Weizen - An Old Style Finds New Life


Crisp, spicy, and refreshing, Bavarian-style wheat beers are once again as valued as they were in days of old.

In the early days of German brewing, wheat beers were one of the most popular drinks available. Dr. Jacobus Theodorus Tabernämontanus in 1613 offered some observations on beers throughout the country, noting that “The beer of Meissen is noble, good and healthful, and in some places is made excellently; among them the beer of Torgau is very famous, and besides strengthens by its spicy flavor and taste all principal members of the body” (1). That “spicy flavor and taste” would be an apt description of the Weizen style that has become so popular from Munich to Portland.

“Weizen” has come to popularly refer to the spicy Bavarian or Süddeutche Weizenbier style, as opposed to the Northern Weiss or Weisse. Weizenbier in German means “wheat beer,” whereas Weisse means “white beer,” referring to its pale color. Although wheat beers are certainly more golden in color and not truly white, they are significantly lighter in color than the brown beers of Germany to which they were originally compared. The “white” designation may have also referred to the cloudy appearance of the unfiltered Hefeweizens.

The use of these terms also continues to be somewhat cloudy. On a recent trip through Bavaria, I found that ordering a “Weisse” will always get you a wheat beer, but ordering a “Weizen” may get you only a quizzical look. And the Weisse you get might be either a spicy Weizen or a more neutral-flavored wheat ale. At the Löwenbrau beer hall near the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, the Weisse beer was a sparkling golden wheat beer with a relatively high hop bitterness. At Salzburg’s Die Weisse, a small brewery restaurant specializing in wheat beers, the Weisse had a strong phenolic and sweet banana ester character, with a cloudy light amber color. Obviously, a better command of the German language and a knowledge of local styles is helpful in getting the beer you want.

No matter what word is used in ordering, the result is a beer that can be refreshing as a summer drink or an enjoyable winter warmer, such as Dunkelweizen or Weizenbock. For beer drinkers in Bavaria, the beer has regained its place in popular culture; in America, it is rapidly becoming the beer of choice.


Wheat may have been used in beer from the earliest days of brewing history, but wheat beer began its ascendancy in popularity and long association with German royalty in the late 15th century, when the Barons of Degenberg granted themselves the right to brew wheat beer (2). Beginning with production in the town of Schwarzach, they soon extended their authority to brew throughout the Bavarian Forest area and Bohemia. Although the Degenbergs resisted requests by Duke Albrecht V to pay a fee for the brewing rights to wheat beer, the family lineage ended in 1602, and their rights to brewing passed to the Wittelsbach Empire.

During this time, the popularity of wheat beer may have also led to the institution of the famous Reinheitsgebot in 1516 as an encouragement to brewers to use barley instead of wheat. Although this decree had little success in affecting the demand for wheat beer, in 1566 an ordinance was passed prohibiting the use of wheat in the brewing of beer altogether, for the reason that too much wheat was being sold to brewers instead of being used for the production of bread, which was seen as a more important product for the German populace (1). Of course, the nobility and clergy were never prohibited from brewing their own beer; only the lower classes seemed to need to have their resources redirected.

In Munich, Weissbier was brewed with great success beginning in 1602 under a “privilege,” with rights to produce the beer under the control of the Elector of Bavaria. This beer was produced at the famous Hofbräuhaus, the Court Brewery, which is now the beer hall visited by almost every tourist to Munich. Consumption increased rapidly; in 1626 it was brewed in Munich’s Weissbier brewery four times a week; 20 years later it was brewed three times a day(1).

Weissbier production continued to increase through the early part of the 18th century, although the style went into decline with the rising popularity of dunkels in the latter half of the century (for more information on Dunkels, see last issue’s Styles column, by Jay Hersh [3]). By 1798, with the style’s popularity declining and the royal family’s need for revenues increasing, wheat beer brewing became available to anyone who would make an appropriate payment to the government. The royal monopoly on wheat beer brewing had disappeared by 1812, and all 21 of the breweries of the reigning family were producing both brown beer and wheat beer.

