With aggressive hazy IPAs and West Coast IPAs dominating craft beer, it’s sobering to remember that other, more approachable versions of ales exist. Styles like hefeweizen, a German-style wheat beer, are excellent beers to break up your palette fatigue from hoppy beers. But what is a hefeweizen?
In German, hefe means “yeast” and weizen translates to “wheat.” And it’s those two ingredients that typically define this style of ale. Pouring a cloudy, golden color with a thick foamy head from the wheat, hefeweizens also feature iconic banana, clove, bubblegum, and even black pepper aromas and notes from the yeast.
As a whole, hefeweizens are an easy-drinking, refreshing beer. Whether you’re drinking them on a hot day in the summer or around a fire pit in the fall, hefeweizens are an under-the-radar style that shouldn’t be skipped.
A Brief History of Hefeweizens
This history of hefeweizens has roots dating back hundreds of years in Germany. Originating in the 1520s in Bavaria, Germany, hefeweizens are a type of weissbier (“white beer”) also known as weizenbier (“wheat beer”). These beers actually stepped a bit outside of the bounds of the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Purity Law which stated that beer could only be made with four ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast (apparently wheat did not count as barley!).
For that reason the rulers of Bavaria at the time (and lovers of weizenbier), the Dukes of Wittelsbach created a loophole called Weissbierregal or the “right to brew wheat beer”. In 1520 the rulers decreed that a single brewery in the village of Schwarzach run by the Dukes of Degenberg would be allowed to brew weizenbier.
The Degenbergs were the sole brewers of weizenbier and hefeweizens until 1602 when the final Duke of Degenberg died without an heir. All the family’s assets passed to the ruling Wittelbachs. The head honcho at the time, Duke Maximilian I believed weizenbiers had economic potential, so he expanded production to more and more breweries in Bavaria.
Popularity of weizenbiers grew, but by the late 18th century traditional dark lagers had eclipsed the style. By 1812 only two breweries in Bavaria still made weizenbier and in 1856 the Wittelbachs sold their declining brewing rights to Georg I. Schneider; he became the first commoner granted the right to brew wheat beer. The brewery G. Schneider & Sohn started production of Schneider Weisse in September of 1872.
Today, G. Schneider & Sohn makes one of the most popular versions in the world along with German brewery Weihenstephaner, which calls itself the oldest brewery in the world. Brewed according to centuries-old traditions on the Weihenstephan hill, Hefeweissbier is an epitome of the German style, pouring golden-yellow with a fine head of white foam, smells of cloves, and refreshing, full-bodied yeasty banana flavor.
Through it all this sturdy style persevered, eventually making its way to American in the late 20th century.
Hefeweizens Hitchhike to America
In the 19th century, the hefeweizen came to America on the coattails of a wave of German immigrants. But from a craft perspective, it wasn’t until the 1980s that brewers really began playing with the style.
In 1984, Kurt and Rob Widmer started Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland, Oregon. At the time, they only two beers — an altbier and a weizenbier (while similar to a hefeweizen, this style is actually a filtered wheat beer).
A couple of years later, one of their longtime accounts asked the Widmer brothers to make a third beer, but they didn’t have the tank space. But, not wanting to disappoint their customer, they got creative.
“Our hefeweizen was born almost by accident,” says Jacob Nielson, Brand Manager at Widmer Brothers. “In a stroke of genius and a bit of luck, [the brothers thought] why not take the weizenbier and just not filter it to keep all the yeast and solids in the beer and have it be hazy?”
In 1986, Widmer Brothers Brewing brewed its third-ever beer, Widmer Hefe.
It’s the beer that started the hefeweizen style in the modern American craft beer movement. During the 1980s, most consumers wanted crystal clear, filtered beer. At the time, the term “hazy is lazy” dominated, referring to the perception that hazy beer meant that brewers hadn’t taken the time to filter it.
“This was the first time someone intentionally brought hazy beer to market,” says Nielson. “Accidentally, we created a new style of beer — the American hefeweizen.”
Today, many modern craft brewers consider the house that hefe built or the Church of Wheat (as the Widmer Brothers team affectionately calls their brewery) as the originator of the style.
And even beer judging competitions recognize tasting notes from Widmer Brothers’ Hefe as the universal standard.
How Do Brewers Define a Hefeweizen?
Traditionally, specific ingredients define a hefeweizen. From the very beginning, this beer starts with wheat. As we mentioned, weizen means “wheat” in German.
Featuring up to fifty to sixty-five percent wheat in the mash, hefeweizens leverage this protein-rich grain to create a style-defining head of thick foam.
“Wheat is a big one because it adds protein and a good head retention to the beer,” says Derek Testerman, Brewer at Ever Grain Brewing in Camp Hill, PA, whose aptly-named hefeweizen Fluffhead refers that iconic, fluffy head.
