By Jacob Wachtel
Literally translated as "White Beer", the Weiss Beer (Weißbier) has a long, rich history within Germany. Hailing from the Bavarian region, and possibly Bohemia before that, this style of beer has become synonymous with a wheat dominant grain bill, unique flavor profiles, and light, hazy appearance. Go to any bierhaus in Germany, and you are likely to find some version of a Weiss beer on their list.
History of Weiss Beer:
Early in its history, the Weiss beer wasn't associated with any particular grain bill like it is today. It was more likely brewed with whatever lightly kilned malts were seasonally available and affordable. Any light colored beer was termed a Weiss beer or “white” beer.
However, in the 1500's this all changed. In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV passed Germany’s "Purity Law" which made it illegal to brew with any other grain except barley. However, within 30 years his son gave one noble family, the Degenbergers, the sole privilege of brewing with wheat. Five years later he outlawed anyone brewing in the summer months, except for the Degenbergers of cours.
As you can guess, this created quite the demand for a Weiss beer, which by this time became known more for its wheat-heavy grain bill than for its light color. And thus the monopoly on wheat beer was created. Only Weiss beers were allowed to be brewed in the summer and only one family could brew with wheat. This monopoly lasted for a few centuries until things started to change.
Popularity faded in the mid 1700's forcing many Weiss breweries to close down, and by the 1800's the wheat monopoly was abolished simply due to lack of interest. In its place came the almost ubiquitous German style lagers and pilsners we know today.
However, what is forgotten is not lost, and in the 1960s Weiss beer eventually made a comeback. Partly due to larger advertising campaigns aimed at the renaissance of wheat-styled beers, it has become just as commonplace as the German Lager and a signature drink within German beer culture.
Characteristics of Weiss Beer:
But, what exactly is a Weiss beer?
Color Range: 2 - 6 SRM
Original Gravity: 1.044 - 1.052 OG
Final Gravity: 1.010 - 1.014 FG
IBU Range: 8 - 15
ABV Range: 4.3 - 5.6%
Apearance: Can range from pale straw color to deep gold. Long lasting foamy head and typically cloudy overall appearance of beer.
Aroma: Very little malt or hop charecter. Yeast driven phenol and fruity esters are prominent. May have slight notes of citrus, vanilla & bubblegum.
Flavor: A balance of clove and banana flavors are prominent. Could also have notes of vanilla and bubblegum. Soft maltiness with bready grain characters. Minimal hop flacor and bitterness with a dry finish.
Today, according to German law a Weiss beer (or the filtered version known as kristallweizen), or its derivatives like the hefeweizen, weizenbier, dunkelweizen,or the weizenbock must be made with at least 50% wheat.
But it isn’t just the wheat that makes a classic Weiss beer a Weiss beer? The yeast plays a vital role in creating the flavors we have come to expect.
All Weiss beers are top-fermenting ale-style beers, but they are brewed with a special strain of yeast that imparts some pretty unique flavors to the finished beer.
These beers maintain a balance between spicy (phenolic) and fruity (ester) flavors. Phenolic flavors can range between clove, allspice, and other spices, while the Estery flavors can range between banana, pear, and red fruits while sometimes bordering on a bubble-gum flavor. And if you’ve ever had a Hefeweizen for instance, you’ve most likely noticed the hazy appearance and tasted the balance of clove and banana that has become synonymous with a true Hefeweizen.
And it’s not just the flavors that make this beer so special, the wheat itself contains some characteristics that can make it a fun and challenging to brew with.
Wheat contains a significant amount of proteins in the form of gluten (obviously). These are the same parts that make bread dough sticky. These protein chains provide a few benefits: a longer-lasting foam or head on the beer, a hazy appearance in the beer as yeast remains suspended (popular with the Hefeweizen), and a fuller body or mouthfeel.
But, the things that make for a characteristic beer also make it characteristically difficult to brew with.
If wheat makes up a higher percentage of the grain bill, this can make it very difficult to mash and lauter. The same glutens that bring foam stability also cause the grains to bind together making it very tricky to extract all the sugars. If you’ve ever tried to drain your mash with a higher wheat bill, you might find it clogging due to the gumminess of the wheat. Barley has a hull on the seed which aids in water filtering through the grist, but wheat is hull-less which also adds to the difficulty of the grain “gluing” together. To combat this, a lot of brewers add rice hulls which create pockets that allow water to run through the grain during sparging.
Brewing a Weiss Beer:
Grains: To keep with authenticity, stick with what the Germans use: 50-75% wheat and a German Pils malt.
Mash: Traditionally, a deconcontion mash was used, and it can definitely enhance the beer’s complexity. But, with today’s malts it isn’t always necessary. It is recommended to use a step mash at a lower temperature Firulic acid rest - which helps create the compound during fermentation that leads to the clove-like flavor
Otherwise, just stick with a temperature around 153°F.
Hops: Due to Germany simplicity, most hop additions are at the 60min mark. Flavor and aroma hops can be added, but they are very minimal. German hops like Hallertau or Saaz are the most popular for this style.
Yeast: As mentioned above, the yeast is what carries this style of beer. Choose carefully or you may not end up with the flavor profile you were expecting. Possible choices are SafBrew WB-06, Wyeast 3068 Weihentsephan Weizen or White Labs WLP300 Hefeweizen ale.
Fermentation: This is critical because it allows the yeast to do what it does best! Check your yeast variety for temperature ranges, but most often it is between 60°F and 67°F. Keep towards the middle or lower end for best results.
Serving: Weiss beers are highly carbonated. The range is usually between 2.5 to 3 volumes. If bottling, you will want to use just under 1 cup of priming sugar. They are best served young, so don’t wait too long to test it out yourself!
It’s a fun and unique style to brew due to its flavor profile, high carbonation, and long-lasting head perfect for summer days and cookouts with friends.
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