A Taste of Weizen

In the United States, the term “Weizen” has become most closely associated with the spicy phenolic and estery style of wheat beer typical of southern Germany, especially Bavaria. As the popularity of the style has risen, many domestic brewers have appropriated the term “Hefeweizen,” although producing beers that may be neither “mit Hefe” nor Weizen. Most come to the term merely by being an unfiltered wheat beer brewed with ale yeast. Widmer’s popular Hefe-Weizen, for example, has plenty of yeast, giving the beer an almost milky appearance at times, but it has more hop character than Weizen yeast flavor. Pyramid’s Hefeweizen is lighter on the Hefe, but still has a clean American ale character. Weinhard’s takes the style even further from its roots, brewing its “HefeWeizen” as a “traditional wheat lager lightly enhanced with honey.” The following are some German and domestic examples of more typical Weizenbiers.

Schneider Weisse: A classic Weizen from one of Germany’s oldest producers of the style, G. Schneider & Sohn of Munich. Darker than most of its competitors, the beer emphasizes an estery aroma and flavor with a mild phenolic bite, accompanied by a rich malt character.

Paulaner Hefe-Weizen: Labeled on the bottled version as coming complete with “Naturtrüb,” the beer has an almost smoky phenolic aroma and soft yeasty flavor.

Sudwerk Privatbraueri Hübsch Hefe Weizen: This Davis, California, brewery is producing a beer quite close to its German predecessors in flavor and production style. Using traditional open fermentation and a Bavarian yeast strain, their Hefe Weizen is a crisp summer version of a classic Weizen.

Löwenbräu Dunkle Weizen: Served in a footed LöwenWeisse glass in the cellar restaurant at the Mathäser in Munich, this cloudy, dark amber beer has a fruity, applelike aroma and a tart finish. The malt character for the Dunkle Weizen is richer and more flavorful, but not roasted.

Aventinus: This Weizen Doppelbock from G. Schneider & Sohn is a copper-colored beer with an overpowering malt aroma that almost eclipses the more traditional Weizen characteristics. The beer has a sweet, fruity aroma and flavor, which along with a rich malt complexity make it ideal for sipping and savoring.

As the ducal breweries were sold off and wheat beer steadily dropped in sales and availability, Georg Schneider had the foresight in the mid-1850s to lease the showcase Weissbier brewery at the Hofbräuhaus. By promising to vacate his premises for the expansion of the adjacent royal brown beer brewery, he gained the rights for both himself and the public at large to brew wheat beer, bringing the royal tradition of wheat beer brewing to an end by 1872 (2).

Wheat beer sales continued to languish into the next century as a result of competition from the newly popular Pilseners and lagers. Market share for wheat beer had fallen to single-digit figures by the 1960s. Soon after, however, the style began a resurgence in popularity, now accounting for up to 40% of Bavarian beer sales (4).

In recent years, that popularity has been paralleled in the United States through both the introduction of imported Bavarian wheat beers and the growth of domestically brewed wheat beers using traditional Weizen yeasts. Wheat beers first began to appear with the growing microbrewery market as brewers expanded their range of beer styles and flavors. Today, even many of the smallest brewpubs offer Weizen as a summer special and even as a year-round product, many of which can compete with the best of the imports.

What Makes it Weizen

As Americans became familiar with German wheat beers, the characteristic Weizen flavor and aroma was often mistakenly interpreted as a product of the wheat malt. As Weizen-style beers became more common, it was soon understood that it was the yeast that gave the beer its unique flavor profile. While American wheat beers brewed with standard ale yeasts may have the typically bready flavor of beers made with significant portions of wheat, they lack the traditional Weizen flavor and aroma. Although the Weizen flavor is made up of many components, the yeast is by far the most defining characteristic.

Yeast: The aroma and flavor of a Weizen is a combination of spicy, clovelike phenolics and esters, particularly banana esters (isoamyl acetate), as well as some higher alcohols. The primary phenolic characteristic has been identified as 4-vinyl guaiacol in amounts ranging from 3 to 6 ppm, although other phenolics such as 4-vinyl phenol and the smoky 4-vinyl syringol are also often present (2). The yeast used for German wheat beers are all top-fermenting, making Weizens a part of the German ale-brewing tradition that extends back before the isolation of bottom-fermenting yeast strains.

