart from most American Wheat beers.
The major US brewers that produce hefeweizens (Widmere, Pyramid, and Michelob) use American Ale yeast to make their beers. This produces a much cleaner, citrus flavor, and is not as complex as the German beers. In addition, the finished product can be served in as little as ten days (Rumor has it, that Widmere has put their beer in kegs in four days and shipped in eight depending on the demand).
The heading comes from high amount of protein in wheat, which breaks surface tension and produces a big, thick, creamy crown of foam. Of course, these protein molecules cause another easily observed trait—cloudiness. Proteins are long molecules and have a length sufficient to refract light; thus, wheat beers will appear quite hazy. However, some brewers use a filtering process that renders the beer bright and clear, especially in American versions. Filtered American wheat beers tend to label as such, while the unfiltered are generally called Hefeweizen. Literally translated, hefeweizen means yeast-wheat. Although the yeast employed in American hefeweizens is different than in the German, it is left in the beer to give it the cloudy characteristic.
A layer of sediment in the bottom of the bottle also marks a wheat beer, most frequently in the opaque versions known as hefeweizen (this sediment collects in great quantity at the bottom of kegs, ergo, draft wheat beer should be stored upside down or on its side). When pouring a hefeweizen, Germans will leave a little beer in the bottle and swirl it to mix up the sediment, then pour it on top of the head. When consumed in this fashion the yeast provides an added side benefit, for it contains a significant amount of vitamin B.
What about the taste? It varies too. The range of wheat beer runs from light to bubbly to tangy to malty and all combinations thereof. There are also dark (dunkle weizen) versions. The majority has considerable effervescence and a tangy palate. Because of the haze layer of sediment, people sometimes mistakenly conclude that these beers have gone bad, but these are desirable traits, derived from the protein, brewers yeast, and vitamins in the wheat beer. You could think of it as health food.
For summer refreshment, the tangy character of the wheat beer is pleasant natural thirst quencher. Whatever the variety, wheat beers do share one universal trait; they are popular in the summer months. In addition, the adding of fruit to the beverage is traditional in Germany, raspberries, blueberries, and of course, lemon is very common. The fruit flavors compliment the natural ale fruitiness produced by the yeast.
*Esters: Chemical compounds in beer produced as a by-product of fermentation. Alcohol and weak acids combine to produce aromatics regularly found in ales. Beer drinkers describe the effect as fruity.
*Much of the above history was taken from The Beer Drinker’s Bible, by Gregg Smith & Carrie Getty.