Ever Grain uses half wheat malt and half pilsner malt, which helps keep the beer pale in color.
Just down the road, John Trogner, Co-Founder and Brewmaster at Tröegs Independent Brewing says, “If you hit fifty to sixty percent wheat… you’re ninety-nine percent there.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a trip to Germany inspired Trogner to make DreamWeaver, Tröegs’ version of a hefeweizen.
While building his second brewhouse, Trogner traveled overseas to check on his equipment before paying the final bill.
“The joke was that an American brewmaster was coming over on his birthday and he loves weiss beer,” says Trogner. “They took me all over trying the local beers. I think I had six or seven total hours of sleep that whole trip.”
During his German drinking adventures, Trogner tried to learn some weiss brewing secrets but found most German crafters heavily guarded their recipes.
“Finally one wrote this down and handed it to me: fifty percent wheat, fifty percent barley, and Ferulic acid,” says Trogner, noting that Ferulic acid naturally occurs in wheat and barley and helps create that black pepper flavor.
Building on that simple recipe, Tröegs uses a blend of red and white wheat to balance the flavors and textures of its hefeweizen.
But weizen or wheat is only half the story.
“With hefeweizen, it’s all about the wheat hanging out with the yeast and having a good time,” says Nielson.
What About The Yeast?
The other word… hefe translates from German to “yeast.”
Above all, the true characteristic of a hefeweizen comes from a specific yeast strain that gives off bubblegum, banana, vanilla, clove, and even black pepper flavors and aromas.
For Testerman, it’s that yeast treatment that really sets hefeweizens apart and helps create that end flavor profile.
“You can use different oxygen rates and pitch rates to guide the yeast in the direction you want to go,” says Testerman. “We stress ours out a bit to produce more ester character — the bubblegum spice flavor with a little bit of vanilla.”
At Tröegs, Trogner likes to tease out more predominant black pepper qualities from that special yeast strain.
“For us, a definition of a weiss beer is yeast dominant with a good amount of black pepper and clove, supported by banana — not like a banana milkshake or eating a banana, but just a slight support for other flavors,” he says. “We’ll adjust the water, mash, yeast growth, yeast pitching rate, and water chemistry to coax out more of that black pepper.”
It’s the temperature of the mash and in the fermentation that bring out the different nuanced flavors of the yeast.
“Ultimately, water sets the canvas and the mash temperatures are the paint palettes we’re coloring the beer in with,” says Trogner. “If you want more banana, you adjust the temperature of the mash. If you want more black pepper and clove, you adjust the temperature of the mash.”
And Those Flavors Are All Just Coming from the Yeast!?
Yes! It’s amazing but all of the predominant flavors of a hefeweizen primarily come from yeast itself. Whereas a Belgian-style witbier gets its characteristic citrus and spice flavors from a physical addition of orange or coriander, there are no adjuncts added to a hefeweizen.
“It’s kind of a dad joke on our tour that we tell them this is the point where we add the bananas and the bubblegum,” says Dusan Kwiatkowski, Head Brewer at Live Oak Brewing Company, a European-style brewery in Austin, TX whose Live Oak HefeWeizen has steadily grown in popularity. “It’s just a potent aroma and flavor that comes from the yeast.”
As such a predominant piece of the hefeweizen puzzle, the yeast requires meticulous care and attention.
“People don’t necessarily understand that you have to keep the yeast in good condition to give you the flavor you want,” says Trogner. “It’s not the same as a typical ale or lager yeast; it needs a slightly different care package.”
At Tröegs, the brewery actually first ferments the beer in a tank without a lid. Trogner says this process releases pressure on the yeast and as the yeast rises, it brings more bitter substances to the top. A spillway at the top of the tank removes these bitter compounds, helping contribute to the final flavor Trogner wants for DreamWeaver.
All in all, a hefeweizen is just about simple ingredients. But to tease out those classic flavors this beer requires honing techniques and paying careful attention to the health of your yeast to coax out the most complex flavor.
How Should You Drink a Hefeweizen?
Since the yeast adds such a distinct profile to this beer, time will cause the yeast to drop out of the beer, ultimately altering the flavor.
“The freshness all the way to the consumer is a big part of that style for us and why we’ve been able to hold it down,” says Kwiatkowski. “We’re making it, getting it on the truck, and getting it out. There’s a very short pipeline.”
Live Oak only distributes in Texas and pours nearly 5,000 bbls of Hefeweizen on draft.
In addition to drinking hefes fresh, Trogner recommends giving the bottle or can a quick swirl to rouse the yeast.
“That’s an important step for me… because I want the flavor and texture to come from the yeast,” says Trogner. Additionally, he pours a hefeweizen into a tall skinny glass to help bring out that fizzy carbonation and nice fluffy, foam.
What Is the Classic Appearance, Aroma, and Flavor of a Hefeweizen?
The classic combination of wheat, barley, and yeast bring the signature characteristics to hefeweizens.
Typically pouring a pale, golden, straw color, hefes immediately impart aromas of the aforementioned banana, vanilla, clove, bubblegum, and black pepper, depending on how the brewer treats their mash and yeast.
Those same characters carry over into the actual beer itself and are accentuated by a bright pop of carbonation, as hefeweizens often feature a higher carbonation level than other styles.
“Tighter bubbles give you a different drinking experience,” says Testerman.
Dusan continues, saying, “It’s a full mouthfeel with the carbonation sparkle and the attenuation it wipes away and gets you ready for the next [sip].”
It’s one of the reasons why hefeweizens are so refreshing and perfect for that hot summer day. Whether you’re enjoying a historic one from Germany or a craft version from an American brewer, add a hefeweizen to your rotation. Even if just to give your palette a break from hop-forward hazy IPAs.
The Best Hefeweizens You Can Try Right Now
Tröegs Independent Brewing
DreamWeaver – Inspired by trips to Germany, John and his brother Chris developed DreamWeaver to evoke their favorite memories of German beer and brewing techniques. DreamWeaver sways a bit heavier on the black pepper and clove flavors. “
The yeast comes through with a silk texture,” says Trogner. “There is a balance of acidity through the carbonation and the red wheat brings in balance with malty, cracker flavor.”
If you’re looking for even more experimentations with this style, stay tuned to Tröegs Scratch Series. Over the next four months, Trogner says the brewery we’ll be peppering (see what we did there?) in new offerings that are dedicated to exploring the complexities of this expressive yeast. According to Trogner, the brewery plans to march maltwise, from amber to brown and bock up (another pun!) through doppelbock, all with weiss beer yeast.
Live Oak Brewing Company
Live Oak HefeWeizen – Immensely popular on the hot patios of Texas, Live Oak HefeWeizen pours a very pale golden color with a healthy haze of yeast and an immensely dense head. It’s a classic version of this style at its best.
“Ours is pretty ester phenol forward so you get a good aroma of clove-y, vanilla, and a little bit of bubblegum,” says Kwiatkowski. “Then way at the back a little bit of banana. The perfectly ripe banana, not the overripe banana.”
Ever Grain Brewing Company
Camp Hill, PA
Fluffhead – The name of this beer says it all. Ever Grain’s hefeweizen pours a pale straw color with a hazy, cloudy body, and a big fluffy head.
“It’s got flavors of big banana and bubblegum with a touch of noble hop character on the nose,” says Testerman. “When I drink [Fluffhead] it has a high carbonation mouthfeel, a little more vanilla in the flavor, and the body is light or medium. It’s easy drinking.”
Widmer Brothers Brewing
Hefe – One of the earliest craft versions of the style in America, Widmer Brothers Hefe is the beer that started it all. Most hefeweizens today in America are based off this beer. And it shows, racking up twenty-eight awards over the past thirty-plus years. Most recently, this one earned a bronze at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival.
“We’re most proud of that one,” says Neilson. “That beer that won GABF was a production batch we sold as normal… It wasn’t a specialty [beer]. We didn’t brew it all together in a room and tweak. We just took it off the line as fresh as we could get. It was just our production team making delicious beer.”
The cloudy flagship leverages high-quality wheat for a bold, clean, citrusy, floral beer. One that’s perfect with a wedge of lemon on the rim. In fact, the lemon is a defining characteristic for this hefeweizen.
“If we pour our hefeweizen… its a nice golden color, hazy, with an inch and a half of white head that stays and sticks” says Neilson. “A slice of lemon on top accentuates a lot of flavors in Widmer Brothers hefe that we want to bring forward — aromas of citrus and clove, lightness, and a little touch of crackery body.”
Long Beach, CA
Hef Leppard – This traditional, Bavarian-style weizen draws on German brewing traditions and ingredients. German wheat, pilsner, and Munich malts make up the base while Bavarian yeast adds those nods of floral clove and sweet banana. This hefeweizen is from an American brewery, but it honors the German traditions, making it an exceptional beer. Or, as Testerman calls the hefeweizen at this Long Beach-based brewery, “The best one I ever had.”
G. Schneider & Sohn
Schneider Weiss – If you want the drink a glass of history this is your beer. Schneider Weiss single handedly kept the hefeweizen style alive through the late 19th century and into the 20th century until it became popular again. And the experience shows. With numerous awards in national and international competitions, Schneider Weiss actually pours a much darker color than is typical for the style. But this is a marquee beer marked by heritage. This is Bavaria in a pint.
Weishenstephaner Original – If you want the classic German version, you can’t go wrong with one from the oldest brewery in the world. A winner of numerous awards, Weihenstephaner is the epitome of a German hefeweizen and should be on your list of variations to try.