The flavor profiles of individual Weizens are enhanced by a combination of each brewery’s unique yeast strain and its individual fermentation practices. Higher initial fermentation temperatures contribute to higher levels of esters and phenolics, whereas lower initial fermentation temperatures tend to produce a “cleaner” tasting beer with less perceptible Weizen characteristics. The Weizen character may also develop more strongly in beers brewed in traditional open fermentors as opposed to cylindroconical tanks (2).

Home brewers have ready access to at least three strains of Weizen yeasts (see the 1996 Brewers’ Market Guide for an exhaustive treatment of available yeast strains [5]). Wyeast has both #3056, a Bavarian Wheat yeast with a soft Weizen flavor that is low in phenols, and #3068, a Weihenstephan strain that is higher in phenolic characteristics. Yeast Lab W51 Bavarian Weizen from G.W. Kent, Inc. (Ann Arbor, Michigan) has a strong spicy character and produces a reliable Weizen aroma and taste. Commercial brewers can obtain a wide range of Weizen strains from the Hefebank Weihenstephan in Germany or Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Malt: German wheat beers typically contain 50–60% wheat malt, with some breweries using as high as 70% wheat in the grist. The balance is malted barley and color malts, if desired. Winter wheat is the preferred material because of its lower protein content and resulting higher extract. Wheat malts can be either pale or dark and can be combined with dark barley malt or dark caramalt for Dunkelweizen. The resulting color for most Weizen ranges from pale gold to light amber, with Dunkelweizen generally amber to copper in color.

Water: Water used in German wheat beer brewing varies considerably, from soft to hard, and with a wide range of alkalinities. Good water with average total hardness and alkalinity should be sufficient for the brewing of any Weizen style.

Hops: Hopping rates are traditionally quite low, generally below 16 IBUs even in a Weizenbock, and unlike most German beers, hop flavor is not a characteristic of the style. The phenolics in the beer provide sufficient bitterness and balance to the malt to make additional hop bitterness undesirable. Noble hops, particularly Hallertauer, are recommended, nonetheless.

Weizen Styles

Weizen comes in a range of styles, from light to dark, moderate to strong, and with and without yeast in the final trade package. The typical Weizen is a pale to amber beer with a gravity of 11.5–14 °P (1.046–1.056). If the beer is filtered, it may be labeled as a Kristallweizen, while the unfiltered versions may be labeled as Hefeweizen or “mit Hefe” — literally, with yeast. The yeast is felt by many to have superior nutritive or restorative powers, and the bottle may be roused before or while serving to thoroughly mix in the Hefe (6).

Dark wheat beers, or Dunkelweizens, have a richer malt flavor but are not as dark as might be expected. Most are amber to copper in color, gaining their richness from more highly kilned barley or wheat malts. Weizenbocks are generally a Christmas offering, brewed to a Bock or Doppelbock strength of 16–20 °P (1.066–1.080) and having a stronger malt profile that may overpower some of the traditional Weizen character. Most are dark amber in color, although pale versions are also available.

One interesting variation on the Weizen style is Schierlinger Roggen, a German rye beer brewed with a Weizen yeast. Using 60% rye malt instead of wheat, this beer has a distinctively spicy Weizen aroma and flavor and a bright copper color, and it is accompanied by a large rocky white head and rye malt bitterness. The beer has an original gravity of 12 °P (1.048) (4).

Brewing Weizen

While some breweries undoubtedly use an infusion mash for Weizens, decoction mashing is the traditional method for brewing wheat beer. The decoction mash helps to maximize protein and starch breakdown in the wheat malt and provides the rich malt profile that is characteristic of the style. Both Eric Warner in German Wheat Beer (2) and Greg Noonan in his recently updated opus, Brewing Lager Beer (7,8), give excellent descriptions of single- and double-decoction mashing schedules that can be used successfully with wheat beers. One caveat is that because of the lack of husk in the wheat malt, wheat beers are subject to stuck mashes. A slow sparge is advisable, with care taken at the beginning of the runoff to keep a slow flow rate to avoid setting the grain bed.

