Hefeweizen or Weissbier is the traditional wheat beer of Bavaria and one of Germany’s most popular and distinctive beer styles. Weissbier translates to “white beer” from German. Not to be confused with the Belgian version Wit or Witbier (Flemish and Dutch for “white beer”), though these vary in characteristics when compared to the Weisse. The name Weissbier comes from the yellowish-white tint which is provided by the inclusion of pale wheat and barley malts from which the beer is made. Outside Bavaria, most Weissbier is usually referred to as Hefeweizen, which translates to “yeast wheat” from German. “Hefe” in German means “yeast,” and “Weizen” meaning “Wheat”. A Hefeweizen is essentially a Weissbier that has been bottle-conditioned, hence the beer’s name, and the unfiltered and cloudy appearance. German law states that for a beer to be labelled Hefeweizen, Weizenbier, or Weissbier, it must contain a minimum of 50% malted wheat. Typically these beers are brewed with a ratio of 50 percent barley to 50 percent wheat. Sometimes the percentage of wheat is even higher with some brewer’s using around 60-70% malted wheat, with the rest being malted barley. The particular ale yeast used produces unique esters and phenols of banana and cloves with an often dry and tart edge, some spiciness, and notes of bubblegum or apples.
Obviously, in other countries German law doesn’t apply and wheat beers can be brewed with any percentage of wheat, however, it would be rather challenging to produce a beer with the characteristics of a Weissbier from a mash with under 50% wheat. On the other hand, producing a beer with 100% wheat would be nearly impossible, due to wheat having no husks, meaning an all-wheat mash would clog up the brewing equipment in a sticky gunk. As such, beers made using 100% wheat are pretty much all confined to laboratories, although craft brewers will produce such a beer every now and again, often using rice hulls to allow for natural filtration of the gunk mentioned earlier.
In terms of the beer itself, Hefeweizens, and Weissbier are typified by little hop bitterness, and a moderate level of alcohol. Good examples of Weissbiers are pale, refreshing beers with high carbonation and a fluffy mouthfeel. Alongside unique notes of cloves and banana, bubblegum, and vanilla are known as well. The ABV will fall somewhere between 4.2-5.6%. A mousse-like foam builds a long lasting head atop a liquid ranging in color from pale straw to a deeper gold. Clarity is variable, but usually runs cloudy due to the high protein load of the wheat. Those examples that are finished in the bottle will also be cloudy due to the yeast sediment, ideally roused before drinking. It should have prominent clove phenol and banana fruit ester components. The strength and balance of these qualities vary, but usually remain balanced. There will be little malt character with the exception of a light to medium bready/grainy quality imparted by the wheat. No diacetyl should ever be detected. What little hop character there is (ranging from low to none) will be of the noble variety, with an IBU range of 8-15. Optional aromatics are kept light, but may include slight tart-citrus, vanilla, and bubblegum. If present, these aromatics should augment complexity without becoming dominant.
Body will be medium-light to medium, with a possible impression of more body due to the suspended yeast. These beers are always effervescent. The wheat and yeast proteins add to the sensation of body, creating a creamy, mousse-like fullness. Prominent but balanced banana and clove flavors, ranging from low to strong. Some moderate vanilla and/or bubblegum-like characters may create a sweet roundness, enhancing the notes of banana. Malt perception should be soft with the bread-y and grainy characters of wheat and the possible whispered sweetness of Pils malt. A quality of citrusy tartness often accompanies due to high carbonation.
Dunkelweizen, like Hefeweizen, is a wheat ale, just a dark one – Dunkel simply means “Dark” in German. Not to be confused with Dunkel lager, also called Munich Dunkel. It’s not a stretch to think of Dunkelweizen as a cross between a Hefeweizen and a Munich Dunkel. The style displays characteristics of both. Almost an even cross between the two, displaying higher IBUs, and more malt character.
When pouring a Hefeweizen, typically one will reserve a quarter of the final liquid in the bottle to swirl around and stir up any yeast settlement, and then this is poured on top allowing the sit mixed in with the head of the beer. Another way I’ve seen done, was before opening the bottle you lay it on its side, and gently roll it back and forth so the yeast is in suspension and can be evenly distributed when you pour. If you couldn’t tell, wheat and yeast are the stars of this beer, this is where most of the aromatics and flavor in these beers come from. And don’t worry, the yeast is healthy, its loaded with vitamins!
Some beers in this style worth checking out are, Erdinger Weissbier, Flying Dog Hefeweizen, Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, Samuel Adams Hefeweizen, Schneider Weisse, Shiner Hefeweizen, Shlafly Hefeweizen, Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen, and Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen.