In its many different forms, wheat beer has become one of the country's most popular brews. Bavarian-style Hefeweizen, fruity and spicy; American wheat, light and refreshing; and myriad fruit beers served at America's brewpubs are just a small sampling of the different incarnations of wheat beer.
Knowing the tremendous popularity that wheat beers now enjoy, it is hard to imagine that they almost became extinct just 140 years ago. After centuries of immense popularity, traditional Bavarian wheat beer was being drowned out by improved Munich brown beers during the first half of the 1800's. As if that wasn't enough, the flood of light-colored, clear lagers that engulfed the world in the middle of the last century made things financially difficult for any brewery trying to sell ale.
Through the deluge one man had the vision to preserve this unique and wonderful beer. Georg Schneider started his Munich-based wheat beer brewery in 1855, and in 1872 managed to have the rights to brew wheat beer made public (before then, wheat beer brewing in Bavaria was the exclusive right of the Duke). Although sales were slow at first, wheat beer regained some of its popularity. Today, it is one of the trendiest beers in Germany and America. Lift your glass in thanks to Georg the next time you drink one!
The traditional Bavarian wheat beer, known as "Hefeweizen," (which literally means, yeast wheat) "Weiss," (translates to white) or even "Weisse," (again, white) is typically deep gold to ruddy orange in color, hazy, highly carbonated, and rich with the aroma of bananas and clove. Some, such as the famed Schneider Weisse, have vanilla notes. The fruity and spicy flavors are imparted by a special strain of ale yeast that produces the same chemicals found in bananas, cloves, and vanilla!
American wheat beers often use a more neutral ale or lager yeast during production, and therefore taste more bland than their Bavarian cousins. These beers are sometimes marketed under the moniker Hefeweizen, but since they taste nothing like a true Weizenbier, this appellation serves only to confuse the consumer.
Bavarian-style Weizen beers are available in unfiltered form ("Hefeweizen") or filtered ("Kristall Weizen"). All are made from at least 50% wheat malt, with 66% wheat malt being typical. Because they are such complex and richly-flavored beers, they express themselves best at about 45-50 °F. Fruit garnish is quite unnecesaary, and actually hurts the head retention and flavor balance of the beer. Only the most touristy Bavarian bars serve Hefeweizen with lemon.
There are also dark Bavarian wheat beers, called Dunkles Weizen. These are similar in aroma to their pale sibling, but may have a more pronounced maltiness and toastiness in both nose and palate. They are rich enough to provide a bit of warmth on cold winter nights.
Weizenbier is also made to bock and doppelbock strength. Usually dark in color, Weizenbocks are often quite similar to Dunkles Weizen, except for their added strength and increased maltiness. Schneider's Aventinus is a great commercial example. Some brewpubs try their hand at this style occasionally; my own Weizenbock is unique in that it is light in color, but it is still intensely malty.
Astute readers may be wondering why I havent mentioned hops yet. Like all modern beers, Hefeweizen is brewed with hops. There are not much of them, though. The bitterness of the yeast-produced, clove-like substances balances the sweetness of the malt quite effectively. Excessive hops in Weizen will shift the balance too far towards bitter, which will be detrimental to drinkability.
Brewing a traditional Bavarian Weizen at home is fun and challenging. In some ways, it may be easier to make than some other styles because the esters and phenols considered flaws in most other beers are desirable here! Brewers who mash, however, will find that lautering the huskless wheat malt can be quite trying.
Many Bavarian Weizens are decoction mashed, but very good Weizenbier can be made with the more simple infusion mash. While protein rests were important in decades past, all commercially available wheat malts are now well-modified. A low temperature rest during the mash will cause too much protein degradation and lead to problems with head retention.
Extract brewers need only buy malt extract that is made from at least 50% wheat malt and brew as usual. Both Briess and Weyermann make wheat malt extracts that are suitable. It is impossible to brew an extract Weizen that will be as lightly colored as all-grain examples. Light to medium amber is about as light as it gets, so the following extract recipe is for a Dunkles Weizen.
The yeast really makes the difference in this beer. You must use an authentic Bavarian strain to get the requisite clove and banana flavors. Wyeasts 3068 and White Labs 300 both yield excellent results. Just be sure to make a large, healthy starter and aerate your wort well to get the best possible fermentation. Keep the fermentation temperature under 75 °F for best results.
Einfach Extrakt Dunklesweizen
Batch size: 5.0 gallons
OG: about 1.054
8 pounds Briess or Weyermann malt extract
6 ounces dark crystal malt
2 ounces chocolate malt (optional)
2-2.5 HBU hop pellets (variety is not critical, but do not use high alpha or citrusy hops)
Heat brewing water to about 150 °F and steep the crushed specialty malts for 30 minutes.
Bring the batch to a boil and boil for 60 minutes, adding hop pellets 45 minutes before the end of the boil.
Chill the wort quickly to about 65 °F, separate the trub and get it into the fermentor using your favorite technique. Aerate well and pitch the yeast.
If you pitched healthy yeast, the fermentation will be done in 4-6 days. Rack the beer into a bottling bucket and package. Add 3/4 to 1 cup of priming sugar, depending on how much fizz you like.
Echt Bayerisches Hefeweizen All Grain
This recipe calls for an infusion mash rather than a decoction, but makes up for the lost maltiness by using Munich malt instead of Pilsner. If you would rather decoction mash, you may choose to replace some of the Munich malt with Pilsner.
Batch size: 5.0 gallons
OG: about 1.054
66% Weyermann light wheat malt
34% Weyermann light Munich malt
(base the total weight of malt on your own system efficiency)
2-2.5 HBU hop pellets (see hop note, above)
Mash in at 145-149 °F and rest for 60 minutes. Add boiling water to raise temperature to 160-170 °F and begin recirculation of wort. Run the wort slowly to avoid compacting the grain bed and causing a stuck mash. The wort will not be as clear all-barley malt worts.
Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding the hops 60 minutes before the end of the boil. Remove trub, chill, etc. and get it into the fermentor using your favorite technique (teleportation is best, but expensive).
Add yeast and ferment and package as above. Both beers are ready to drink within three weeks, and are best consumed while fresh.