After lautering, the boil time should be 90–120 minutes, longer if higher proportions of wheat malt are used in the mash (2). As mentioned, the hopping rate is low, so little contribution is made by the hops in encouraging protein coagulation, although Irish moss can be added at the beginning of the boil for this purpose. During the boil, two or more hop additions can take place at various stages, but generally not in the last 15 minutes (to avoid introducing aromatic hop qualities).

Fermentation should take place at ale temperatures, between 54 °F and 77 °F (12–25 °C) (2). Warner notes that “there is an old rule of thumb among Weissbier brewers that the sum of the pitching and the fermentation temperatures should equal 30 °C for a Weissbier of superior quality to result.” This would generally mean pitching the yeast at 54 °F (12 °C) and fermenting at 64 °F (18 °C).

Fermentation traditionally takes place in open fermentors, with primary fermentation finished in 72 hours. The beer is often lagered for up to 28 days before bottling, at which time it may be kräusened. Some beers at this stage are centrifuged to remove the original yeast and then have a new culture added for secondary fermentation in the bottle, either with a dose of the same yeast or a bottom-fermenting yeast that may be more stable (4). Others may be filtered for a Kristallweizen. Regardless, the beer needs a high degree of carbonation to give the beer its classic effervescence and creamy white head.

Weizen in America

The spicy, estery aroma and taste of the traditional Süddeutche Weizenbier would have seemed to make it the most unlikely candidate to become a popular American brewing style. The strong phenolic characteristic typical of Weizen is normally considered a fatal flaw in most beers. The flavor is also as far removed from the traditional American preference for beers that have as clean and neutral a profile as possible, producing instead a drink with a strong aroma and flavor. Despite all these factors, Weizen has become one of the most popular of the specialty beer styles, with breweries as large as the Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Co. (Portland, Oregon) now introducing Weizen-style beers.

Despite a recent American history that has valued blandness above character, the renewed interest in Weizen, particularly the cloudy Hefeweizen, does have some historical basis. According to the American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, published in 1908 (9), “Weiss beer in America is sometimes stored, bunged, and fined like lager beer, but a brilliant Weiss beer does not seem to catch the fancy of the consumers, who are accustomed to the cloudy, lively article of Berlin fame.” Although Wahl and Henius may have been referring to a style more along the lines of the sour Berliner Weisse, the American preference for cloudy beer has turned turbidity into sales for some Hefeweizen producers.

But the use of “Weizen” in the name doesn’t guarantee that the brewer is offering a beer in the traditional Bavarian style using a yeast that yields the classic phenolic and ester character. Several domestically produced Hefeweizens emphasize the unfiltered, yeasty character of the beer but are made with an American ale yeast, which produces none of the classic Weizen flavors. Because of the rising popularity of Weizens, many breweries have adopted the German name for their American-style wheat beers, most likely to give the beer a certain marketing cachet.

Enjoying Weizen

In Germany, everyone from primly coifed ladies at lunch to students in smoke-filled bars can be seen enjoying a Weizen in its traditional tall tulip-shaped glass with a heavy foot. This unique style of glassware easily accommodates the large rocky head of the beer and helps to focus its aromatic qualities. The design also lends itself to one note of caution — always toast your neighbor with the heavy bottom of the glass, not the thin lip on the top, to avoid the unnecessary destruction of glassware.

In the United States, and less so in Bavaria, the beer is often accompanied by a slice of lemon floating on the top. Though this may be similar to the Schuss (raspberry syrup) or Waldmeister (woodruff) added to a Berliner Weisse, even Michael Jackson in his Beer Companion was at a loss to explain this practice (3). Personally, I find it an unnecessary touch, although it can be a refreshing addition of acidity on a hot summer afternoon.

The range of flavors in Weizen makes it a style well worth exploring. The combination of fruitiness and tart phenolics makes it a perfect accompaniment to meals and hearty snacks, or you can enjoy it all on its own. Whether it’s a yeasty Hefeweizen or a sweet Weizenbock, this drink of kings is a unique experience for the adventurous beer enthusiast.

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