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Back in the middle ages, the Germanic tribes began to brew much paler ale than usual. The reason: These brewers used the most abundant resources and brewing ingredients available to them, just like all other civilized cultures. For the Germans, wheat grain was one of these as was barley, and the use of both to brew one beer brought the inception of the Weissbier weisse meaning white. They were so much lighter than the traditional dark beers that the term "white beer" became a common naming convention.
There are sources that believe Weissbier to be one of the oldest styles of beer, a style created by farmers simply gathering the grains at hand. And some say that the world's oldest established brewery, Brauerei Weihenstephan in Freising, Germany, brewed similar styles as early as 1040 AD. Today, there are four main styles of Weissbier: Southern German Weissbier, Berliner Weisse, Belgian Witbier and American Wheat beer. The Southern German Weissbier, more commonly known as Weizen or Hefeweizen is what this article will touch upon. We'll also talk about the Americanized version and compare the two a bit.
Simply broken down, Hefe (yeast) Weizen (wheat) is of German origin and traditionally means an unfiltered wheat beer with yeast in it. It is often referred to as "weissbier mit hefe" (with yeast). It is an ale and usually a bottle-conditioned one at that filtered, then infused with a secondary yeast strain for natural conditioning. Crafted with up to 65 percent malted wheat, the remainder of the grist is malted barley. The addition of wheat is what gives this beverage a very crisp and refreshing profile. Hefeweizens are generally highly carbonated brews, and when poured, these magnificent beers should be cloudy (from the higher proteins contained in wheat malt), pale gold to a spectrum of amber shades and with an almost-on-the-verge-of-overflowing, meringue-like crown (thick, stiff, foamy and creamy). You can stave off an overflowing head by rinsing your glass in cold water first.
It is also customary that the sedimentary yeast at the bottom of the bottle be decanted into the glass with the beer. Long, slender, trumpet-style glasses are the appropriate glassware for the style and are best for showing off the impressive head after a proper pouring. Try leaving some of the beer in the bottle (about a half an inch), roll the bottle in between your hands (to loosen the settled yeast), then pour every single last drop of yeast in your glass, as here lies much of a Hefeweizen's signature taste, aroma and appearance. Traditional German Hefeweizen yeast-strains yield phenolic smells and flavors, which are sometimes medicinal and/or clove-like. Fruity esters, higher alcohol contents, bubble-gum, vanilla and the trademark fruity banana flavors are also by-products of the yeast's handiwork.
Now a true German-style Hefeweizen is a big contrast in flavor when compared to its Americanized brethren. For instance, American Wheat beers more commonly use a neutral American yeast strain, which will emphasize the malt character a little more and have a much cleaner flavor. Some of the other differences between the two are the use of hops and malt. German Hefeweizens are barely touched with hops as not to bring harshness to the delicate balance of esters and phenols (fruity fusel alcohol and a medicinal by-product), and the fermented wheat flavor. Some American brewers deem it necessary to make a mark and hop the Wheat beer like any other ale they brew, not too bitter but certainly noticeable. As for the malt, usually American Wheat beers will mash with American malts, though they have been known to throw in some tradition, especially when trying to brew the real thing, and use German malts. Obviously, German Hefeweizens use German malts and generally the percentage of wheat is higher versus American Wheat beers.
The following are just a few examples of the above-mentioned styles. Most are easily available, however, some may take some worthwhile searching for.
German or German-style Hefeweizens:
Boston Beer Works Haymarket Hefeweizen
Cambridge Brewing Co. Hefeweizen
Franz Joseph Sailer Oberdorfer Weiss Helles
Hacker-Pschorr Hefe Weisse
John Harvards Brew House Hefeweizen
Julius Echter Hefe-weisse
Paper City Hefe-wezien
Pinkus Organic Hefe-weizen
Rock Bottom Hubaweizen
American Wheat beers:
Anchor Summer Beer
Harpoon/UFO (Un-Filtered Offering) Hefeweizen
Flying Dog In-Heat Wheat
Michelob Hefe Weizen (YIKES!)
Sierra Nevada Wheat Beer
There are many other American beers that use the term wheat on the label, though it tends to be a much smaller amount of wheat, which simply adds more to the crispness of the beer than anything else. Most are seasonal summer wheat ales or fruit-flavored Wheat beers.
One thing that the German and American styles both have in common is being served with a slice of lemon, either on the rim or right in the glass. The majority of Hefeweizen drinkers embrace this presentation, as there is something about the puckering tartness of a fresh cut lemon slice in a German Hefeweizen or American Wheat that sooths that summer heat away. However, we highly recommend that you dont use a lemon as 1) its not as traditional as you think and 2) it takes away from the actual beer. Enjoy!
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